Empowering language: Mitzie Almquist’s lessons in the art of communication


Hearing Mitzie Almquist share her stories with audiences of hundreds of the world’s most senior business executives, you’d find it hard to believe that Gap International’s Chief Leadership Officer ever struggled to find her voice.

The everywomanClub member held her nerve when a power cut plunged her presentation into complete darkness, and resorted to outrageous behaviour in one boardroom to get the attention of distracted directors. Her thoughts on
communication provide essential and powerful career advice for anyone struggling to be heard, wanting to influence through their conversations or add pizazz to their presentations.


Don’t wait until you’re an ‘expert’ to find your voice

It took longer than expected for me to graduate due to stops and starts at university, and in my early twenties I struggled with not knowing what or who I wanted to be. I desperately wanted to have a voice, but I lacked confidence and
thought I needed to be an expert at something before I could speak up. My confidence grew when I stumbled into a group of people who were interested in helping others communicate. Through my work with them I developed my passion, and
passion is what you need in order to have a voice. Confidence is still a work in progress for me, and what I’ve realised through coaching world-class leaders is that everyone is in the same boat. No matter how someone comes across on a
stage, they’ll have something going on in the background.


Great communication isn’t in the oratory; it’s in the connections

I’ve admired many leaders over the course of my career. There are so many impressive speakers who I’ve enjoyed hearing, but in whose shadows I’ve felt small and powerless. The best, most inspirational leaders are the ones who make you
feel great about yourself – big and powerful and heard.

In my early career I prepared for speaking by focusing on how I wanted the audience to feel about me afterwards; now I think through how I want the other person to feel about themselves. I’m at my most effective when
I’m studying my audience, whether that’s thousands of people at a conference or one person over a breakfast meeting. I really think out their world. What’s their scorecard? What are they counting in life? Revenue and profit? Happiness
and love? It’s easy to go on automatic when you’re nervous, surviving on ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ But if you pay attention, you make true, lasting connections.

It’s this focus on connection that allowed me to get through a presentation when the room was plunged into darkness as I got up on stage. I said to myself ‘I’m going to reach everybody’. That’s what I was being paid to do; there was
nothing in the contract about being able to pull out if the power went down. I’d already mingled in the room, making connections I intended to keep throughout the power cut. I didn’t know everyone, obviously, but I knew that they were
all human. Therefore I knew that whatever goes on with them is the same that goes on with me – self-confidence issues, every emotion under the sun (sometimes all in one day)! That awareness enabled me to speak to the biggest
possibility in the room.


Listen to yourself with as much attention as you listen to others

Once you’ve tapped into making connections through really listening to the other person, begins paying as much attention to your own speaking. When you’re delivering a presentation it can be tempting to focus solely on how the audience
is reacting. Tune into yourself: how are you sounding in that corner over there? As if you care about connecting, or as if you’re downloading prepared information from your head? Listening to yourself as you speak is a really advanced
skill of leadership; if you can master it early you’ll go places!

You can start by recording yourself and listening or watching back. It’s painful, but you might uncover bad habits that need stamping out. I was using lots of filler words so I had to really train myself to watch out for those ums and
uhs. I don’t want to waste a single word, for the other person’s sake as well as mine. 

Another bad habit was starting a sentence and not properly finishing it. ‘Last night I took my daughter for a birthday dinner and we had Chinese food and whatever.’ The ‘and whatever’ is a great strategy for telling stories that don’t
need lots of details, but it’s a cheap shot when you’re trying to really connect. I told colleagues about my intention to stop and asked them to pick me up every time I said it.


Don’t start talking until every single person is listening

This is the rule to follow every time you’re presenting or chairing a meeting. They might ring the chimes to indicate you should start, the video conference light might go on, but
don’t start talking unless everyone is listening. The chatter will die down but people are still saying hello to each other. Wait until you really have the room; how can there be any communication if you don’t? You’ll end up
having to repeat your intro and that’s a bad way to start. So, you stand there, you wait, it’s uncomfortable because you’ll have eyes on you, there’s pressure to talk, but just wait. It’s empowering and it’s worth the investment.

When I was coaching an executive board, I was preparing to speak but realised that nobody in the room was paying any attention to anyone else. They were talking, reading newspapers, tapping on their iPads. I came close to apologetically
asking them if I could please have their attention. Instead I crawled up on the boardroom table. Some of them saw me and went back to their iPads but eventually I had the room. I realised, that when the stakes are high enough, I could
be more outrageous!


Ask for feedback and never stop rehearsing

Becoming a better speaker means you have to practise, practise and practise some more. I assemble groups to practise in, simulating where possible the environment that I’ll be doing the real thing in. Or I talk in the mirror. Over and
over again until the person staring back really gets the message. It’s not about sounding like you know your script off by heart; it’s about finding a way to sound as if your story is natural and being shared for the first time.

Prepare for your one on one conversations as much as you do your group presentations. Of course the conversation is unfolding and organic and neither I nor the other person knows how it’s going to go. But I get myself super ready with a
logic to how I want it to go. It puts me in charge. I don’t mean I’m trying to control somebody; I’m trying to bring certainty to an uncertain situation. I might kick off by saying ‘Here’s how I see our conversation going; we
have an hour and I thought we would discuss this, this, this and this’.

Watch more of Mitzie Almquist discussing her rules for time management, developing self-confidence and using visualisation.