What’s one of the most effective ways we can make a difference?
Poornima Vijayashanker talks about the incredible impact that sharing your own experiences with others can have - whether at work or on stage at TEDx.
What’s one of the most effective ways we can make
According to Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer.com, it’s our own ability to speak up and share our experiences – whether it’s at work or in front of 400+ people at TEDx.
As the founding engineer at Mint.com, Poornima helped build, launch, and scale the product until it was acquired by Intuit for $170 million.
After the acquisition, Poornima began speaking and sharing her experiences within the tech industry. Once people started coming up to her and sharing what an impact her talks had, Poornima realized what a powerful platform public speaking was – giving her a chance to make a difference by sharing her story while opening up professional opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Since then, she’s spoken somewhere between 500-1000 times to audiences of over 400 people at conferences and companies around the country, including at TEDx and Salesforce.
In today’s episode, you’ll learn:
[00:00:33] David: I’m David Peralta and today we’re talking with Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of femgineer.com about the human impact that public speaking can have and why it’s something that everyone should try regardless of whether you think you're a good speaker or not. Prior to launching Femgineer, Poornima was the founding engineer at mint.com where she helped build, launch, and scale the product until it was acquired by Intuit for $170 million. After the acquisition, Poornima began speaking and sharing her experiences within the tech industry.
Once people started coming up to her after her talks and sharing what an impact they had on them, Poornima began realizing what a powerful platform public speaking really was, both personally, as well as professionally, and how it was helping her to create meaningful, human to human connections, and open doors that just weren’t possible had she stuck to only her blog and video channel.
Since then, she’s spoken somewhere between 500 to 1,000 times to audiences of over 400 people at conferences and companies around the country, including at TedX and Salesforce. Today, she’s going to share with us what pushed her to start speaking and get out of her comfort zone, why she thinks everyone needs to learn to speak up for themselves, especially at work, how people with zero public speaking experience can take their first steps, how she overcame her own stage fright, and how she’s helped other people overcome their own impostor syndrome and fear of public speaking. She also goes into the proactive step she took to be able to get in front of 400 people at Salesforce.
I really enjoyed this conversation with Poornima, she’s super smart, had a ton of insights to share, and I really hope you enjoy it as well.
Thank you so much for coming on the show, Poornima, we really appreciate having you here.
[00:02:16] Poornima: Yeah, you're welcome. It's exciting to be here.
[00:02:19] David: You just told me that you've spoken over 1,000 times throughout your career, from the time that you were an engineer at Mint until now, 10 years later. I'd love to hear how did you get started with speaking?
[00:02:37] Poornima: That may be an exaggeration, don't hold me exactly to 1,000 but I'm pretty sure it's over 500.
[00:02:44] David: It's still impressive.
[00:02:45] Poornima: Yeah, thank you. First off, in high school, I know I spoke more than 100 times in the 4 years that I was there, probably even some years 100 times. That's where I got my start, I was on the high school speech and debate team, I was traveling all over the country. And then I had originally gotten interested in it because I was a shy kid, I was afraid to speak up and I knew that life was going to be a challenge if I didn't do something about it, so I decided to join. And I'm really glad that I did because I started to see all of these benefits really early on in my career; I aced my college interview, went on to ace my first job interview, and then do more complicated things here in the Valley like pitch angel investors, get out and recruit for my companies, and spread the word about the startups that I was building.
For me personally, I had taken a bit of a hiatus between high school and when I was first in the industry around 2008. I knew I needed to get back into public speaking, so I just signed up to speak at a local code camp. I had no idea what I was doing at the time, this was back in 2008, and I signed up to speak about my experience building, launching, and scaling mint.com.
It turns out it really resonated with the audience; a lot of people had either built a prototype and it was still on their machine or they had worked on an idea or a product that was much bigger, so they hadn't seen the entire spectrum and they wanted to know what it was like to start from scratch and then scale. And then I noticed all these little benefits come out of it years later, people who had never thought about joining startups, people who never thought about speaking would come up to me and say, "This was great, you've sort of given me the confidence now to pursue this, if you can do it being a few years out of school, why not me?" I started to see it as this multivitamin because it was benefiting me, it was benefiting my company, and it was benefiting the community.
Backtrack why and how I decided to get more and more involved in public speaking was because I recognized a need for it. There were years where in previous jobs I would get passed up for promotions, I would spend long hours just coding, learning new technical skills, and I felt like no matter how much I did, I didn't have an impact, and that was very frustrating.
[00:05:26] David: What do you mean you felt like you weren't having an impact?
[00:05:28] Poornima: Well, it's like if you spend 60 to 100 hours a week and people don't recognize your work or they just kind of come to expect it, if you're not getting so much as like a pat on the back, or maybe that's all you're getting and you want more, then it's up to you to decide what are some ways that you can get either, not necessarily more recognition, but more appreciation.
For me, that little voice in my head started to go off and say, "You need to speak up." The thing is public speaking or speaking up in general is really scary, especially for people who tend to be shy, introverted, or just worried about the consequences. You worry about what your teammates, your boss, your peers are gonna think. And for me, I decided that the most authentic way I could do it was through teaching people, training my peers, and getting out there because they started to see the impact, they started to benefit from it, and I started to become this go-to resource for a number of topics.
[00:06:35] David: How did you get started? What were the exact steps that you took?
[00:06:40] Poornima: The first was launching my blog in 2007 where I was doing a lot of writing. That was good, it kind of got me to test out ideas, topics, audience, but it was still very much veiled. And it wasn't until in 2008 I signed up to speak at that code camp and saw the impact and started to develop those deeper relationships that I was like, "This is really cool."
[00:07:06] David: What do you mean, really quickly, when you said that your blog was still veiled?
[00:07:10] Poornima: I mean people get a sliver of you, right? On your blog. Like they read you, they have a sense of who you are, they don't really... The other thing with writing is it's very easy for an audience to come up with their own conclusions about who this person is. I'm not saying it's not possible on camera but it's less likely, like you have a little bit more insight into the person when you see them front and center or on camera. It still feels a little bit veiled, impersonal, than being front and center, on a stage or on camera talking to your audience. And that's why I would say the blog was good to kind of test out ideas but I wanted to go further, I wanted to connect with people more.
[00:07:54] David: You started your blog in 2007, it didn't feel like it was still bringing you the level of connection or meaning that you thought you could have, so you signed up to speak at this code camp?
[00:08:06] Poornima: Yeah, and it was pretty low-touch in that they were eager to have anybody participate, they were eager to have people choose the topic that they wanted and then come out and speak. And I've got to say, just being in that room of like 30 to 50 people, having them come up to me afterwards, ask me really insightful questions felt great. It felt like when I had done some teaching before, in both high school and college, and I enjoyed, not only that feeling, but the impact that I was making on the community.
I started to do a little bit more, I went back to my alma mater, I spoke to the Society of Women Engineers there, I shared my story, my experience. And then in 2009, there was this nice snowball effect where mint.com got acquired and all of a sudden there was more and more interest for me to come and speak on college campuses, at conferences, on panels. I just took every opportunity. I just said yes to everything because I had the time to do it and I had the luxury of, having an exit, to where I could take some time off to do these things.
[00:09:14] David: And what sort of topics were you speaking on?
[00:09:16] Poornima: At that time, it was mostly entrepreneurship, some engineering, some like building engineering teams, building product. But at the time, there was still a lot of interest in how do you go from this idea to a product phase, how do you launch that product, how do you scale it, how do you get funding. I talked about sort of that soup to nuts for being an entrepreneur.
[00:09:41] David: And can you tell me more about the kind of impact that you were having or do you have any specific examples of people coming up to you and what they would say to you after you would give your talks?
[00:09:50] Poornima: Yeah. The first thing I noticed, and this I noticed kind of time and time again, was, to be frank, I was a token. I was oftentimes the only woman on these panels, or only woman sometimes even at the event, and other women would come up to me, especially, whether it was in the Bay Area or outside, but people who wouldn't normally see folks like me would come up and say, "This was great." Like, "Thanks for coming out, thanks for flying all the way across the country," or, thanks for wherever it is I went for taking the time to do this.
On top of that, it was as if being a token didn't matter because what they saw was, "Oh, if you can do it, I can do it." Right? And that became a big impact for me. It was, "Yeah, I can do it being a few years out of college. I can do it as a woman or minority or being the only woman in a lot of situations and that's not gonna stop me, and so it shouldn't stop you as well." That was a big impact for me and it was really beneficial.
[00:10:54] David: Can you tell me more about that impact? What kind of feeling did that create for you when you would have these people coming up to you and telling you that hearing your story was inspirational to them?
[00:11:05] Poornima: Yeah. At that point I was like, "Well, there's only one of me, so I hope that more people step up and do this because there's only so much that I can do." I kind of started to get worried, I was like, "Oh no, are other people going to do it?" I don't care being brazen. At that point, I had my voice, I had a platform, I had some credibility but I could sense that there was some reluctance even in my peer group, and for other people I saw in the audience, to do this similar work. Those were some of my concerns.
The other thing I was concerned about was people hang on every word. I would often speak at places and then I didn't know who was in the audience. Maybe six months or even six years later, they would come up to me and they'd say, "I saw you spoke at this event and that thing that you said..." They would just give like a direct quote. And I was like, "I said that? Yeah, that sounds great."
I just became more aware of what I was saying and how I was saying and how it was making an impact on people, and recognizing that I needed to not necessarily change my stance, but I needed to be cognizant of how influential it was for people, and sort of the impression that I was giving. I almost wanted to give them more, I was like it's not enough to give them a one-liner, a platitude, I need to give them specifics. I need to give them something that they can walk away with and have it be actionable, or have them be able to do some additional research. It's not enough to just like inspire and motivate, you've really got to give people the how-to.
[00:12:50] David: Okay, so that's a good place to kind of transition for people who are interested in public speaking or who might consider public speaking as a way to make an impact or to find a sense of meaning in what they do by sharing what they've learned with other people. Where can we get started?
[00:13:08] Poornima: Public speaking is the number one fear across the globe.
[00:13:12] David: That's right, it's actually above death. Right?
[00:13:14] Poornima: Exactly. Karen, my co-author and I, we joke like. There's this Jerry Seinfeld's quote that's like, "People would rather be in the coffin rather than giving the eulogy." That's how much fear is wrapped around it. And it makes sense, like I said, even I was fearful, you worry about what people are gonna say, what they're gonna think, how they're gonna react. And if you're not sure about what you're saying, it can be really scary.
I like to approach it depending on whoever's listening, their level of audacity. But one very simple step is to get started inside of your company. Don't think of public speaking as, "Oh my gosh, I have to put together my PowerPoint and then go up on stage." That is a final step, that's not the initial step.
Initial step needs to be can I speak up in a meeting? Can I train somebody? Can I do a multi-day or even a multi-session onboarding for new employees or existing employees? Can I do some knowledge transfer? What can I do inside and will that help me get more comfortable with speaking, just speaking in general. And of course, a lot of this depends on how, I would say, comfortable you are, but leaving that aside, what the culture is like of your company, are they open to doing such things? And if not, then there's plenty of external communities that would love to hear from you, whether it's meetup groups, online groups, etc., so that's I think a great place to start. And it's about just testing out a few ideas that you have.
[00:15:03] David: Actually, I'd love to mention that, at our company, at Hotjar, and specifically in the content team, our content editor and writer, Fio, she actually initiated something for the entire marketing team which she called Coffee and Learn. We've got daily scrum sessions where, every day we check in, everybody says what they've been working on and what they've accomplished and what they're going to do that same day. And then once a week, we have a 15-minute session at the end of our scrum which is called Coffee and Learn where one person from the team—and it rotates—shares something that they've learned. It can either be related to work, or life, or anything that they felt is important enough to share with the rest of the team, and it's a really low-touch way to share something that's important to you that you feel would be a value to other people.
I think that that's something that is really beneficial, not only because in our culture here at Hotjar, always be learning is a very important value. This is a really great way to not only learn from others but to also share what you have to give. Maybe you'll agree, I think everybody has something of value to share but a lot of people maybe feel that they don't. Maybe they feel that, "Oh, I think other people must know more than me," or, "I just have my own experience but it's not really something that other people would benefit from." Have you encountered that to be the case?
[00:16:34] Poornima: Totally, totally. Aside from stage fright, if I have to stack rank them, I would say stage fright is the number one reason people don't speak, stage fright nerves, the feeling of the impostor. The second is why would anybody care about what I have to say? I'm new in my career, I'm new in this role, I don't have anything earth-shattering, groundbreaking, everyone's already said what it is I have to say.
But here's the thing, it honestly doesn't matter. It doesn't matter for a couple of reasons. The first reason it doesn't matter is because there's always somebody who is a beginner. While you might feel like oh, I'm the intern–there's somebody out there who doesn't have an internship that would love to learn from you. Or oh my gosh, this is my first career–there's somebody out there who is still in college trying to get that first career. Or oh, I'm now a VP but this is like my first VP role–great, there's hundreds of people out there who would love that position and love to know. That's the first, there's always somebody who's a beginner that wants to learn from you.
Second, not every voice resonates, meaning even if there are 100 people saying the same exact thing, chances are people in the audience or in the community are gonna tune them out because they find them too brazen, they think their experience doesn't apply, some other reason that they can't name, just doesn't make sense.
I have this joke with my brother where I will tell him something and then, six months later, he'll hear it and listen to whoever else said it, and I'm like, "You know, I said that six months ago." But it's such a close connection that he tunes it out or he's like, "Ah, it's just my older sister moaning to me and trying to get me do this thing."
Different voices resonate and that's another key reason you need to speak. Your experience, your perspective may be the key to unlocking somebody's potential, it might make them realize, "Oh, okay. If she can do it, I can do it," or, "If he can do it, I can do it and they're just like me," versus these other 100 people that might be saying the exact same thing. That's why I push people, it doesn't matter if it's already been said, it doesn't matter if it's already been done, it's your chance now and there may be something unique in your experience that you don't even realize that that person sitting in the audience is gonna realize.
[00:19:03] David: Did you have the stage fright at the beginning or this feeling that you didn't have something of value to share?
[00:19:11] Poornima: Totally, I always have stage fright. It just depends. Sometimes, I have minor cases of stage fright. Before I teach some of my courses, if it's the first day that I'm kicking off, I don't know everybody so I'm kind of nervous going in, I wanna make sure that we gel, that they like what I'm saying, that it resonates with them. I'll have a little stage fright there.
Before I did my TEDx talk a few years ago, I did not have any stage fright, but the minute I took one foot on that stage, I immediately just shut down, I didn't realize that was gonna happen. Before I have to do any sort of big pitch, I'm always worried. It's ongoing and it's a matter of being aware and managing it versus, "Oh, I'm trying to kill these nerves," it's never gonna go away, it's part of being human and it can be a good thing. It can mean that you're enthusiastic, that you care about the topic, and that you have energy to get your opinions heard and your voice out there.
[00:20:13] David: Or that you're about to be very vulnerable and share a side of yourself with people.
[00:20:17] Poornima: Exactly.
[00:20:19] David: How did you overcome it at the TEDx talk on stage, in front of everybody?
[00:20:23] Poornima: I just kinda got through it. I took a few deep breaths, I launched into my talk. I had practiced a lot, so I knew the talk but it was just some combination of, "Oh my god, this is TEDx and there's all these people." That didn't come through in like maybe the dress rehearsal, or I didn't really understand the gravity until I got onstage.
I got through it and after that, I had kind of a debrief with Karen, my co-author, and we started exchanging notes. One of the things that she said was power posing, so I started power posing. Over the years, I've kind of developed a ritual. And a lot of it, honestly, is not even about the talk or the material or the audience but a lot of it is some of the basics. Make sure you get enough sleep, make sure you don't have a number of different things going on, put your phone away, don't worry about email, make sure you are hydrated.
And then at the end of the day, there's some little things you can do. I always love to meet audiences before the talk to gauge their level, their interest, have some icebreakers, have some friendly faces in the audience that I can turn to. I think that's very helpful.
It's a number of things and you have to figure out what your ritual is going to be. But have something, don't just go in there with nothing and expect to like push through it. I think that that's key and for me, it's like, yes, it's practice, it's doing the dress rehearsal, it's having people support me.
And then when you're in the moment, you have to just let go, you have to be like you know what? No matter what happens, if the slides break, if I forget a line, just kind of keep going. The reason you keep going is because people aren't grading you on perfection, this isn't some $100-million movie where you have to get every line. And even those people improv. This is about putting your best foot forward, sharing your message, and audiences, frankly, don't even care or even know when you forget a line or you slip up. If it's massive, they might know, but most people don't critique themselves on massive mistakes, they always like flog themselves for the little things like, "Oh, I should've said it this way," or, "I used my hands too much," or, "I skipped a slide," or whatever.
[00:22:55] David: Right. Things that most people aren't even noticing. It's a case of us definitely being our harshest critic.
[00:23:00] Poornima: Exactly. Yep. Kind of just in the moment you have to let that go and you have to say, "There are people here who are relying on me to learn, to be inspired, to be motivated. And that's what matters, so I'm gonna put my best foot forward."
[00:23:14] David: We talked about—for people who wanna get started—that a great place to start is internally within your own company. Once people start to do that and start to feel comfortable speaking up in meetings or starting to share something on a weekly basis with their team, what's the next step?
[00:23:29] Poornima: Yeah. The next step could be whatever you like. It could be going outside, it could be speaking at a meet-up, it could be signing up to speak at an unconference, these are really popular...
[00:23:42] David: What exactly is an unconference?
[00:23:43] Poornima: An unconference is everybody shows up, there may be a theme... This is like the code camp that I spoke at, there are some for product, there's like different verticals. Basically, you show up, you might write a topic on the board of what you want to do, people vote on that. And then you get to lead a group, that group could be 5, it could be 50 and it's an opportunity to get in front of people. You don't necessarily have to speak the entire time, it could be like a Q&A session, but it's a great way to get comfortable speaking in front of people and managing an audience, which are kind of like the two battles that people have when it comes to public speaking. And then if you feel more comfortable, if you have a message that you think really needs to be amplified or you wanna get out there, then I would say consider applying to conferences, letting people know you're interested, considering which conferences you want to apply to speak at, and getting the ball rolling there.
[00:24:41] David: I know from experience that there's a kind of snowball effect where once you start doing something, kind of the reward you get, the satisfaction you get of doing it fuels you to do it again and again and again and again but sometimes, that initial hurdle is really tough. I think before you even have stage fright, there's this fear of even clicking submit, putting your name in, or submitting yourself for a conference or an unconference or whatever it is. How would you recommend to people who...they're interested, they think that this is something that's a great idea but they're too scared to even take that first step and submit their names and say, "Yeah, I wanna speak."
[00:25:21] Poornima: Yeah. There's a number of hacks around this. The first is kind of identifying what's holding you back. Is it, "Oh my gosh, I have to do this thing alone." Who says you have to do it alone? Get a partner, people love having co-presenters. Do a panel, and be the moderator or be a panelist and recruit a moderator. If the issue is, "I don't know if this topic is gonna resonate," test the topic out, that's what Twitter is great for or even your internal network of people, but identify what are some of the sources of your fears and then figure out, "Okay, how can I hack this? How can I get around this?"
I think too often the reason people have fear is because they, frankly, haven't done enough preparation or they haven't thought through what it is they want to do. Right? If someone were to come to me and say today, "Okay, Poornima, tomorrow you're presenting on the TED stage," I would just crumble. I'd be like, "Oh my god." Because I haven't done any prep, I don't know what the hell I'm gonna talk about, where is this taking place? I'm pregnant, so there's like all these factors. But if somebody came to me and said, "You know what, Poornima? In six months, or even in six weeks, we would love for you to give this talk," that gives me time, it gives me time to prepare.
Much like, honestly, any other skill, whether it's coding, whether it's marketing, whether it's sales, realize that your expertise and kind of that flow that you have comes over time and that initial hurdle is where all that fear is coming from. It's like you're still climbing up this steep learning curve, you're not really sure and you're kind of wondering what are the initial steps. That's where a lot of the fear comes in but that's why it's important to do the practice, to do the preparation, to think through what's holding you back. And then, you can get to it.
I did not start speaking thinking, "Oh yes, I'm gonna have a web show and I'm gonna do a TEDx talk," like those were the farthest things from my mind. Those opportunities came about and I became more and more, I wouldn't say comfortable, but I became more and more open to them as I was speaking more often. I think that's the thing is getting that practice and doing, like you said, those lunch and learns, those meetings and then deciding, "Okay, now I'm gonna do this other thing that's gonna be uncomfortable but so be it. And here's how I'm gonna prepare for it."
[00:27:56] David: In terms of what you decide to speak about, how do you choose your topics and how do you choose a topic that you feel is really gonna have an impact on your audience? How do you find that topic that you feel is really gonna come from yourself and really gonna resonate with people and create an impact on the audience?
[00:28:26] Poornima: I hate to break it to you, but it honestly, doesn't matter. People put so much emphasis on, "I have to have this awesome talk that's like, I don't know, 3 steps to making $100 million or getting like a billion dollar exit." You know what? Frankly, it seems a little inflated, self-aggrandizing to have those kind of talks, but the second is that's not what people are coming out for. At the end of the day, what really connects audiences are your body language first, like how comfortable you are as a speaker. The second is your voice, your tone, your inflections. And the third is content.
And the second is you've done it, so you're already gonna feel more comfortable, you're gonna feel like an expert on some level, and it's gonna make the process of that practice and the mechanics more important. Because when you're a first-time speaker, that's what you worry about more. It's like, "Do I sound okay? Do I look okay? Am I able to connect with audiences?" The content is the last piece, so I wouldn't get so hung up on what's gonna be the perfect topic.
As you get into some more advanced conferences, I understand that that becomes an issue because they want you to have a good topic, they want you to stand out in the crowd, they may have other people competing. That's fine when you get to that level, you can have those conversations with the organizers. But I would say starting off and not feeling like, "Oh, my topic is too basic."
I made this joke recently with one of my students who came back and said, "Oh, I want to give this talk, it's on Kotlin—which is like a new framework for Android development—and like how I decided to just to switch. It feels really basic." And I was like, "Well, I speak and teach on public speaking. There are people that have been doing it for hundreds of years, and it's for beginners. Does that seem basic?" My student's like, "No, it seems really impactful," and I was like, "Well, there you go." Don't let that stop you from taking the first step. Oftentimes, it's those talks that we think are basic, actually ones that attract a wider audience and a following because everybody, at some point, needs to hear that information.
[00:31:33] David: In other words, it's really about making it from your own personal experience. Not necessarily something that you just read in a book, but something that you've actually gone through yourself, that you can speak from direct experience in sharing what you've learned and what you took away from that experience that you can then share with other people?
[00:31:54] Poornima: Totally. Yeah. What were the problems? What were the gotcha moments? What were the tutorials that didn't work? What were the ones that did? Did you have some peer support? Did you take a course? What were the tools you used? And then, of course, what was the end result of all of that? That's basically kind of your takeaways that you want people to leave with, and that's what they're coming out to hear you speak.
David: Yeah, exactly. At one of these coffee and learns that we had a few weeks ago, the designer on our team, all he shared was how he goes from concept to finished product and everything in between, and it was basically just how he comes up with ideas, how he sketches them out, how he brainstorms. I'm not a designer, but he was fascinating and it was actually very inspiring to me to hear him. A perfect example of someone talking about something that's very basic for them but super insightful for me because he's coming at it from a totally different perspective. To follow up, can you give me an example of a talk that you gave that you felt really had an impact, that really resonated with people? Tell me a little bit more about that talk and what it was that you felt led to that happening.
[00:33:08] Poornima: Yeah. I think it is, honestly, that talk of my experience, trying to either get promoted or get appreciation out of people and seeing that it wasn't working out over and over again. No matter how much I did, no matter how many products I built or how many programming languages I learned, how much I kind of did behind the scenes, it just wasn't that impactful. And there have been so many technical women, as well as non-technical folks, who have come up to me afterwards and said, "I have felt this way." Like whether I am a marketer or I'm a salesperson or whatever, like I put in all these hours, I take all these trainings. I don't see anything. Nobody ever says thank you, this was really helpful. I get no feedback. But the minute I get up there and I teach it to one other person or I do a group or I get up and speak at a conference then, all of a sudden, I just have this wealth of opportunities.
I've given that talk in a number of kind of different avenues, I've done it as a lightning talk, I've done it as a longer-form talk, it's one of the reasons I decided to write my book. I've also crafted it into like the be the token talk that I give where it honestly doesn't matter. I just take the spot, be on that panel or be the only person at that conference who looks like you, sounds like you, or has a unique perspective and it might be scary, but it's gonna work out. I think that's what's really resonated with people because so many folks are dealing with that public-speaking fear. Also, so many people, like you mentioned, might feel like, "Well, I'm not the expert," and, for me, that's kind of become my cause. I was doing a lot with product, with entrepreneurship, but I've noticed, over the years that people just keep coming back to me primary for this, they're like, "How do I say this?" Or, "I don't know how to approach this topic." For me, it just boils down to communication.
[00:35:15] David: It sounds like it's also a lot about meaning, it's also a lot about feeling like what you're doing has a sense of worth, has a sense of purpose. I can totally relate to what you're saying that a lot of people don't feel that in their jobs. Public speaking is a way for them to get that for them, to feel that sense of satisfaction for them, to feel like they have a sense of purpose in sharing their knowledge and experience with other people.
[00:35:41] Poornima: Yeah. I would say it's, for me personally, I just ended my yearly confident communicator course, which takes place over six weeks, and just being able to educate people, walk them through, coach them, and then see their transformation, that's powerful and I don't get that same sort of excitement out of other things as much. The closer I can be to making an impact, the closer I can be to getting that feedback.
And, of course, there are some people that are like, "This class sucks, you suck..." There's always gonna be that, right? But kind of that core group, that tribe that you form who you see them transform or you see the impact you've made, that makes it all worth it.
[00:36:31] David: I read that you're making an effort also to really encourage women and minorities to speak out, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that and why you feel that that's so important?
[00:36:42] Poornima: Yeah. I've been in tech since 2004 and even before that I was involved, in some capacity, growing up. I think now, over this like 10-14-year period I've seen, there's more avenues for us to have a voice. Even if at work people feel like, "Nope, you can't do that lunch and learn. Nope, you can't do this other thing. Nope..." You can start a podcast, you can start a YouTube, you can go out into the community, you can speak at an unconference, you could speak at a meet-up.
I feel like the amount of resources and avenues are very, very abundant. But on top of that, there's such a thirst, right, there's so many people out there who want to learn from you. It becomes this wonderful, I would even say, chicken-and-egg problem because it's not really a problem, it's like there's an audience out there that's eagerly awaiting and it's really just about you saying, "Okay, I'm ready to do this, I'm ready to speak up."
There's that and then the other is I think there's a lot of support. People still tell me like, "You know what? I'm not getting the support, I'm not getting the mentorship, I'm not getting this or that." I get it, and it can be a challenge to get started. Some of it is just kind of buckling down and saying, "Okay, I'm not gonna have a huge amount of supporters or I can't expect to have an audience the first time I speak." I've given talks for, literally, there were two people and I was like, "Alright. Well, I'm happy you're here." It's getting comfortable with that and starting somewhere but realizing it's an ongoing process and the more that you do it, the more likely you are going to see that impact.
But for me personally, the reason I love focusing on this group is because, at the end of the day, they don't even realize their brilliance, and the moment they start to share, they start to teach, then they realize it. And then they become unstoppable. Just having that opportunity to unlock that potential in a lot of people has been really rewarding for me.
Like I said, this last class I had like 30-35 students where they all came in and they were like, "Oh god, I have to give this final presentation at the end of the six weeks." And I was like, "Don't worry about it, it's gonna happen." By the end, and we record everything, they were like, "I can't believe that was me." Because they see the transformation, they put in the work, we walk them through every step and then they're like, "Where should I go speak?" They're kind of eager to get it out there, and that's just exciting to see and be a part of. But more importantly, now these people are gonna go out and make an impact. And there's gonna be more people that learn from it. That's why I think it's really helpful and I push for it as my mission.
[00:39:42] David: That's great, that's really great. I was also reading that you actually gave a talk in front of 400 people at Salesforce. How did you get to that point where you were invited to talk at Salesforce?
[00:39:52] Poornima: Yeah. The thing about me at this stage is I don't wait for invites. In my earlier kind of iterations, I would be like, "Okay, let's wait for somebody to come and let me speak," but, at this point, I just knock on a bunch of doors, some people answer, some don't.
With Salesforce, I actually had the opportunity to do a meet-up there many years ago, I think it was like 2014, and then I did a workshop and then it was crickets, didn't hear anything back. And then, I was like, "You know, let's just keep knocking on their door every few quarters, every few years." And then it just so happened that they were like, "You know, we kind of want people to speak more in public. Why don't you come and speak at our, event?" I was like, "Yeah. Happy to do it."
Aside from Salesforce though, there have been 50 plus companies in the Bay Area that I've spoken at and given the exact same topic, like exact same talk, so it's kind of funny that it resonates and that people want it. But at this point, it's like me knocking on a bunch of doors and saying like, "Hey, would you like to hear me speak on this thing? Would your employees find it valuable?"
For people out there who are like, "Oh, when is Salesforce gonna contact me?" The answer is never. It's about you not waiting for the invitation and it's about saying, "Hey, I have this idea," and getting shot down maybe a few dozen times or hundred times and then just being like, "Okay, maybe it doesn't make sense, maybe somewhere else wants to hear you speak." It doesn't have to be a particular company or a particular organization.
[00:41:41] David: And what does that look like? Who do you contact when you knock on those doors?
[00:41:45] Poornima: There's a lot of changing of the guards, so sometimes it's an employee that you may know who's your friend and them kind of working up the channel. Sometimes you meet somebody at a conference and you hit it off and then you're like, "Hey, this is what I'm working on." And other times, people see the work that you're doing and you have the rare chance of getting that invite. They might say like, "Oh, I saw you on Build, your web show," or, "Oh, I saw you speak at this other conference and liked what you said, so we'd love to invite you."
It's multifaceted, there's not a one-size-fits-all but the idea is like you mentioned, it's a snowball effect. You get started, you let people know that you like to speak, that you have a particular topic, you show some examples, whether it's a video, whether it's live, and they develop a level of comfort, they feel like, "Oh, you'd be a great speaker," it would resonate with their audience. And then it comes together.
[00:42:52] David: If our audience, if our listeners could take away one key lesson from everything that you've shared so far, that they can apply to use public speaking to create a meaningful impact on the lives of others and succeed in this way by putting people first, what would that takeaway be?
[00:43:09] Poornima: Just do it, you know. Don't kill that inner critic but kind of kindly tell them, "Hey, I have something that I need to get off my chest, I'm gonna do it in a way that is authentic to me and I'm gonna find the people, the audience that it's gonna resonate with." I might find them over time. Maybe the first group isn't as open, maybe the second isn't but over time I'll find that audience, but I'm gonna do it because I do have something that I need to share, whether it's expertise, whether it's a message. Don't let that hold you back and don't let all of these mechanics like, "Oh, I do this gesture with like my hands too much or I have a stutter or I have an accent or I'm not the most comfortable." All of those things, over time, iron themselves out, or frankly, they just become quirks that are endearing, that people don't have an issue with.
[00:44:10] David: If they could start in one place so that they can really listen to this podcast and say, "Okay, I'm gonna take that exact step, I'm gonna start by starting here," where would you recommend that they start?
[00:44:21] Poornima: I would say the next person that asks them for some advice, like, "Hey, how did you do this thing?" Whatever this thing is. Be like, "Oh, this is how I did it.” And then, like take that and multiply it by five, and that's your first mini audience. And say, "Okay, in 2 weeks, I'm gonna do a quick little how-to," it could be 5 minutes, 15, however long you want, "on how to do X." The example that you gave of your designer is a great example to start with, and it's also a great place to test and it's an audience that cares. That's who you want as your first audience, you want an audience that's gonna care and that's going to learn something and that's gonna give you that kind feedback that's gonna help you iterate.
[00:45:06] David: In your experience in public speaking, you've seen that you've had a lot of impact, people have really been influenced by sharing your experience. In this audience, we have a lot of people who tell us that either they themselves or people in their orbit are kind of on the fence about embracing a people-first approach. What would you say to those people in order to help them understand that people first is really the only way to go?
[00:45:36] Poornima: I don't even know. Is it gonna be Martians first? What is the resistance to putting people first?
[00:45:44] David: Like profit first, like we've got to think of the bottom line. For example, I don't have time for public speaking, like, "I am so bogged down at work," or, "My manager says like, 'you don't have time for public speaking because you need to work, you need to deliver to the bottom line.'"
[00:45:59] Poornima: I think, at the end of the day, it's an experiment and you either are willing to do the experiment and then wait for the results or you kind of just keep hitting your head up against the wall hoping that the other strategy, staying heads down, doing whatever it is you are doing, will eventually work out. I leave it up to people, I say, "Look, if you don't wanna speak, that's your thing. I'm not telling you that every single person that I meet has to go up on stage and pick up the microphone but if you feel like, 'you know what? I'm dissatisfied, I do have something important to say, I'm willing to give it a shot. You know, why not? Let me see what impact it could have either on my career, on our bottom line and the community,’ then try it out."
It's much like anything, it's like if I went to a kid and said, "Your options are you can learn to ride this bike, if you don't wanna ride the bike, then just deal with FOMO. Like all your friends are gonna be doing it, it's gonna be hard for you to get around the neighborhood. I'm certainly not gonna be driving," like I'm probably gonna tell my son this in four or five years, right? "Those are your options." And then, leave it up to, "Do you wanna put the time and effort to learn how to ride this bike and knowing that there could be this huge opportunity out there to have new experiences and, possibly, impact you in a monetary, in a spiritual, in any sort of fashion that you want to reap the benefits.”
I leave it up to people, I'm not heavy-handed and say, "Oh my gosh, if you speak, you're gonna triple x your bottom line," there's no guarantees like that. But at the end of the day, if you're struggling, if you're like people are dissatisfied with our product, if people are not subscribing, if they're churning and if you don't have another channel, just looking at your analytics, if you don't have a clear story and you're pulling at straws, frankly, I don't know any other solution than to talk to your customers or at least get on the phone with them and then figure out are there other ways to support them? Are there other things they are looking for? Is there some education? Is there a way to have a dialogue? At the end of the day, I don't actually like to treat public speaking like it's one person speaking to many, I like to treat it like a public conversation, meaning I get up there and then either during or after, people are going to be asking me questions, giving me feedback and helping me learn how I can improve as kind of an educator, as a speaker.
[00:48:49] David: What's the biggest impact that you feel public speaking has had on you?
[00:48:53] Poornima: I think, at the end of the day, people realize how approachable and authentic I can be versus, again, if I was just blogging or staying heads down, nobody would really know the work. It's taking that risk and putting yourself front and center and making it so that people can indeed come up to you after you give a talk, or you give a workshop or something, and ask you a question or, exchange a conversation. I think that's much more of an avenue that people are open to doing than even if you're blogging. There's certainly a lot that you can do but I feel like it's one channel and you don't, again, really get a sense of people.
In fact, I've heard it from my blog readers who have told me, "Oh, it wasn't until I met you, A, I realized how short you were, and B..." I was like, "Oh, okay. Yes," you know, "You are kind of like your blog," or, "Oh my gosh, you're so different in like a positive sense." It breaks a lot of the barriers and misperceptions that people have about you, about your company. Of course, you can't just get up there and have a script and speak in terms of the campaign mantras or slogans. You have to share the things that are gonna resonate with people.
[00:50:29] David: Right, you have to be authentic, you have to be vulnerable, you have to be personal.
[00:50:32] Poornima: Exactly. There's still that but there's more of a connection that forms when you're in front of somebody and they can see you versus you're just kind of behind a screen sharing your thoughts.
[00:50:46] David: In other words, it's really that face to face, human to human connection that you can develop by speaking in public, by connecting with people directly versus only online where you're not really having that direct interaction with people?
[00:50:59] Poornima: Well, I wouldn't say you can't do it online, I would just say even online it's the sort of thing where you want them to see you either on video or listen to you on audio, have a little bit more than a 2D surface. Give them a little bit more depth, give them a way to see and experience more of your personality, more of your own intelligence and experience.
[00:51:30] David: More of your human side.
[00:51:32] Poornima: Exactly.
[00:51:33] David: Right. Where could people learn more about public speaking and about everything that you've shared with us today?
[00:51:41] Poornima: Everybody's on different levels in terms of whether they're getting started or how far along they are, so there's a number of trainings, books, free resources out there. I would encourage people to kind of dive in, figure out what is gonna work for them, especially for the stage that they're at. If someone is getting started and wants to give that first talk, it might not make sense to go out and hire a speaking coach. That might be overkill, but could they pick up a book, could they listen to a podcast like this one, and kind of get over their initial humps, I think that's a good place to start.
[00:52:20] David: But you've got a book, right?
[00:52:22] Poornima: Yes, I do.
[00:52:23] David: On exactly this topic?
[00:52:24] Poornima: Yeah, so it's called Present! A Techie's Guide to Public Speaking, and I'm happy to give away some copies to your audience that's listening today.
[00:52:33] David: Okay, great. What we'll do is we'll share the link to that book so that our audience can download it for free and then that way people can learn more about everything that you've shared with us a little bit more and go even more in-depth.
[00:52:45] Poornima: Yeah, sounds good. Thank you.
[00:52:46] David: Cool. All right, so that'll be in the show notes on the episode page at hotjar.com/humans. And finally, if you had to pick one resource to help our listeners succeed by putting people first or to establish that connection, as you mentioned, what would it be?
[00:53:01] Poornima: I would say having a support group and kind of forming a partnership with somebody else, so it's like getting, honestly, having a buddy system. Like figuring out what's gonna hold you accountable. For some people, it's having a mentor or coach. For other people, it's like, "Oh, it'd be so great if I just had a partner who was on my level and we were doing this together." For other people, it may be something else. But kind of drill down into what that thing is going to be for you. Does that make sense?
[00:53:34] David: Yeah, absolutely. You're saying the most valuable resource actually wouldn't be a book, podcast, video or anything like that, it would actually be another person that you can go on your journey with, that can either hold you accountable or help coach you?
[00:53:46] Poornima: Yeah. Or be your peer. I wouldn't have done those 50-60 talks at all those companies without Karen, having a co-presenter.
[00:53:56] David: And who is Karen, just to mention one more time?
[00:53:58] Poornima: Karen Catlin is my co-author for our book "Present," and it would've been really challenging to do 50, 60, 70 talks saying the same thing over and over again had I just had to do it by myself, it's not as motivating. But having a buddy to do it with is great. And then as you are earlier in your kind of journey, whether it's public speaking or really anything, having somebody, that's why people do things like pair programming and co-presenting, having someone who you can work with.
Not every partnership works out but it's trying some people out but, also, figuring out for yourself what's gonna keep you in the game longer. Like we mentioned before is it gonna be that mentor? Is it gonna be that coach? Or is it gonna be somebody who's at your level? Or the way I like to think about it is like a brother or sister, an older brother or sister that you can look up to and can share some techniques with you. But, a lot of times, that's what helps you get over the hurdle and helps you stay motivated and in the game for longer.
[00:54:59] David: It comes back to having that human-to-human connection with somebody to motivate you, to really keep you in the game?
[00:55:05] Poornima: Yeah, yeah. We all need support, no matter how much we think we are introverted or how much we think we know, it's always helpful to have somebody else to be a sounding board and a support system for us.
[00:55:19] David: Well, Poornima, thank you so much for taking the time and for sharing all your insights with us, it's really been a pleasure.
[00:55:25] Poornima: Yeah, thank you for having me.
'The Humans Strike Back' is hosted by Louis Grenier (Content Lead) from Hotjar.
Hotjar is a powerful way to analyse people's behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience. Based in Malta, Hotjar launched in 2015 and grew from €0 to €10M using a people-first approach and no outside funding.
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