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Women need to let go of perfectionism: it’s the enemy of good (and of engagement)

by Shari Graydon

Fully engaged audience at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, 2014

Why would 80 women who spend most of their working hours talking to people from the front of a room be nervous enough about their speaking ability to sign up for a presentation skills workshop?

I asked myself this the first time the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) hired me to deliver such workshops. The women who attended my sessions quickly explained that speaking to adults was much different than teaching kids. In my limited experience as the author of a couple of non-fiction books for children, I already knew that. But I thought keeping kids engaged with lively and accessible information was harder than speaking to my peers: audiences of seven-to-13-year-olds have short attention spans, don’t feign interest, and regularly ask impossible-to-answer questions.

However, unpacking teachers’ fears about the judgments likely to come from colleagues inspired an “ah-ha” moment for me. It was clear that a big part of the problem was the expectations these women placed on themselves to be the smartest person in the room, capable of supplying all the answers. In an age of constantly multiplying information, this is a ludicrously high bar. But speaking with thousands of women across many disciplines and professions in recent years, I’ve also discovered it’s a depressingly common one.

And it’s holding women back – individually and collectively. Believing that we have to perform the illusion of omniscience often stops us from stepping up to the microphone – not just at the lectern or in the TV studio, but even from the audience, during a conference Q&A session, or at meetings inside the organizations where we work.

I understand the reluctance:

We’ve learned from both personal experience and the observation of others that if we don’t acknowledge our deficiencies, someone else probably will.

But here’s what I’ve also learned while leading Informed Opinions. My own comfort level in front of a microphone is directly proportional to how much of that unnecessary perfectionism pressure I place on myself. When I’m speaking to groups with whom I’m comfortable enough to acknowledge my failings and admit my deficiencies, it’s a beautiful experience. The absence of pretense eliminates the risk of being “found out” as someone less than you’ve held yourself up to be. Humility is strangely empowering.

It’s one of the reasons that women-only spaces that are deliberately designed to be supportive, rather than competitive, are so liberating for many women. It can be exhausting to spend your daily work life negotiating the alien territory of an organization or industry designed by and for men, often decades or centuries ago. The effort required to pretend that your circle (or triangle, or hexagon!) fits easily into the available squares makes it impossible to relax and be yourself.

That’s why leaders who recognize such challenges are investing resources to make their organizations not just diverse but genuinely inclusive. They reap the benefits by doing so. You can’t get the best out of your employees if the environments in which they’re working require them to pretend to be someone they’re not.

Similarly, on the podium, at the microphone, or speaking up in a meeting, it’s enormously valuable to relieve yourself of any expectation that you have to be seen as the smartest person in the room. First of all “smartest person in the room” is a false and patriarchal construct. And secondly, you can’t be authentic and spontaneous if a part of your brain is devoted to assessing your own performance on a scale that unreasonable.

Imagining that it’s even possible for the information you share to be exhaustive, for your analysis to be definitive, and for your answers to every possible question to be unassailable – well, that’s nuts. Audiences don’t, by and large, expect that of us unless – and this is important – we arrogantly position ourselves as a know-it-all authority.

The way we conceive of and describe what we’re doing can also change the dynamic. A “presentation” sounds formal, and suggests one-way communication: you speak, and maybe share some slides, in order to deliver information or data. But reading aloud words that you’ve shaped into perfect sentences, organized in coherent paragraphs and recorded in a linear fashion presupposes a particular relationship with the audience.

If your presentation demands that you pay more attention to carefully-crafted text on a page than the responses of the people in the room, those people are less likely to feel like they’re in conversation with you, and more likely to see you as pontificating. And that’s not inherently engaging.

Furthermore, given the multiplicity of media through which we can now all access insight, the presence of live bodies in a room should inspire more than a simple relaying exercise. If you’re not actively seeking to connect with your assembled audience, to incite an in-the-moment response, to invite interaction, that’s a missed opportunity.

I witness those missed opportunities all the time.

Which is not to say that I don’t understand the fears that keep speakers — especially academics, and many men included — tied to their text. The self-talk sounds something like this:

“I’ll never say it as articulately as I wrote it. I’m likely to ramble. If I don’t read my speech, I’m sure to leave something important out.”

But the cost of that attachment to some false definition of perfection is often genuine engagement.  The two pieces — relieving yourself of perfection pressure, and actually connecting with people — are inextricably related.

Nor do you have to speak without a net. Structure your comments in a way that makes the flow easy for you to remember, and for others to follow. Replace your detailed, linear text with a few notes — in bullet points or on a mind map — and rehearse in advance. And then give yourself a break:

  1. Practice conscious humility by recognizing that it’s completely unnecessary to expect of yourself that you must have all the answers;
  2. Focus instead on ensuring that your comments add value to the understanding of the people in the room; and
  3. Embody curiosity and openness, so you can respond to questions, challenges or disagreements with “that’s interesting,” “how so?” or “I don’t know,” rather than fear or defensiveness.

You don’t ever want to close the door on conversations or deny yourself opportunities to contribute by allowing (impossible-to-attain) perfection to be the enemy of good (enough to add value, spark insights, shift perspectives).

Because every time a smart woman speaks up to share her experience-informed opinions, she reminds others of the enormous value and critical necessity of including women’s voices.

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