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Watching Helen McCabe command a room, you would never guess that she dislikes speaking in public, and always has.
It’s a dislike so strong that the Future Women founder almost passed up an invitation to emcee one of Australia’s most exclusive and high-profile events – the Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra.
‘When I first got called about it, I just said absolutely no way. I’ve retired. I hate that stuff. I’m a rubbish emcee. It doesn’t come naturally to me,’ she told Jamila Rizvi, who chaired several panels at the summit, on Future Women’s weekly news briefing, The Download.
‘And then I went, “Okay, hang on, hang on. It’s an honour and a privilege. And, of course, I’ll do it”.’
How, then, does someone who openly describes herself as a ‘rubbish emcee’ (anyone who’s seen her will disagree), stand in a room full of the country’s most influential leaders without panicking and sprinting offstage?
Like most professional advice worth hearing, her answer is straightforward – almost frustratingly so.
‘It is entirely mindset.’
Through a split screen conversation broadcast live into Future Women’s Facebook group, Helen tells Jamila her desire to please the audience helped her shape her approach to stage fright.
‘I had to kind of convince myself that the only way I could make everyone in the room feel happy and comfortable was if I was comfortable,’ she said.
‘They just need to feel comfortable. The first thing is to make sure you are not unnerving your audience.’
Her second fundamental is perspective.
‘I really do give myself a firm lecture about, “it is not neurosurgery”,’ Helen explained.
‘Somebody’s life is not in my hands. The only person whose career is at risk here is mine if I’m rubbish at it.’
‘That’s not the end of the world, if I’m not great, if I don’t get the right name, or the right topic, or I fall off the stage.’
Helen’s third guiding principle is the most time-consuming and the most effective at suppressing performance anxiety.
‘I do more work on it in the lead up to it than I think is probably necessary, but I feel like I’ve worked through every possible error or mistake, then I’m less likely to make one.’
‘The only way to look extremely comfortable in an MC or a public speaking role is if you have done a lot of work. You have to have practised the names, gone over the sessions, gotten everyone to brief you.’
Helen’s fourth and final piece of advice is to breathe.
‘Just take some deep breaths. And that sounds dreadfully mundane as a piece of advice. But I think it’s probably the best advice I can give.’
Two of the 36 outcomes from the summit, announced by Treasurer Jim Chalmers shortly afterwards, gladdened Jamila Rizvi the most.
‘The Fair Work Act is going to be amended so that there is a stronger access to flexible work arrangements, and unpaid parental leave so that families can share work and care.’
The second was better protection against discrimination and harassment – which saw several industries make commitments to work with Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
‘Those were the first two takeaways for me that were that were really exciting in terms of moving forward for women,’ said Jamila.
While there was plenty of action during the summit, it was a shared moment at a dinner after day one that earned a mention in Helen’s opening address on day two.
‘I also want to call out Teri O’Toole from the Flight Attendant’s Association who lent me her flats last night, in the great tradition of helping out another woman,’ said Helen on Friday, prompting a whoop from the room.
Teri, Helen recounted, enquired about what was wrong when she spotted Future Women’s Managing Director grimacing after dinner.
‘I said, “Oh, my feet, I’ve changed shoes but they’re still high heels, and they’re absolutely torturing me” and she said, “just take them off, I’ve got a pair of flats, they’re my good ones”.’
‘Anyway, she just hands me her shoes, I take my silly shoes off. The Treasurer goes, “what was going on?” and I said “we just need to swap shoes”.’
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