Last month, I was lucky to attend one of the full-day trainings through The Op-Ed Project, an organization pushing to increase the share of female thought leaders in public commentary. The Op-Ed Project started based on the fact that the range of public voices we hear from in the world is 85% male. So they coach female-identified folks to write and pitch persuasive and credible opinion editorials to balance the share of voice.
I took many lessons away from the session, but there’s one that I’ve been thinking about more recently.
We started the day with an exercise called, “Expert”. It’s a simple premise. Going around the room, each participant had to complete the following prompt out loud to the group:
Hello! My name is _________.
I am an expert in __________ because __________.
Try it yourself for a moment, does something come to mind? I know that I have certainly shied away from the word “expert” when people apply it to my skills. I even cringed once when a client sent me a referral with the subject line, “Professional Storyteller”.
My subconscious screams, “Hey uh, I know some things about this topic, but I’m most certainly not an EXPERT in storytelling, that’d be like someone on The Moth or whatever. I mean, c’mon, I’m still learning and there’s tons of people who know more about this subject, and…and…and…”
Many (most?) struggled with the exercise, despite having among us: someone who’d spent her life studying nuclear weapons, a surgeon who ran a hospital, and a young college student who had successfully gotten her local candidate elected to office!
The exercise was shockingly illustrative of the ways in which women downplay our knowledge. But then an interesting thing happened. The facilitator said, “What if I changed the word ‘expert’ to ‘go-to resource’?” Everyone exhaled and laughed nervously, relieved. We were all willing to talk at length about our subject matter, but reluctant to step into the role of expert.
When does this confidence get pushed out of us? What’s the moment where the impostor syndrome hits the bloodstream? Because I can tell you, 12 year old me had NO trouble boasting about her achievements. High school athletes and their varsity jackets (the ultimate teenage status symbol) were my royalty and one day, I took my baseball jacket from summer league and pinned every medal I’d “earned” (Millenial) to make my own varsity jacket. Thankfully, my dad caught me at the door, my Parks and Rec medals jangling across my shoulders. It was a tough parenting moment for him, I’m sure. How do you reward your young daughter for her effort and tenacity, keeping up her confidence without encouraging arrogance or braggadocio?
These days, the same phenomenon arises when I work with women on communicating their value through their website, cover letters, proposals, or resumés. We don’t want to misrepresent ourselves, mired as we are in impostor syndrome and years of socialization to be “like-able” but not bossy. We want to fulfill 120% of the requirements listed in a job description before applying, even though they are written as aspirational moonshots half the time.
Here’s one strategy I’m starting to employ. Think about 3 powerful women you know in your life (bosses, mentors, friends, family). What do you admire about them? What have they achieved that blows you away?
Now, how would they characterize your best qualities and achievements?
Write that sh*t down.
By the way, my name is Kate Rose. I am an expert in using stories to mobilize people to engage in social issues because I’ve studied communications for over 15 years, I’ve worked for Google and YouTube, consulted with 40+ nonprofits across the country and published articles with NPR, Huffington Post and Fast Company.