Margaret Lee on finding meaning and authenticity in speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Margaret Lee about her journey as a public speaker and how she has used speaking as a way to find meaning in her career. She highlighted her own desire for authenticity, the importance of knowing your own comfort level, and the benefits of listening to yourself speak while preparing for a talk.

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing Women Talk Design speakers about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Margaret Lee is a Design Executive Coach with Design Dept, bringing years of leadership experience to coaching. She was Director of UX Community + Culture at Google, from 2016 to 2021, a program she founded to serve and empower the company’s global User Experience organization. She also led User Experience for Google Maps from its early days as a groundbreaking desktop experience, to an indispensable tool for navigation and local exploration. Under her leadership, the Maps UX team evolved from a couple of designers to a global organization of multi-disciplinarian practitioners. Prior to Google, Margaret led organizations at CNET, Yahoo, and TiVo. Decades in the tech industry has affirmed what she is most passionate about: creating conditions where teams can flourish and individuals can uncover their unique potential and leadership style. Margaret speaks and writes about her personal journey as a leader, and on our collective responsibility to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

On why she speaks

When talking about her beginnings as a speaker, Margaret explained that she used to fear speaking but she overcame it when she found a sense of purpose in the story she wanted to tell.

“I did not speak for the better part of my career. I was so afraid of public speaking. It was almost crippling to me in some ways because it extended to me having nervous jitters over something as simple as having to lead a meeting.”

“I can trace it back to a specific incident that happened in the mid-90s. It was a very, very low stakes presentation with a few clients and a few of my coworkers. All I had to do was my 2 minute part but the anxiety that I had just anticipating it got me so nervous that my voice shook so hard you couldn’t even understand what I was saying. And it was so mortifying to watch people start to silently file out of the room because it was just so awkward. Nobody ever spoke of it again and I spent the next couple of decades doing everything I could do to avoid any public speaking whatsoever.”

“I suddenly started speaking about 5 or 6 years ago. I just really wanted to tell a story or share my observations around what I saw is a huge disconnect between the commitment corporate America makes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and my personal experience – observations around the fact that we really haven’t moved the goalpost for what we expect for DEI and leadership.”

“The way I grew up as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and the culture that was instilled in me was actually quite different from what we value in leaders. And so I just wanted to point that out. Then so many people said, ‘Oh, my God, you just totally pinpointed the way I feel.’ I thought it was actually important to go out and talk about it and that was my motivation. Now you can’t shut me up. It’s almost like over the decades, it’s built up to the point where I feel like It’s my responsibility if there’s something to say to say it.”

On how she started speaking

Margaret talked about landing her first speaking engagement and how that experience helped her stop being her “own worst judge” by showing how much others connected with her story.

“As part of the work that I was doing at Google with the community and culture program, my team was getting involved with the external community sponsoring different events. One of the events that we sponsored was called Leading Design…I was speaking with the conference organizers and they asked me, ‘Hey, would you like to speak next year? The work that you’re doing is really interesting. For whatever reason I said yes. I didn’t even have the topic in mind yet, but I think it was because I was feeling really good about the work that we were doing so I was excited and I thought I could totally come up with something to talk about. And because it was a year away, it was abstract enough that it wasn’t freaking me out.”

“Then, the women’s leadership retreat where I had the ‘Aha!’ moment happened in between my committing and my having to give the talk and it just kind of blossomed from there. I was still a total nervous wreck but I went up there and I told my story. I also got such good feedback from people at the conference and people reaching out afterwards.” 

“I turned it into an article which extended the lifespan of the narrative and I still get people reaching out to me because they read the article or saw one of the videos that have been posted on it.”

“And so, you know, it was the feedback that really validated for me that it’s okay to go out and speak – it doesn’t have to be this scary thing that I’m judging myself on because I’m probably my own worst judge.”

On how she develops talks and prepares to speak

As for her process, Margaret talked a bit about how she collects ideas, turns them into presentations, then listens as her audience would and iterates from there.

“Usually there are germs of ideas. I have a doc in the cloud – it’s just a Google doc – because if I have my phone with me or if I’m sitting at my desk, I can always just access the doc and jot down some ideas. And every so often, I’ll revisit it to see if any themes are emerging for me. For example, I know I have to give a small presentation to my alumni organization coming up, and so I’ve already started to noodle on what that audience would want to hear about and collecting.”

“It was like an off-the-cuff remark that I made at this women’s leadership retreat and the response that made me think there’s something that needs to be talked about. A lot of times, [a topic is] catalyzed by some interaction and some kind of realization that there’s something of interest that isn’t being talked about or there’s something of interest that could be of greater interest to other people…I just try to find what I think is missing from the conversation.”

“I almost can’t talk without the personal stories like I don’t know how to not have personal stories in it. That’s kind of just my modus operandi – I don’t know how to be purely objective. And I actually think that adding your personal stories can be really compelling because it makes your story more relatable.”

“Then, at some point, I’ll start throwing it loosely into slides just to start to see what the structure might be and what visuals might emerge..Once it’s flesh out enough, I actually record myself going through a draft, and when I walk my dog, I listen to the recording. I’m mentally editing for what might sound natural or a better way to frame [something].”

“Listening to the recording of myself giving the talk helps me internalize the talk. So that might be too onerous for some people but I have found that’s what helps me – hearing the talk. It gives me a sense of where I can ad lib a little.”

“As I started analyzing other people’s talks and whatnot, I can tell when somebody basically wrote the talk out and then they spoke it. And this is why I listen to myself and then iterate – when you speak like you write, it doesn’t sound as natural. It’s like reading a book out loud versus just having a conversation…Whatever your process is, I would strongly encourage you to record yourself and listen to yourself, which initially is mortifying and horrible but you get used to it. It’s a super helpful way to just actually listen to it as your audience might listen to it, and then iterate from there.”

Now, Margaret says she doesn’t get so nervous when preparing for talks, especially speaking on topics she’s passionate about.

“I don’t get as nervous anymore. I actually just spoke at the Leading Design conference in New York a couple weeks ago and I noticed I was not nearly as nervous as I used to get. Practice does really help. Also just coming to terms with [being] my own worst judge in this case. 

“If you believe in the content that you’re delivering, that’s really reassuring. For me, the more I’m invested in what I’m talking about, the less nervous I am because it feels authentic and that’s really, really important to me. I don’t do so well if I’m expected to deliver other people’s content, which is why I don’t think I did well doing presentations at work. It would still make me nervous if I had to represent a lot of other people – I don’t feel as natural about it.”

On how speaking has impacted her career

Margaret also discussed how speaking has played a key role in her career as she moved into leadership positions and focused on finding meaning.

“It coincided with how I was thinking about the work that I do and I want to do and, at this point in my life, how I want to spend the rest of it. What do I want to do with my life now? I want to do more things that involve self-expression so the speaking really aligned with that desire.”

“The part of my leadership roles that I’ve found most gratification from is how I can help others. The farther I moved away from actual hands-on work, the more meaning I found in the work of leadership. Speaking kind of aligned with that because I felt like that could serve that goal as well.”

“Then it aligned with me being more motivated by finding meaning in whatever work that I choose to do rather than achievement, because I think it’s really common and easy and understandable to be focused on achievement, to be focused on career progression and titles. I got to the point where I was okay with the achievement part. What I really want to focus on now is finding meaning in the work that I do. I would never have guessed that speaking would have been part of the equation but it actually helps that part of me that desires meaning in my life.”

“It’s been less than a year since I made the transition from being a UX leader at Google to now doing leadership coaching and I’m finding that to be incredibly meaningful. And I imagine that just thematically, the work that I’m doing with coaching will provide some good source material in terms of what are people thinking about, what are they struggling with? What should we be thinking about as leaders?”

On good and bad speaking advice

When highlighting some of the worst advice she’s gotten, Margaret shared that one key thing is to know your own comfort level and find what works best for you.

“This last conference, there was all this technical back and forth with, ‘Are you going to have a comfort monitor or are you not going to have a comfort monitor?’ I prefer not having to hide behind a podium because a lot of times the podiums are for really tall people and I feel swallowed up by them. So I prefer a comfort monitor but for whatever reason, the organizers could only provide a monitor that showed the actual slide. The advice I got was that I could either memorize my entire talk or have index cards. That was terrible advice because it’s not so much that I didn’t know my talk – it’s more that [the monitor] is for your comfort so that you can reference things.”

“I think it’s important to know your comfort level. Some people will be more comfortable behind the podium and feel safe, some people want to walk around, and some people don’t need any notes. Just know what your comfort level is and try to work with the organizers to get what will make you comfortable. Often it’s flexible enough but if you don’t ask, you’ll just get whatever everybody is doing, which might not suit you.”

On talking about personal and vulnerable things

Returning to the idea of finding meaning and authenticity, Margaret shared the importance of speaking with vulnerability.

“I’m not afraid to overshare or talk about really personal and vulnerable things if I think it’s appropriate for whatever narratives that I’m putting forth. Like I said, I think it can be much more powerful and memorable if you’re willing to be a little bit vulnerable.”

“For me, being authentic is really important to me – my whole thing is I don’t want to go back to code switching. I did that for too many years in my life and I don’t need to do it anymore. You have to be comfortable with that, right? I do think that it’s important again to know your comfort level. But it’s also important to know what’s important for you to tell.”

For more on where she sees herself speaking in the future, her thoughts on leading, and how she handles critical feedback, check out the full video below.

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