Three Lessons in Speaking Out

Anyone following the news in the past year or knows of Fiona Hill, the White House advisor for Eastern European affairs. She was called to testify before Congress as a “fact witness” related to the Trump Administration’s interactions with Russia and Ukraine. Her testimony was solid, and she gained positive recognition for her steadfast demeanor and professionalism.

We did not know that Fiona Hill was also acting—not dissembling but delivering her presentation in an ice-cold room. As she told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Hill had been given a heads up by a woman colleague who said that men in suits liked the room cold so they would not be seen sweating under the lights. That is cold comfort for women, of course. 

The backstory

Ms. Hill’s insights into the presentation, which come from her memoir, There Is Nothing for You Here, provides an inside look at the relations between Trump and Vladimir Putin and the Administration’s handling of the Ukraine issue.

Before she testified in public, she was subject to scrutiny. Immediately, the team of lawyers told her, ‘Well, we’ll need to have someone to do your hair and your makeup, and we’ll need to kind of figure out how you look on the day.’ And I felt, ‘Really? Do they do this for men as well?’” As she explained, she thought she had put such things behind her, but as she concluded, “I always thought when I was younger, like ‘God, I’m not going to be 14 forever, and eventually this won’t matter.’ And you get to be 54, and it still matters, particularly if you’re a woman.”

Years earlier, however, Hill’s undistinguished looks may have given her a front-row seat to history. It was 2004, and she was seated next to Vladimir Putin. Hill was told later that it was because she was not beautiful and would not draw attention to herself. A man, she was told, would be noticed and the subject to speculation about who he was. A woman in her late thirties who was dressed plainly would not.

Steel yourself to speak

These stories, and many more, illustrate the discrepancy between how women and men are treated in public settings. None of her stories are unusual, save for the backdrop of international affairs and history. What is remarkable is Fiona Hill’s strong sense of self. And for that reason, her insight into public presentation has relevance. 

Plan ahead. For presentations, know your audience. What do they expect from you, and what will you deliver? Ideally, you constantly tailor your presentation to the audience, but you may want to hold sensitive topics back until asked in certain situations. 

Know the terrain. Fiona Hill knew the room would be cold, and she took the advice of a woman colleague who told her to plant her feet firmly on the floor as a means of physically grounding herself against the chill. Such a stance also enabled Ms. Hill to stay calm and allow her adrenaline to kick in.

Believe in yourself. Self-awareness is essential to demeanor. What you know about yourself can give you the confidence to stand up to challenges, either verbal or career-wise. In addition, taking stock of your strengths will buttress the negative emotions that may arise in times of crisis.

Fiona Hill has served her adopted country for decades as an analyst and advisor.  When the light of history shone its brightest on her, she delivered a lesson in maintaining composure as well as credibility.

Adapted from 00.00.2021