In my recent podcast interview with Susannah Wellford, founder and director of Running Start, I learned some magic words. And weirdly, just by saying these words out loud or even silently in my head, I get an instant confidence boost.
But first, a word about the very neat work of Running Start. At Running Start, Susannah and her team inspire and prepare girls and young women to get involved in political life. And a big part of that work is helping women imagine themselves in a powerful political role, especially when they don’t see a lot of role models in political institutions. And of course, this lack of visibility is worse for women and girls of color, or who come from poor families, or who are LGBTQ. So confidence building is a critical task in all the programs they offer. And that’s where the “magic words” come in.
“My name is ….and I am running for….”
Running Start encourages the girls and young women in their many programs to get comfortable saying these words: “My name is … and I am running for….”. Susannah says the impact of that sentence is immediate. “You can see it right away. They stand up a little taller - they just feel more confident.” It’s the power of those words - even it they are not true (yet.) The the young women are asked to hold that statement in their heads and mentally rehearse it whenever possible.
So why don’t you try it - right now! “My name is … and I am running for…. “ Don’t stress about what you’re running for - pick anything (but it’s fun to use “Congress!”). And the best part is, you don’t have to actually run for anything to get the benefit! (although you can!)
My name is .... and I am running for ..."
Acting “as if”
Doing this kind of ”acting as if” (or fake it till you make it) exercise reminds me a lot of the power poses that Amy Cuddy popularized in 2012. In case you need a refresher, Cuddy set out to prove that people who adopted a power pose for two minutes (hands on hips, or arms raised and feet on desk, etc) would feel more powerful, and this feeling could give them confidence in a high-stress situation. Her research has clearly established that the poses, or what she now calls “postural feedback,” do make the “posers” feel more powerful, although they do not appear to experienced the hormonal effect she first suggested. I have been a dedicated power poser (often in a bathroom stall!) since hearing her Ted talk so many years ago, and always loved the feeling it gave me. I felt the same kind of confidence and power from saying Susannah’s magic words.
Take the Mic - no, really!
Running Start does something else to get women to experience their own power - it requires them to speak with a mic when doing public speaking in the program. Jessica Kelly, Programs and Leadership director, noticed that many young women they worked with say “Oh, I don’t need to use a mic.” While some of them, according to Jessica, may have voices that can carry well, she believes the refusal more often suggests a reticence to have their voice amplified. “Women are socialized not to take the mic, not to take up space or volume,” she says, “but political candidates and leaders have to willing to have their voice command the space they are in.” She says that its critical that girls and young women learn to let their voices have volume if they want to be powerful - and express that power.
Jessica admits that her own comfort with a mic stems from her experience at karaoke as a teenager. Although shy, she and her high school friends would do so much karaoke that she got used to hearing her voice amplified. Now she’s able to use a mic comfortably and she highly recommends karaoke as a way to break down that mic resistance!
Of course I love the focus on “taking the mic,” since my podcast is called “Take the Mic.” And I admit that I love speaking with a mic! (My training ground was not karaoke, but stand up comedy.) But I want to know about you - does a mic bother you? Does it feel weird hearing your voice at a higher volume? Or did you learn to love it like Jessica and me? I would love to hear your mic story in the comment section.
Let’s start acknowledging what we know, and then sharing it.
I was recently coaching a software engineer on an upcoming presentation. She wanted to respond gracefully if an audience member asked about a topic she didn’t feel qualified to address. “I just don’t know enough about the project to talk about it.”
Curious, I asked her how much she did know about the topic. “Only about 80%,” she said. As soon as she heard herself say it aloud, she smiled at me. Because what that statement really meant was, “I know a lot about that topic.” But like many women I work with, she didn’t feel “qualified” to discuss it unless she knew 110% of the topic, and also maybe had a Ph.D. in it too. Women need to feel like a walking Wikipedia to open their mouths. Men will be an expert after glancing at a pamphlet in the subject.
This hesitance to speak is a rational response to a world that does ignore or under value women’s opinions and criticize them more harshly than men’s. (The research is here and here. ) And of course, we now have a vocabulary to describe the ways women’s voices are silenced: you know “mansplaining,” but now there’s also “manterrupting,” and “bropropriating,” in which a man takes credit for a woman’s idea. The problem is real, and women aren’t crazy to zip their lips.
But until women rule the universe, or at least are half of all CEOs and Senators, we have to figure out a strategy. And we must stop internalizing social messages about our value and our expertise. So how do we do that? Two great books on this topic are Playing Big by Tara Mohr and Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young. And here’s some tips to get you started today.
Women need to feel like a walking Wikipedia to open their mouths. Men will be an expert after glancing at a pamphlet in the subject.
1. Start with noticing what you tell yourself when you decide not to share an opinion, a perspective. Become an observer (without judging) of your own thought patterns, especially when you are at meetings or in other situations where you are hesitant to speak. Normally these nasty little messages (“I better not talk about this issue - I don’t want to look foolish.”) get transmitted at lightening speed so you barely notice them. But if you’re watching for them, you’ll hear them. Try to keep track of them for a few days. You will learn a LOT!
2. Next, start noticing the kind of contributions other people make, especially men. At meetings, take out your invisible magnifying glass to find out if their contributions are always brilliant, or just opinions dressed up to sound authoritative. What you are going to notice are a lot of people saying exactly what you were thinking because, in all likelihood, your perspective and observations are just as valuable as theirs, and often more.
3.Okay, you’re done noticing; now try a small step. Decide that you are going to speak up once or twice this week in a meeting. One thing that may help you is to prepare some “framers,” introductory phrases that can give you a structure that feels comfortable. Some examples are: “I believe we should consider...” “Why don’t we…” “There are three reasons we need to…,” “From my perspective… .” What you want to avoid however, is the “apology intro: “This may be a dumb idea…” “You all may have thought of this already, but …” or even, “I’m sorry, but I think we should…”
Women always question if they are qualified,” she said, “but look at all these clowns around us.”
And finally, here’s something to remember when you get down about the challenges of speaking up. In a recent article in the New York Times about the way men with no experience are dominating the cryptocurrency field, early crypto investor Arianna Simpson “said the surge of interest in virtual currencies from male novices should remind women that it did not take expertise or a Ph.D. to thrive in the system. Women always question if they are qualified,” she said, “but look at all these clowns around us.” Remember those “clowns” the next time you think knowing 80% is not enough. It is.
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