This post was originally shared in our Remote Confidence newsletter (ran April – May 2020).
The first time I gave a big client presentation, I almost fainted. Literally.
I had a cold that made it hard to breathe through my nose, and I was talking so fast I could barely breathe through my mouth, either. My lungs were screaming at me, but my nerves told me to power ahead anyway. Until, that is, my client stopped me. “Are you ok?” she asked.
“I’m—gasp—fine,” I stammered back. “I just have a—gasp—cold.”
I felt humiliated. I’d been so concerned with staying in character—Important Business Meeting Sara—that I’d neglected to remember that I was, actually, still human. Very, very human, it turns out.
Remembering to be human when you present isn’t only important when it comes to breathing (but trust me: you DO need to breathe). It’s also important when you want to show up as a leader—someone with presence, perspective, and vision. Because when you don’t allow yourself to show up as, well, yourself, you don’t give your audience much to connect with.
This can be harder than it sounds. After coaching lots of women and femme-leaning folks in design and tech, I’ve noticed a common theme: the minute they’re doing something visible—whether speaking at a conference or sharing some WIP at an all-hands meeting—they stop thinking about who they are, and start worrying about fitting into a teeny little box that says “professional” on it.
There’s good reason for this—and it’s not that we inherently lack confidence or leadership skills. It’s that most of us have received lots of feedback about how to look and act and talk: don’t have vocal fry or uptalk, don’t say “like,” don’t dress too girly or too sexy or too dowdy or too masculine, don’t speak with a high-pitched voice, and on and on and on. It’s hard to keep a sense of your own self when other people’s opinions keep getting shouted at you.
But here’s the thing: when you spend all your time trying to fit into that box, you end up making yourself so small, no one even notices the brilliant things you have to say. So the only way to actually present like a leader is to shove all that external noise aside and choose to just be yourself. It’s a little risky, sure—not everyone likes it when we take up space. But it’s where the magic happens—and where real leadership is created.
Finding your presence as a leader
How can you start bringing more of yourself to the stage or the conference table? Grab a notebook and try answering these questions:
- Think of a time when you felt true to yourself. Describe it. What was important about that moment?
- What are you willing to take a stand for? Against? What matters about that to you?
- If you could put 1 message on a billboard to the world, what would it be? How would you say it?
When you’re done, go back through what you wrote and circle or highlight the words that immediately grab you—the ones that give you the strongest gut reaction. Then ask yourself: what would be different if I let that version of myself out more? How would I show up? What perspective would I bring to the table? Sit with it. Because the more comfortable you are with yourself, the less you’ll find yourself looking around for someone else to please. And the more naturally you’ll connect with your audience as a result.
About the Author: Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a coach, strategist, facilitator, author, and speaker dedicated to changing design and tech for good. She is the founder of Active Voice, a radical leadership development company, and the author of Technically Wrong, Design for Real Life (with Eric Meyer), and Content Everywhere.