I am not sure what’s worse: to speak before or after Speaker Nancy Pelosi. If you speak before her, no one is really listening to you; everyone is anticipating, waiting to hear what Speaker Pelosi will say and see what she'll do. But if you speak after her, no one is really listening to you. Everyone is too busy chatting about how fabulous Speaker Pelosi was — and likely heading to the bar to get a refill or visit the restrooms. Before or after, doesn’t matter. Pretty much either way, it’s not good — not good at all.
This is what I imagined when I found myself in exactly this situation. In April, I was asked to represent my company at an event we were sponsoring for the National Archives Museum in Washington D.C. It was a historic moment, celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the 19th amendment — women’s right to vote. In the corporate pecking order, my boss’s boss couldn’t go. Then my boss couldn’t go. So, I was up next on the list. And after being away for a work trip to London and planning a birthday party for my 4-year-old, heading to D.C. wasn’t exactly what I had planned.
“Oh and we heard Speaker Nancy Pelosi is attending,” my colleague on our corporate communications team said. “But you know how these things go, not sure of the probability of her actually attending.”
I went to the event convinced the speaker would not show up; There was no need to get myself worked up. I was chatting with friends and colleagues, enjoying a glass of bubbly when I heard: “She’s here. She has arrived.”
And there she was: Speaker Pelosi. And after introductions and a whirlwind tour of the exhibit, I was slated to speak right after her. I was ushered through the crowd, and then standing behind the podium to her left. Yes, I had to speak after the speaker.
Nancy is wearing a beautiful white pantsuit. Nancy isn’t using any notes. Nancy just made a funny joke. The crowd just laughed and Nancy laughed back. Nancy just shared a story about her first time in the White House. And everyone is mesmerized, everyone is listening.
And as I watched Speaker Pelosi so effortless speak and connect with the crowd, I imagined myself tripping in front of the podium in my white dress, shaking and unable to speak with a dry mouth. I desperately needed water, and I also needed to pee. Neither of which was about to happen, because I was up next to speak, you know, right after Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Should I make a joke about how I am speaking after Nancy Pelosi? About how cool her white pantsuit is? Should I apologize for how they have to listen to me now? As I waited for my turn, I was reminded about one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received — advice one of my career sponsors, Jonathan Atwood, gave me a few years ago. At the time, I was preparing for a talk to give on our company's inclusion journey to our top 170 leaders in North America. I remember asking: what could I say that could be of value to this senior crowd?
“Tell a story, tell your story,” Jonathan coached me. He told me to picture myself being an audience member and think about how I could capture their attention. No one wants to hear corporate speak or corporate stats. No one wants to hear lectures. Be provocative, say something unexpected. Be personal.
“Most importantly, just be you.”
Applause. And it was my turn. My hands slightly shaking, in my long white dress, I managed not to trip and made it to the podium. I put my notes down and adjusted the mic.
Then, I followed Jonathan’s advice. I didn’t start off with any disclaimer language. I didn’t make any jokes or use self-deprecating language. I just told my story. I focused on why my company was sponsoring this exhibition, the company’s connection to the suffrage movement and my personal purpose and connection to the work. And I used my notes to guide me. I made a few jokes and improvised along the way. And it was okay. I was okay.
“That was a wonderful speech,” Speaker Pelosi said to me after I stepped away from the podium. I grabbed her and hugged her and screamed and jumped up and down.
I mean, I did in my head.
I remained poised, smiled and thanked her for her kind words. And I got a picture with her.
So, the next time you have to speak after Speaker Nancy Pelosi — or anyone who is a legend, a person of influence, someone you admire deeply — tell a story. Share something personal. Make a joke. And whatever you say, own your words. There may only be one Nancy Pelosi. And there’s only one you. Your voice – your story — matters.
And since you can’t be Speaker Pelosi, just be yourself. After all, not all of us can pull off a white pantsuit.