Sheryl Sandberg – Why we have too few women leaders

Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 talk at TED Women is an inspiring and informative speech that any woman, or man, looking to improve their speaking should take time to watch. It’s also a very important speech for anyone who cares about equality, especially gender equality.

This article is one of a series of articles I am writing to help people, especially women, to improve their speaking skills by learning from speakers at TED events. Most of the speeches are less than 20 minutes and if you view the speech on the TED site you can also get a transcription of the entire speech to study with the video. What my articles will add are what I consider to be some of the key learning points in the speech from a speakers perspective.

Unlike most of us, Sheryl does have a great advantage in getting the attention of the audience. As the CEO of Facebook she is one of a very small number of women who are CEO’s of fortune 500 companies. So she fulfills the first and most important criteria for speaking on any subject.  She has earned the right to speak about women and leadership. Anything she says is going to be taken seriously because we all know that she is one of around 20 women who have made it to the top.

To be a successful speaker you do not have to be a celebrity or a world leader, but you do have to be able to show that you have earned the right to speak. If you are looking to speak professionally remember that all the world’s professional speaking associations define a professional speakers as “An expert Who Speaks For a Living.” If you have proven expertise then you have an advantage before you even speak, because the audience wants to hear what you have to say.

Sheryl uses here expertise and credibility a number of times in the speech, but what I liked about this speech is the way she sets up the problem in the first few minutes.

And the problem is this: Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly.

She then proceeds to quote some startling figures to substantiate her statement. Important because there is a strong movement against the feminist position at present which we sill look at in some other presentations. What Sheryl does with her numbers is to make it clear that this is a speech about the lack of women in leadership. And then she uses a simple personal story to illustrate the point. Personal stories are by far the most effective means of making a talk “sticky”. If you want your audience to remember your speech – shocking statistics will get their attention – but a personal story makes the point memorable.

As you listen to the speech notice how often Sheryl uses this technique – make a point and then illustrate it with a personal story.

I don’t have the right answer. I don’t even have it for myself. I left San Francisco, where I live, on Monday, and I was getting on the plane for this conference. And my daughter, who’s three, when I dropped her off at preschool, did that whole hugging-the-leg, crying, “Mommy, don’t get on the plane” thing. This is hard. I feel guilty sometimes.

Just think for a moment about the power of this story. Very personal, very relevant to the audience of mostly women at TED Women – every mother in the audience would have empathized with her. There are no magic bullets – but we all now know that we are going to hear the personal experiences of a woman who has to balance the challenges of being a CEO with the demands of being a mother.

What can you do in your speeches to demonstrate that you have real life experience relevant to the audience?

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