Staying On Message

Over the last five years, I have worked as a videographer for filmmaker Jane Praeger of Ovid Inc. and Columbia University. This past summer, just a few days after my shoulder surgery, I assisted her at a pretty tony company, but because I was recovering, my son Hayden helped out — he, too, found Praeger’s coaching helpful and inspiring.

I love Praeger’s style because she asks a lot of questions and she’s not out to ‘catch’ you in your errors. She builds you up on what you already do well. She’s genuinely curious. And she never lectures. She’s good at getting people to simplify their message. When speakers “get in the weeds” with too much insider lingo, she steers them back to a direct and straightforward style of storytelling.

In any case, I’ve been thinking about Praeger and her mentoring style because today, as I’m catching up on my old newspapers, reading some old New York Times, I find that on October 4, Jane Praeger wrote a letter to the opinion page addressing women’s anger and presentation skills. Here is Jane’s wisdom:

To the Editor:

Rebecca Traister makes the point that women’s rage is often “transformed into something more palatable” — like tears.

In my 25 years as a communications coach, I’ve found that “performance anxiety” or “stage fright” — the most common reason women seek coaching — is often rage turned inward.

I made this discovery early in my career, when a very prominent woman and capable public speaker came for coaching because she had suddenly developed a speaking phobia. A few questions revealed that she actually had a lot of anger (rage, really) toward specific men in the audience — anger she felt she couldn’t directly express.

When I asked her if she might be “shaking with rage” instead of “shaking with fear,” she closed her eyes for a few moments, then, clearly trying to hold back tears, nodded her head. We talked about how she might better communicate her anger and her speaking phobia literally disappeared.

Since then, my advice to women (and men) whose fear or anxiety keeps them from making their voices heard is to first ask themselves: “Who in this audience am I angry at?” Then, “what is the alternative to turning that rage in on myself?”

Jane Praeger
New York
The writer teaches in the Women in Leadership program at Columbia Business School.

See what I mean about asking a good question? She is asking, it seems, What is the alternative to inward rage? How can you employ your anger to tell your story more creatively, forcefully, and, yes, professionally?

Working with Praeger is one of my several side hustles. My full-time job as a teacher comes first, but I am fortunate to have crafted a part-time work life that enriches my personal life, and honestly, gives me a bit more status that my teaching gig does. Look, I am fanatical about teaching well. And a big part of teaching is to be a life-long learner about learning. I’m never going to stop asking the big questions.


Use your rage to ask the big questions; this has got to be the way women advance.


Criticize or praise?

I am a huge fan of praise. I love telling my colleagues, my kids, my friends, “Hey, great job.”

Last night at an opening night party (yes, I’m cool like that) for a new play, Unnatural Acts, at the Classic Stage Company, I saw Annika Boras, the actress who played Lady MacBeth there. I gushed, “You were so good.” And besides being brilliant — she’s beautiful and nice too! (It’s so great when that all comes together.)

I said, “Wow, great job. Love your work,” to Senator Chuck Schumer a month ago when I saw him at Jones Beach walking the boardwalk.

Just because I love giving praise, doesn’t mean everyone does. Or that everyone should.

I probably don’t receive as much praise as I give to the people in my life, like my spouse — people with Parkinson’s Disease are not known for being effusive. I do praise myself and give myself some positive self-talk. “Wow! MB! You were incredibly productive and creative today!” Yes, I have been known to kiss the mirror. (“You look good, MB!”)

I wonder if I need need more than most in the affirmation department. I may just be cut from a cloth that likes to give and receive kind words, being one of five kids from a slightly (?) dysfunctional family.

You may say, “It’s fine to praise yourself, crazy lady, just don’t over-praise your kids. The way everyone receives a medal, even if they came in last or simply existed.” To you, I say, “What?! What am I supposed to do? Tell them ‘Win next time.’ I love my kids unconditionally. I do try and praise effort most of all, being a fan of hard work. But I tell them all the time that I love them and that they are awesome. So sue me! I overpraise!”

My kids are more brilliant, beautiful, and sweet, even than Lady MacBeth. Not that I’m comparing. (That’s the kiss of death — compare and despair!)

Several business articles lately have backed me up on my penchant for praise. Praise is important in the workplace, actually, more important than criticism.  I like the way this article acknowledges that we don’t achieve anything alone; all achievements are the result of collaboration. And we ought to acknowledge our collaborators.

How much praise do we need to hear? And why are we so good at correcting one another rather than praising them? The Harvard Business Review offers some insights:

This is also what all the strengths-based learning is about. Lead with your strengths. Do what you’re good at it. To find what you’re good at, praise yourself. If that’s too weird, start by praising someone else and work your way back home.