Notes from the top: Women as Leaders – Making an Impact

Ten days ago, I had the great privilege of being given the opportunity by Edwina Dunn, founder of The Female Lead, to attend the Institute of Directors’ conference ‘Women as Leaders 2016: Making an Impact.’

It was one of the most inspiring of days. With seriously inspiring speakers.

In this blog post I’m going to share what I heard. It was hard to make notes fast enough during the day, so things aren’t verbatim, however, I have done the best I can to replicate the words of the speakers. My notes are restructured into a narrative that will, I hope, be maximally helpful for you.

I’m going to share what the speakers had to say about:

Where are we at?

We’ve got a problem
We have rising indebtedness and there’s nothing we can seem to do about it – it’s a structural not a political issue. There’s increased devolution, shrinking of the public sector, and lowering of taxes – the UK has the lowest corporation tax in Europe. We have non ring-fenced government departments like the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We’ve got a problem and we’ve got to think of a better solution to this long term. – Yasmina Siadatan

We are far from having parity in the workforce, and it’s costing us
How much economic gain do we lose by not having equal numbers of women and men at the same levels in the workforce? Globally, 28 trillion dollars in additional GDP. Globally,  workforce parity is worth the entire economy of the USA and China; it’s a commercial imperative. In Europe alone it’s 200 billion dollars. If we don’t start to change things, on our current trajectory it’s calculated that it will take over 100 years to reach parity. We need intervention and a step change. Edwina Dunn

There’s an imbalance in business too
Only 18% of firms are majority run by women in the UK.- Yasmina Siadatan

Women aren’t progressing
What’s holding women back in financial services?
Women identify three main areas: 1) the company’s culture; 2) their own line manager; and 3) inflexibility. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia


Women-owned firms excel
Women-owned firms outperform those owned by male counterparts, with 13% higher revenue.- Yasmina Siadatan

And diversity is good for business
Companies prioritising diversity see a significant lift in profits. A 10% increase in gender diversity leads to a 3.5% increase in pre-tax profits. Greater diversity leads to richer discussions, more conversations and less hierarchy in companies. – Juliet Morris

We need balance, representativity of everyone, full vibrancy of diversity, views and cultures. The more we encourage diversity of thought and expression, the better. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia

There’s a new kind of capitalism emerging
Traditionally the worth of a business was measured by its revenue, but this traditional capitalism no longer serves people’s needs. 80% of millennials want to work for companies that care about having an impact. There’s a new way to measure a business’s worth and its impact: the triple bottom line. This measurement takes into account: 1) social, 2) environmental and 3) financial factors. There’s a new kind of business organisation framework: the B corporation. It’s a business that creates its value in these three dimensions. – Yasmina Siadatan.

So what does all this mean?

It means we need to get out there, be leaders with a capital L and change things. Here’s how…

How to be a leader with a capital L

Sacha Romanovitch on changing the leadership paradigm

Think about the next and the new
So much of life is focused in the now, but if we want to create a future for our children, we also need to think about the next and the new. Look around. The world is reaching its limits in resources. Things that once seemed esoteric are now really important.

Change the leadership paradigm
The prevailing paradigm of leadership in the world has been that leaders are heroes who save the world. The old view was: I’m perfect; I have all the answers. In the old days we held our hands tightly. If we open our hands to others, we can do something together, something better. Let’s have leaders where it’s okay for them to ask questions, it’s okay for them to think about how to bring things together in different ways. We need it to be okay for leaders to say I got it wrong, and yet for those leaders not to then be mullered. We will get the leaders we deserve.

Create meaning for people, build community
For me it’s all about creating the environment for others to do their best thinking. It’s brave leadership, trying to do something different. Creating a community to do something different, possibilities emerge; strength emerges. How do you create meaning for people? By enabling people to bring their best, whole selves into the office. You have to create space for people to ask at work: why am I on this earth? What is important to me? How does that connect to what I do every day? When you go into the world of possibilities, people won’t step forward straight away. It takes time. You’ve got to create a space for them to shine. You have to believe that people are good.

On instigating change
How do you carry people with you when instigating change? By creating time and space for them to express what they are uncomfortable with. By not necessarily waiting until you’ve got everyone onboard. Sometimes you’ve got to get on and do stuff and show people it works rather than wait for them to approve the theory.

Love and encourage
We need to bring love, kindness, thoughtfulness, mindfulness. With leaders like that we can change the system. I want to be a leader who is progressive and changes things. I know I won’t always get it right. Through community we can encourage each other, pick each other up and create the world we deserve.

On the language of leadership
So much of our language in business and leadership is to do with fear and destruction. What does that do to your brain? In that place of fear you aren’t set up to think, to be creative and constructive. When our toddler falls over we don’t tell them they did a rubbish job, we support and encourage because that’s what we do. We need to bring that language into leadership.

Challenge assumptions
The world puts assumptions on you and you have a lot of assumptions in your head. The assumptions we make? We create them in our head; we write that narrative. We can rewrite them. You’ve got to start with yourself. Once you can challenge your own assumptions, it equips you to work with others.

Chose what to fail at
You can’t do everything. I never buy clothes that need ironing. I outsource things I don’t have to do.

Make choices, pause and be clear
For you to make wise choices, you need to create those pauses so you are making a choice, rather than life happening to you. A minute sitting, breathing, thinking ‘what’s happening to me right now?’; in the world where it’s so relentless it’s a lost skill. It’s hard to pause. When you’re clear you can make things happen, you can change the world.

What else?

Make your company better through its personality
If you get a company, institution or business to think a bit differently by coming up with something innovative and creative, not just talking about it, but delivering and getting everyone to come with you, you’re adding brand worth. If you’re making your company better through its personality, then you’re improving it.Kim Winser

Be a leader with a capital L
Sometimes people say “it should be that women are leaders because we are softer, nice touch, collaborative” Ehhh? We are competitive, dammit! It’s perfectly respectable to compete. I don’t accept the softer thing. It’s incorrectly placed to suggest that women as leaders are softer. It’s really important that when we are leaders, we are leaders with a capital L.Kate Roberston

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How to achieve

Kim Winser’s five tips for achieving

1) Knowledge
When Marie Curie started in the world of physics, she wouldn’t have been saying I want to change the world and break records. She would have been passionate about what she believed in – physics. It was more about her knowledge and expertise and talent. Whatever field you’re in, make sure you’re really good at it, because that’s how you’ll get to the top. Learn from others. Watch different people doing different things and learn from them. Look at people that are so good in their space. It’s knowledge and expertise that will get you to the top.

2) Energy and determination
If you’re going to do anything, really do it. If you’re really do it. If you’re really determined, that will drive you.

3) Delivery
If you’re going to have thoughts and you’ve got energy and talent, then deliver it.

4) Gut
If you’ve got knowledge, experience, and a team, if you have a feeling for something, you have to follow it. Sometimes people are nervous of that. The chances are if you’re knowledgeable and up to date and are really thinking, listening, watching, reading, your gut is going to be pretty good.

5) Confidence
Dressing is so important because of what it does for you. It does say something about you, but that’s secondary to what it does for you. If you’re well dressed and confident in a meeting, the rest of the day you’ll focus on business, your talent and your gift to the meeting. If you feel confident, everything flows from there. 

What else?

Take opportunities
It’s not a question of nature or nurture; it’s being brave enough to take the opportunities that you are faced with. Never run away from an opportunity. Grasp it and make it yours.– Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Be yourself
You have to be genuine, truthful, authentic and honest. You shouldn’t change personality just because you are leading a business. Every personality can fit. Be honest to who you are. It’s about being giving. Be generous; give more than you take and then you’ll stand out. Don’t worry if someone else takes the credit for something, just give, because you will stand out and more and more people will see that.– Kim Winser

Be yourself
The most important thing is to be yourself; be proud of who you are. If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone. In this difficult world, be yourself; be brilliant take your opportunities and make a difference because we can definitely do that. It’s important to know what you believe in and stick to that and not change your principles. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Learn to let go
Figure out how to let go. When you ask someone how to do something and then they don’t do what you want, ask yourself ‘is this going to crush my business?’ No. You’ve got to learn how to pick your battles – so that you can make your business run without you. If you want to go on holiday you have every right to.  – Tara Mei

Learn to love guys
I’ve learned to love men because I spend all my time with lovely, lovely men. If you’re going to be a CEO, you’re going to end up with lots of guy friends, so just get used to loving them. – Celia Francis

Plan to scale up
Put scaling up into your strategy right from the start, so that where you are now is just part of a bigger picture.– Tara Mei

Talk to the market
It’s about education, talking to the market. Get out there and talk to people: show them the value of something, show them the problem, then show them the solution.Emma Clarke

And finally

Be a girly girl full of swagger
Why do we get lots of women managers, but fewer CEOs? Because girls don’t have quite the same swagger. You have to be able to feel and be confident if you are going to attract great people to work for you. The winning combination for the future leader? A girly girl full of swagger. – Celia Francis

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And when adversity, insecurity or fear strikes?

Starting and picking yourself up
I didn’t know what a business plan was when I started. I had YouTube videos on, working out my finances. I wanted to raise money, went to meetings to get money, they listened to me, then said no. I felt stupid. Today the business is a success. My business thrives because of me. I have a strategy, a plan. My Sat Nav is set to go where it’s going to go and everyone is going that way. I had no self-belief. I didn’t understand that I could do it and had no one telling me that I could do it. I’m bloody-minded and bright as hell, but there were places where I was scraping myself off the floor.Geeta Sidhu-Robb

Asking the stupid question and feeling things
When I was young, asking the stupid question, I realised that half the room didn’t understand either. I learned that lesson, and I realised that asking that stupid question was how I was going to learn most. Sometimes I think we have a desire to find the answer that’s intellectually right. Sometimes when I get stuck I think about how I feel about something. Rather than intellectualise, I feel things. I’m instinct first and analysis second. If you can work out what you’re feeling it’s sometimes much more powerful.– Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Staying calm
Advice I would give to my younger self? Try to find a way to stay calm. There are a lot of times in my career where something seemed like a total disaster. Things that seemed terrible, but ultimately turned out to be good. I think you have to go through it a few times before you realise that if you get through it it’s fine; as long as no one’s dead, you’re fine.– Celia Francis

Being in the right environment
As women we set our sights and boundaries at a particular level, whereas men do it differently. It’s about surrounding ourselves with the right environment so that we are enthused and inspired to do more. – Yasmina Siadatan

Taking risks
You have to be a bit more confident with taking risks than a girl might be. Boys are better than this. You’ve got to be able to say: it’s a high risk, but we are going to jump. You have to be able to do that and be okay with it.
Every week I secretly do something that scares me. It’s about getting used to the idea of risk and ‘the fear factor’. If you can think of something to do that’s low risk but that will give you the experience of getting over your fear, something you normally wouldn’t do, then you do it and it works out okay and you realise you’re fine, if you can do that you can do anything.– Celia Francis

You will shine
The thing about developing your own business: everything that’s weak about you will emerge, but everything that’s strong about you will shine. Geeta Sidhu-Robb

This too will pass
In moments full of doubt I’ve remembered: this too will pass.– Sacha Romanovitch

You will make it work
If you’re desperate enough and hungry enough you will make it work against adversity. – Emma Clarke

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How we can change things?


We aren’t fighting hard enough. – Kate Robertson

Things haven’t fully changed. It is our responsibility to make the change; for ourselves and our daughters.  -Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Edwina Dunn on changing perceptions and surfacing new role models

What can we do to achieve parity in the workforce? Two things:

1) we can change the perception of STEM subjects for girls; and

2) we can change girls’ perceptions of who they can be.

If you talk to people in the UK, you hear comments like “I’m not very good at maths.” People wouldn’t say that about English. It’s not like that elsewhere. The government says we are going to be the number 1 economy in the world in a digital future, but we are currently number 21.

We need to change perceptions and we need role models. Girls need to aim at somewhere and know that they can be successful. Having role models is imperative in helping us drive future success. Looking at social media, we see that boys follow a diverse collection of people, individuals, groups and organisations, whilst girls follow singers, actresses, models and celebrities. If we keep gazing in the same direction, at the same people, we aren’t going to change anything.

How can we celebrate, enjoy and learn from people who have amazing skills? By surfacing them and creating new role models.

ACTION points:
Get involved with The Female Lead – a non-profit project that celebrates women’s achievement, endeavour and diversity, it aims to make women’s stories more visible.
2) Get involved with  Your Life – a campaign inspiring and informing young people about the transformative power of studying maths and physics.
3) Offer yourself up as a role model – this is awkward for women, but we have a responsibility to tell our story, to share it.

What else?

We need to teach girls to be comfortable as leaders
We need ways to teach girls to be comfortable being confident and having swagger whilst being able to retain their core femininity. – Celia Francis

We need to encourage young women
It’s really important we go out of our way in our own communities and networks to encourage young women to be the best we can be. – Yasmina Siadatan

We need to pay attention to young leaders. – Kate Robertson

ACTION point: get involved with One Young World  a UK-based charity that gathers together the brightest young leaders from around the world, empowering them to make lasting connections to create positive change.

We need to get the media using different words
If we can get the media to start using different words, replacing ‘pretty, kind and likeable’ with ‘ambitious’ ‘clever’ and ‘strong’, then we have a chance.– Edwina Dunn 

Ambition shouldn’t be a dirty word
We need to get over this issue where girls think ambition is a dirty word. – Edwina Dunn

Send your daughter to coding classes. – Celia Francis

We can’t sit within our own boundaries
We are starting to see a global movement; there is an erosion of physical boundaries. No longer can we conform to a particular idea in one nation. People are so interconnected; ideas are shared from one to the next. We can’t sit within our own boundaries. In emerging economies there is a rise in the middle classes. We have connected cities and educated, informed, moving populations.  –Yasmina Siadatan

We need to invest in training line managers in building relationships
If we do nothing else we should invest in the training of line managers to understand the people they are managing, not just the businesses they are managing. The most important thing in any business is the relationships you build. With strength of purpose, together we can help each other to succeed. People want to be more flexible in the way they work. Richard Branson said the most important thing is for people to work where they are happy. Do we do that enough for our people? It’s a hugely empowering thing enabling this. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Hire both men and women
This is the most powerful outcome for your company. Celia Francis

Sometimes you need the help of people already there
All barriers that have been broken down for me have been helped by the support of a more powerful man. In our lives there continue to be men who are very powerful. In my experience the support now for women exceeding in business is better than before. In particular it’s men who have daughters. Sometimes you need the help of people already there. But none of that would have happened if I hadn’t taken the opportunities with both arms open.– Jayne-Anne Gadhia

We need leaders with a capital L across sectors
In business you will find more leaders with a capital L than you find in government and elsewhere. I wish that the leaders in government were of the calibre of the ones in business. In the global business we change things; 12 months later? Oh my god it’s changed!– Kate Robertson

So, ladies and gents, are you up for it?

To help us begin, I’ve made a wordcloud of some of the verbs the conference speakers used. We can use them to be inspired, and to drive our actions.

I’ve also made an inspirographic with some of the conference highlights – do feel free to refer to it and share.

WaL wordcloudIoDwal3

pdf here.

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Public speaking: how to go from abysmal to goodish

We all know how learning happens: you have to walk before you can run. You’ve got to be good before you can be great.

I’ve been to quite a few public speaking training sessions. All of them full of tips on how to be a great public speaker. Which is brilliant. But it’s also not. Because before you can be great you have to be good.

What about tips for those of us who aren’t even good?

speaking 2

I’ve also got a fair amount of less than good public speaking experiences to my name. But last week I finally gave my first goodish talk!

So today I’m going to share what I did to go from being an abysmal public speaker to giving an okay talk. None of the fancy stuff (“move your eyes around the room as if tracing a dodecahedron”) or the weird stuff (“imagine your audience naked”). Just stuff anyone can implement.

1) I Selected my audience

We can’t always choose our audiences. But to improve I’m looking for opportunities to practise. So I offered to give the recent talk, knowing the audience would be supportive.

2) I prepped my talk with bullet-debullet-rebullet treatment

For me, bullet pointing alone isn’t enough because I can’t turn them into full sentences on the spot when giving a talk. So instead I prepare like this:

  • BULLET: Bullet point my ideas
  • DEBULLET: Write out my full thoughts, which means I’ve had to turn the bullet points into fully articulated sentences
  • REBULLET: Rewrite my full thoughts as bullet points, knowing that I know the fully formed thoughts behind the bullets

3) I practised with the technology

Having a practice meant I knew how to set up, how long it would take, and I was confident about it.

4) I calmed down

After a hectic day, about an hour before my talk I changed gear and slowed down. My friend suggested getting a cup of tea, some fresh air and stretching. I did, and it helped.

5) I psyched up

The day before giving my talk I listened to an extract of Amy Cuddy’s TED talk “Your body language shapes who you are.” She says that standing in power poses before an event, like with your arms in a V shape, helps you psyche up. I tried it and I reckon it did help!

6) I started like a pro

Cuddy and many others articulate the mantra ‘fake it ’til you make it’. So I did what I could. I know that when people give talks they begin by asking if the people at the back can hear. So I made a point of doing that. Because I know it’s what good speakers do.

7) I prepared a cheat sheet

I had a 45 minute slot and reading my talk wasn’t an option. In a dream world I would have done it without notes. One day. However, I prepared a cheat sheet with my bullet points on, clearly spaced out and in big enough font that I could read it from the table. I also didn’t staple it so that I could simply slide the sheets away as I went through them. Something I noticed George Osborne do in his 2015 budget speech.

8) I made it a team effort

I got my audience involved by asking them to discuss amongst themselves some of the concepts I was talking about, then feedback to me. This worked really well because 1) it gave me a minute to breathe; 2) it kept them engaged; and 3) it was empowering for them because they realised they knew more than they thought.

Voilà, eight things you can do to help you improve!

In addition to all of the above, there are three more significant things that helped my talk to be goodish:

9) I knew what I was talking about

10) I really wanted to share the information

11) I let my personality come through

Finally, the reflective practitioner in me knows what I need to work on, so to take my public speaking from goodish to definitely good, next time I’m going to:

  • try to look at every individual in the room rather than the same few
  • have a better idea of timing as I had to rush at the end
  • drink water throughout the talk as by the end I was husky voiced

Three risks I’m glad I’ve taken as a researcher

I was bricking it right up to the moment I heard the first reactions to my audacious behaviour. As soon as the room erupted, though, I knew taking the risk had paid off.


Have you ever found yourself thinking, “oh, I’d love to XYZ, but I’m not sure I’m daring enough?”

About a year ago I was invited to lead a discussion seminar at Cardiff University. In advance, one of the conveners emailed me with the instructions: “you’re welcome to use any format you wish…”

What would you do faced with that information?

Amazing I thought to myself, for once I don’t have to prepare a standard PowerPoint-And-Paper-Combo; I can do something different!

But what?

I’d been asked to talk about my first experiences of ethnographic fieldwork, and I felt like I had a story to tell. Hmm; a story. One idea sprung to mind, but it seemed a bit outrageous. It was logical but was so far removed from the PP-A-P-Combo. I grappled with it for a few days then decided I’d take the risk.

Fast forward to that cold, grey Wednesday afternoon. People start filing in. It’s not my institution, so I’ve really got no idea who anyone is: that chap coming in with the stripy jumper, for example, could be a PhD student or lecturer or dean of faculty.

Everyone is finally installed: It’s showtime.

Thump, thump, thump: I can hear and feel my heartbeat. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea?

No going back. I begin:

“Hi everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah, and for today’s discussion I’ve drawn a cartoon…”

Cue: excitement, amusement, surprise, interest, laughter, recognition, engagement, questions, tangential thoughts, and animated discussion…

Like I said, as soon as the group reacted I knew the risk had been worth it. Just because we are scholars and are used to traditional forms of delivery doesn’t mean they’re the only ones we should use. I’m so glad I didn’t play it safe, because five awesome things happened as a result:

  1. I got a great reaction to my presentation
  2. I got to consider my research in a completely different way
  3. I was able to contribute in some small way to diversifying the appearance of academic research (cf. the ocean being made up of drops of water)
  4. I got to bring my creative skills into my research
  5. People remember me (a year down the line, the convener emailed me asking if she could use my cartoon to illustrate a blogpost on the discussion group)

Maybe cartoon drawing isn’t your thing, but I bet this next risky situation is one that has been – or could be – on the cards for many of you: the interdisciplinary conference.

An opportunity recently arose for me to submit an abstract for an interdisciplinary conference. I thought to myself:

Interdisciplinary? Hmm, risky: I’d be out of my comfort zone, I might look stupid. Though that probably is the worst thing that could happen. 

But lets be rational: it’s interdisciplinary; everyone will be a bit out of their comfort zone. People sort of expect you not to be an expert.

And what about the best thing that could happen? It’s interdisciplinary: people will have very different research backgrounds to mine; they could give me really great input and insight.

So shall I take the risk? Yes.

And so what happened on the day?

Well, I went to the conference and ‘confessed’ to my audience that I wasn’t an expert and that I wanted to learn from them. Then this happened:

  1. I felt liberated because no one expected me to be an ‘expert’: I could legitimately be a ‘learner’
  2. Others imparted their wisdom to me
  3. I met people from really different disciplines, and diversified my network
  4. I got to enrich the minds of my audience by sharing theories and ideas from my discipline

Now finally, some reflections about the biggest risk I think I’ve taken, and a risk I imagine at least some of you have contemplated: tweeting data, results or research as an expert.

This summer an article appeared on i100 listing the top ten baby names for boys and girls.  Something linguistically interesting appeared to be going on . So I did some basic data analysis and visualisation.

The patterns that emerged were fascinating (we have a gendered alphabet: boys names favour consonant letters and sounds, whilst for girls it’s vowels). The thing is, the patterns were so striking, I wanted to share what I’d spotted with the wider world.

But there was a problem. I’m a PhD linguistics student: I’m supposed to be (becoming) an expert. What if I’d miscalculated something or made an error?

Putting my calculations into the public domain felt quite risky.

But the data was astonishing.

So what did I do? I checked my calculations a zillion times, scrunched up my eyes and clicked tweet.

In came the likes and the retweets. I was beaming; others had found the linguistic patterns equally fascinating.

I was loving seeing the retweets, then suddenly I got a notification of a reply: someone had said I’d got it wrong; I’d done my vowel analysis wrong.

What you have to know is that my PhD is all about vowels.

Ground swallow me up.

Not good. Not good.

I looked again at the data; I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

And then salvation came: another linguist pointed out that I’d analysed the data with a British accent in mind and, since it was British data, I hadn’t made a mistake. They supposed my accuser had had an American accent in mind, which would explain their confusion. Big sigh of relief.

So what did I learn?

Well, it was a high risk, but, because I went for it:

  1. I got to use my skills and expertise to analyse data not related to my research
  2. I was able to share some remarkable linguistic patterns with experts and non-experts
  3. I strengthened (virtual) links with my research community

Will I do it again?

Yes. But I’ll continue to look at my calculations a squillion times, which, let’s be honest, is no bad thing.

And so to conclude:

Dear Friends,

Take risks:

with presentations, conferences, social media, whatever.

If nothing else, it makes life more interesting!

This Christmas give yourself the gift of audacious behaviour, and make it next year’s resolution to be more outrageous!

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

But what’s the best thing that could happen?

Love, Sarah


A lesson in conquering fear


A trip to the pool yesterday inspired me to share this story today.

Rewind five months…

“Forgive me for asking, but are you scared to put your head under the water, or something?” I looked over at the tattoo-covered bloke at the end of the lane next to mine in the pool.


“Only you’ve been going up and down with your head out of the water and it’s going to destroy your neck,” said Mr Tattoo.

I thought about it. No real way to argue myself out of it.

“Yes, I suppose I am. Or rather, I was as a kid, and I guess I’ve never addressed it.”

“You ought to,” said Mr Tattoo, repeating, “it’s going to destroy your neck. Why don’t you try with my goggles?”

Why didn’t I try with his goggles? Because the problem wasn’t just the underwater vision, it was the more significant issue of breathing without drowning in unintentionally-ingested water. Trying swimming with Mr Tattoo’s goggles would be unpleasant and humiliating, that was why not.

“No thank you” I said, mitigating it with “I should get some, though. Maybe I will next time I’m in town.”

“No, go on, try” said Mr Tattoo. And it became apparent at that moment that I didn’t have a choice.

So on went the goggles and off I set on a spluttery voyage of flailing arms and gasping breaths. The worst of it was I then had to make the return journey.

“Thanks,” I said, handing back the goggles after my two lengths were over.

“Do you want to keep swimming with them?” asked Tattoos. Had he not witnessed what had just happened?

“No thanks, but I will get some goggles. Thank you so much for the advice, and for lending me your goggles,” I said. I set off for a couple more lengths of backstroke, but fairly swiftly made my exit, feeling like a bit of a loser.

My interaction with Tattoos did get me thinking, though. I was doing a lot of swimming and was going to damage my neck. Perhaps things ought to change. You see, as a kid I’d absolutely hated wearing goggles; they never seemed to fit and they always seemed to leak. (Basically, I didn’t understand the principle of a vacuum). I carried my aversion to goggles into adulthood and, taking up swimming in my early twenties, contented myself with doing lengths and lengths of what I’ll call ‘heads-up frontcrawl.’

But Tattoos had a point. I decided it was time to woman up. So I went to the sports shop and got a pair. Next day, into the pool I got, on went the goggles, and off I set. It was a disaster. The breathing was just not happening. Where was my head supposed to go? When was I supposed to use my lungs? Not good. Then, horror of horror, Tattoos turned up in the neighbouring lane. What could I do? I pointed at my goggles, smiled and, so as to avoid having to engage in humiliating conversation, set off again.

As I set off, though, I realised that the goggles weren’t leaking and it was actually pretty nice being able to keep my eyes open!

I kept at it and, after a few visits to the pool, I had mastered breathing on my left side. A couple of months later, I’d mastered breathing on the right too. Now, five months on, I bomb up and down, eyes open, looking through my goggles, and breathe without even thinking. All thanks to Mr Tattoos.

The point I want to make is this: I’d held the fear of putting my head under water for so long that it was just the way things were for me; it was habit and, in fact, it had long ceased to be an actual fear.

What about you? Is there’s something you do a certain way simply because that’s just the way you’ve done it for a long time? What about things you think you can’t do because as a child you couldn’t and you were fearful? Like for example drawing, learning a foreign language, rollerblading, playing a musical instrument or running? Your childhood was a longtime ago. Why don’t you try probing at that thing? Maybe the fear has actually gone, and it’s now time to have another go!

Thanks to Brian Cantoni for his flickr picture!

Taming your inner procrastinator: how to start a task you’ve been dreading

I’ve been a procrastinator for as long as I can remember. Literally: I have a clear memory of my parents informing an eight year old me that the bedtime delay tactics I was employing were known as ‘procrastination’.

When it comes to procrastinating, I’m an expert.

But procrastination is a pain and it stops things from getting done and moving forward. And since I’m a great fan of both of these, I’ve had to find ways to tame my inner procrastinator, particularly when it comes to doing things I’m not looking forward to.

So, in this blog post I’m going to share three techniques I’ve found which help me with starting tasks I’m dreading. Hopefully they’ll help you too!

1) Zooming out

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to build up tasks that I am dreading: somehow I package them up as huge, scary, untacklable beasts. What’s more, the more I think about things I’m not looking forward to doing, the bigger I allow the ‘beast’ to get.

So, what I try to do is zoom out.

When you’re looking at the ground from an aeroplane, things seem considerably smaller. And for me the same applies with intimidating tasks. When I zoom out and get some perspective – get some context around ‘the task’ – it suddenly seems much smaller. Thinking about what’s come before, the hurdles and tasks that I’ve overcome which once seemed insurmountable (GCSE maths is a prime example), it makes the beast less intimidating.

If that’s not enough, zooming out and looking at where the task sits in the context of my whole life, usually helps me to shrink the beast. And when the beast is smaller, I feel way more positive about attempting to tackle it.

2) Psyching up

I’m guessing that most of you have at some point swum in cold water, so you’ll know what I mean when I describe the pre-plunge moment. That moment when you’re at the water’s edge, maybe you’ve even dipped your toes in: boy, it’s freezing, and if you want to go for a swim, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

If you’re anything like me, the only way to go from toe- to whole-body-submersion is by psyching yourself up for it. (“Come on Sarah, it is going to be painfully freezing for a few moments, but the agony will be fleeting; it will be over soon because it always is. Then you’ll be fine”.)

I’ve found that often the same applies with intimidating tasks: the hardest and worst part is starting the task. I’ve also found that the cold-water-plunge tactic helps me commence something I’m dreading.

So, what I do is psych myself up for the plunge.

I don’t try to pretend it won’t be painful; on the contrary, I allow myself to acknowledge that beginning the task is going to be painful and is going to be unpleasant but that this is the worst part, the pain will be short-lived, and afterwards I’ll feel so much better.

3) Looking around

I wonder if this final tactic is less obvious. I’ve had to ponder a bit harder to realise what’s going on, but I’m convinced I’m not the only one who procrastinates for this reason.

You know, sometimes the reason I procrastinate with a task I’m dreading is because I’m not confident about it: it’s going to be a shaky start and, most importantly, I don’t want everyone to see me working out how to do it. It’s a subtle and powerful psychological block, but it’s actually often unfounded and silly.

Why unfounded and silly? Well, how many people are looking at your computer screen when you open a new MSWord document to start something? It’s usually just you, right? And how many people are sat behind you watching you hit the backspace and delete buttons over and over until you get something you’re happier with? Still just you, yeah?

As I recently realised, the fact is, no one saw the first or second or even third draft of the section of thesis I had been procrastinating about doing. No one saw me hit delete or backspace, and no one saw me stumble, look things up, re-do things, play around with things until I’d got something I was at least part happy with.

There’s a reason why they are called P(ersonal) C(omputer)s.

If this resonates with you (perhaps you hadn’t realised that this was what was going on), then give yourself a logical talking to and, next time you’re procrastinating for this reason, try this:

Look around: no one is watching your shaky start! You’re free to find your way: proceed!

So, to reduce this advice to some Dizzee Rascal-style lyrics:



How to be heard: tips from the top…

I am not a great public speaker, but I wish I was, and any tips are always gratefully received. Except the one about imagining the audience naked; I’ve never yet managed to apply that one and if I’m honest I’m slightly apprehensive about what would happen were I to attempt to do so.

On a largely related note, yesterday was budget day and also my turn to attend prime minister’s questions. For a summary of the questions and budget speech, see any British newspaper, political blog or even Buzzfeed because you’re not going to get that here.

Instead, I’m going to share with you three things I learnt yesterday. As a wannabe-better-public-speaker and a sociolinguist who dabbles her toes into the linguistic ethnography pond, I was riveted yesterday not by Osborne’s plan to save the nation’s purse but by the way he, Cameron and others did their public speaking thang.

So here’s what I learnt:

1. To make a good speech, some trees are gonna have to be sacrificed

Anytime I give a paper or talk, I always print my talk out double sided and staple it in the top left hand corner, that way I can be certain that I won’t lose a page or somehow get the order mixed up. What tends to happen, though, is I stand or sit clasping my paper between both hands, setting up some kind of speech-speaker force field, and then proceed to babble as if I’m very poorly channelling the words on the page. People say you should never read a speech so, with that in mind, I usually attempt to ad lib, however, often find that my ad libbing attempts coincide with a total inability to remember how to construct a sentence.

So, what to do?

Osborne rocked up to the despatch box (the box on the table in the middle of the House of Commons where they make their speeches) and set his wad of paper down on said box. No clasping. No force field. He then set off on a steady pace, with a controlled volume, reading verbatim what was on the page in front of him. Yes, reading it. But it wasn’t boring and my attention didn’t wander because he owned the words, rather than them owning him. The speech was well crafted and so very listenable; I mean, like an audiobook, just much more political. When he got to the end of the page he didn’t grab at the wad of paper and attempt to turn over, fold, and replace said wad; he simply slid the page  to the side and kept going: seamless. No ‘print-on-two-sides’ for Osborne.

2. Making a speech is like cycling up a hill

It’s common practice when speaking in the House to take a few stabs at the opposition, you know, mock them and their policies. This usually results in cheers from one’s fellow party members, and the whole place gets a bit noisy and raucous. People speaking yesterday dealt with this in one of two ways: 1) by pushing on; or 2) stopping to enjoy the view. Have you ever stopped half-way through cycling up a hill because you want to admire the view? The result is that it takes time and a lot of effort to start up again, right? Well, the same can be said for speeches. One lady, having made a dig at the opposition which caused her party to cheer and jeer, stopped to enjoy her moment and the view. Error. Just like peddling up a hill, she really struggled to get going again and to regain the attention of the house. It was pretty painful.

She was not the only one to get cheers and jeers out of the House, but others seemed more clued up: they did not get off the bike to enjoy the view and internally pat themselves on the back for doing such a good job; instead they pushed through. The result was that they didn’t lose the attention of the House. I’m thinking that overall it was a much more pleasant ride for them, too. Lesson learnt.

3. Waiting at the bar to get served is an ideal time to practise public speaking

Right, so, whatever your political views on Cameron, and regardless of my own, yesterday he was utterly spellbinding. I cannot deny that he was head and shoulders above every other person who spoke in the House yesterday. There was simply no competition. Okay, so a lot of it has to do with the fact that he’s prime minister, because that sets him in a fairly exceptional position of power. But, having observed quite literally his position, or rather positioning, I’m thinking that it could be in part emulated by those of us who don’t have the title of PM. Here’s what he did:

In contrast to Osborne and Greening (secretary of state for international development who also took questions) who stood at the despatch box to deliver their speeches, Cameron leant on it like he was waiting to get served in the pub. I mean, how much more casual and relaxed can you get? His posture, the way he interacted with the furniture around him: he totally showed it who was boss. His stance was that of someone who was so familiar with what they were doing, they didn’t even need to think about it; it was the ‘walk-in-the-park’ of public speaking postures. He was so much more chilled out than everyone else, it was like he was in his own home and so everyone else sort of had no choice but to assume the roles of guests: on their best behaviour. Man, did he own it.

So, tips from the top: no staples, don’t stop peddling, and, above all, OWN IT!

July 8th