This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Lara Hogan, an engineering director at Etsy whose most recent book, Demystifying Public Speaking, aims to help get more diverse voices onstage in the tech world. Topics covered include overcoming specific fears before getting onstage, how to process feedback, and some of her own experiences onstage, from highlights on down to one particular public-speaking horror show. They also discuss her career at Etsy and the joys and challenges of management.
00:17 Rich Ziade Welcome everyone to the latest edition of Track Changes. My name is Rich Ziade, co-founder of Postlight, and I’m here with —
Paul Ford Paul Ford, also a co-founder.
RZ And co-host.
PF — of Track Changes [music fades out].
RZ Of Track Changes.
PF The official podcast of Postlight, the digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. Rich, how are you at public speaking?
RZ I think I’m pretty bad at it, but I’m not nervous, if that makes sense. It’s sort of a weird situation for me.
PF You know one of the things I’ve found about public speaking—I do a lot of public speaking on and off—everyone’s willing to review you afterwards.
RZ Well, shhh I mean —
PF Everybody has an opinion on how you did.
RZ Look what happened — but we’ve got an expert in the room.
PF Yeah, why are we talking?
RZ Why are we even talking at all? We’ve got Lara Hogan with us today.
PF And Lara Hogan — hi, welcome.
Lara Hogan: Hi, thank you.
PF It’s great to have you here.
LH It’s awesome to be here.
PF You came in and did an event at our space.
LH I did.
PF Which was great, thank you very much.
RZ Which went great, by the way.
LH It was so much fun. I’m glad to hear it.
1:16 PF Tell us what it was about.
LH It was about public speaking. It was really cool to chat with other people and hear their questions about, like, what they’re nervous about public speaking, and, like, how they prepare. I’ve talked a lot about my most recent book, Demystifying Public Speaking, in which I kind of cover that ground.
PF So wait, we should take a step back. You are a…what is your actual job day-to-day?
LH My actual job day-to-day is I’m an engineering director at Etsy.
PF Ok, so in Brooklyn —
LH Mm hmm.
PF — knit goods, all the regular Etsy stuff applies.
LH You got it. Lots of socks, yep.
PF And engineers, a lot of stereotypes apply to engineers, but not necessarily known for jumping up on stage in front of 100, 200 people and talking.
LH Totally, yeah. It’s funny, when I first came to Etsy, they really emphasized three different ways to give back the community: you know, committing to open-source projects, and writing blog posts on their Code is Craft blog, but then the third thing was sharing stuff back with the community via public speaking. So it’s been awesome to be a part of like, you know, you’re being encouraged that way.
PF And how long have you been at Etsy?
LH Just over four years now.
PF Ok, and so what were you before you went to Etsy?
LH Before I was at Etsy, I had a variety of front-end development and, like, develop manager jobs.
2:33 PF What was the moment when it was, like, “Public speaking — I’m going to do this, this matters?”
LH You know it’s funny. I don’t have like a good story. I’m asked, you know, people ask me, “What made you get into public speaking?” And I wish that I had like a good anecdote. I would probably make me a better speaker if I had a good anecdote about how I got into public speaking, but really it was just something I tried out to see if I would be ok at it, and it went horribly wrong the first time, and I was like —
PF Tell us about that.
LH Oh yeah, absolutely.
PF You can’t just walk away from that.
LH So I was asked, I was invited to come speak at a Drupal conference about web performance, which was the thing I was writing about a lot of the time.
PF We should tell our listeners: Drupal is a framework for building websites and PHPs.
RZ It’s been around forever.
PF The White House, the old one and the new one, their websites are built in Drupal. So if you want to do something a little bit, not just pure publishing, often community-oriented, that’s one of the open-source frameworks you reach for.
LH Yeah. I wasn’t a part of the Drupal community, and I’m not, still to this day, I’m not sure how they got my name to invite me to come speak at this conference [laughter] but they did. So they reached out and said, “Hey can you do a talk on how to make websites fast?” I said, “Sure. That sounds fine. I can do that.”
PF Short talk?
LH [Laughs] Yeah, right? Keep it quick. So as I was standing by the side of the stage, you know, they were introducing me on stage, and by the way, I hadn’t realized that it was going to be a keynote, so I had prepared, like, a very technical talk that I thought was to a group of people who had chose, like during a track —
PF How many people?
LH It was 400 people.
3:56 PF Oh, fantastic!
LH I was already nervous for regular reasons, and then I realized it was to every, like, you know, content managers, and tons of different people. And they were reading the introduction for me, “Lara Hogan is X, Y, and Z person.” And they were reading the bio of someone who was definitely not me. And I realized they had invited — they thought they were inviting someone else, and had mistakenly invited me.
PF [Makes noise of pain.]
RZ Someone else at Etsy?
LH No, this was a different company, but yeah definitely someone else in the web performance community. It wasn’t me.
PF Oh boy!
LH They thought it was me.
RZ Wait, whoa.
LH Yeah it was horrible.
PF This is spectacular!
LH It was really bad, and so I got up on stage, and I was just thrown off of my game, and they never turned the lights down, so I could see everybody’s faces [PF laughs] and no one could read my slides because at that time I didn’t know you’re not supposed to have a black background with slides just in case the light, it’s terrible. And I fumbled my words. I nearly fell on my face. I laughed at someone’s question during Q&A that wasn’t a joke, because I thought they were making a joke.
5:03 PF This is an actual nightmare people have.
RZ Oh my God.
LH It was a nightmare. It was a nightmare, yeah.
PF People go to bed, and they close their eyes, and they’re like, “I hope I don’t have that dream again, where I’m presenting to the Drupal community when it’s somebody else.”
LH Yeah, yeah, it was not good. It was definitely not my best performance.
PF Mm hmm.
LH So then after that, I was able to say to myself, “Well, that didn’t go great. I can see how I can do better. It would also be nice to be invited for real reasons.”
PF To be the person, yeah.
LH To actually be the person they meant to invite. So like, let’s see if I can improve on this [laughs].
PF Oh my. I’ve had some tremendous flops, but being put in the wrong position is really intense.
LH It’s uncomfortable. It’s — and what else can you do other than get up onstage and just try and do your best?
PF Yeah, you’re in the wings.
RZ Close your eyes and go.
LH You can’t be like, “Sorry, this was a huge mistake.”
PF Yeah, “See you guys later.”
PF Ok, so you had a moment in which you were like, “You know, I’ve got to get better at this. I need more control here.”
6:03 LH Yeah, definitely.
PF But you also obviously wanted to get out in front of an audience and communicate.
LH Yeah, I felt super strongly about the topic. I really felt like, especially this was kind of the time just before responsive design was becoming a thing, and people were building really complex websites that could be really heavy and slow, and I thought it was really important to get out as much as I could to talk about how to make websites fast. It’s not hard to make things faster, so I thought it would be valuable, especially because, selfishly, I wanted to visit websites that were fast. I tried to figure out which companies could I go and talk to [chuckles] about performance to help make their stuff faster.
RZ So this nightmarish scenario, most people would have said, would have come out of that saying, “I’m never doing this again. There’s no way I’m ever going to deal with this ever again.” Instead, you took it as like, “Ok, this is the cue to go.”
LH Yeah, I think there’s this warped part of my personality that’s really focused on achievements [chuckles], you know? So like wanting to get better at things, wanting to feel like I’m achieving things and growing, and I think that was the part of me that —
RZ Do you have badges?
LH So I think a lot about — Like you know — My friends have hilariously made custom joke trophies for me like Second at Best Speaker in the World, those kind — like I have —
PF An element here, thought, where you didn’t lie on the ground. You didn’t go like, “Well, I should never do that again,” Which would have been a completely sensible reaction.
RZ Totally reasonable.
LH For those people out there that know that they never want to do that thing, or never want to do that thing again, don’t do it. I talk to a lot of people who feel obligated to try out public speaking as if that will help with your career, or that is what you should do as like a thought leader or something. I just don’t believe that that’s true. I think you should do it if you want, like try it out or get better at it, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to —
PF See Rich, I don’t have to go talk at conferences anymore [LH chuckles].
RZ Listen, Paul Ford —
PF I know. This is a topic of discussion that probably is a little outside of the scope of this podcast.
8:03 RZ We have a marketing strategy deck, and like slide six is just Paul’s head.
PF Yeah, my giant head. Oh god. So ok, so you’re going to get better, and you didn’t just get better, you wrote a book, and have made it a pretty big part of your career.
LH Yeah. Yeah, so for me, there was this really interesting thing about public speaking where unlike most other things, you can’t get practice at it without super high stakes situations. Like there’s no easy way to dip your toe in slowly to public speaking. To know what it feels like you kind of have to be up on stage. Like find that spotlight and take that risk.
RZ Yeah, rehearsing in the living room isn’t going to tell you the whole story.
PF I mean it helps.
LH It helps.
RZ Yeah it helps. It helps in terms of your narrative, but the experience is the experience.
LH Yeah, and I started to realize with all of the public speaking that I was doing that I was acquiring tips and things that would never have occurred to me before I started speaking, so I wanted to document like the weirder things you can do to prepare yourself for the weirder ways that people have fears. The spectrum of fears with public speaking is enormous. My personal fear is that tripping and falling on stage feeling and I started to realize, as I talked to other speakers, that wasn’t what they were primarily afraid of. Everybody’s probably afraid of that, but everybody has a different primary fear when it comes to this stuff.
RZ Sure. Sure.
LH So I wanted it to kind of document the spectrum of what those fears are, and different ways you could prepare yourself or your environment to either face those fears or reduce those fears, or just like survive.
PF So you didn’t want to trip and fall. What are other people afraid of?
LH Oh yeah. I love this. There’s this whole spectrum of like body stuff. I’m afraid I’m going to have pee on stage, or like that I’m going to puke on myself, or sweat through my clothes.
RZ I’m afraid I’m going to have to pee on st— meaning I need to pee on stage.
LH What happens if I’m 15 minutes into my talk, and all of a sudden I know I need get off the stage and pee?
PF It’s a 40 minute keynote.
9:53 RZ I mean she said it a little differently [LH laughs]. The fear sounds like, “I’m afraid I’m going to just start to urinate in my pants on the stage.”
LH I’m sure that’s some people’s fears. I wouldn’t be surprised.
RZ [Laughing] everyone has their thing.
LH [Laughing] yeah.
PF I’ve known people who definitely take beta blockers or Immodium before they get on stage because they’re just worried —
PF — that a total bowel release will occur, and you want to get that out of your head.
LH You want to prepare yourself — whatever is in your control, you should do that to help reduce your fear. There’s fears about like being judged. Tons of people are afraid that they’re going to realize —
RZ Which — you’re being judged!
LH Totally. Like halfway through your talk, imagine realizing that everybody in the room knows you don’t know anything about this topic, or imagine getting halfway through and realizing you were wrong.
RZ About even just a small point.
LH Anything. Totally. Yeah.
PF Or somebody could ask a question —
LH Totally, totally.
PF — and just blow your thesis out of the water.
LH Yeah, that’s many people’s fears. A lot of people have, especially people who are members of under-represented groups in our industry, are afraid of the kind of harassment, doxing, aggressive audience members, being judged for what they’re wearing versus the content of their presentation or their appearance. You know it’s like there’s a whole spectrum of stuff out there.
PF Yeah, if you look at the back channel on dudes, it’s not anywhere near as intense as the back channel on women.
11:07 LH Yeah —
PF I remember once I got told, like, “God he’s a giant, and what’s up with that sweater?” But that’s once in 15 years as opposed to like a ranking system.
LH So there was one I did, it was a keynote to like 2,000 people. It was the biggest talk I had done. And I thought it went pretty well. You know? It was like I was proud of my words. I was proud of my —
PF Where was this?
LH This was at Velocity Conference.
LH It was web performance nerds: my jam.
PF And we should point out too, if listeners don’t know, web conferences are big.
PF Like a keynote at a web conference could be a couple thousand people in the big ballroom.
PF I think when people think about our community, they would assume like a Sheraton with 100 people max —
LH [Chuckles] right.
PF I mean there’s music, there’s lights, and it’s pretty intense.
RZ It’s a big community. It’s a huge community.
LH Yeah, and it was, for me, this particular keynote was a bucket list experience. It was like: this is my crowd; I’ve attended this conference for years; I’ve invested so much effort into preparing what I wanted to say; and my slides; and practicing; getting lots of feedback on all the kinds of things I walk through in the book. I felt super. It was livestream. My parents could watch it. It was the whole thing. And I got off the stage, and over the course of the next day, I had seven strangers, all men, come up to me and say effectively, like, “I liked the content of your talk, but I have some feedback for you on something else.” And that it was always my tone. Like I sounded like a school teacher, or I was too snoozy. I sounded too rehearsed. It was a ton of like, “You had a great message, but —”
12:40 RZ Are you relying on, “Ok there’s a pattern materializing”, or are you — I mean because people —
LH No. No.
RZ Sometimes people have like a bad day, and they just pour it out into feedback.
PF What I love is that 1,993 people didn’t have that feedback.
LH Listen, I looked at my star rating, and it was easily top 3 rated star ratings for the entire conference’s presententa— . Like I — but of course —
PF Helpful dudes.
LH I was bogged down by this, almost like relentless, over the course of the day, just like strangers walking up to me and like unsolicited feedback basically, which by and large, like we can talk about the validity or lack of validity about unsolicited feedback, but I didn’t recognize that there was a pattern until I talked to another speaker. I said, “This keeps on happening. Did I not do a good job?” And he said, “Wait, they’re saying what to you?” I’ve never gotten that kind of feedback before. And then we were in a room with other speakers, we had started talking to all these other male speakers, and they said, “I would have never heard that kind of feedback.” And that’s when I started to put the pieces together that there was something else going on.
PF I remember I had a friend who was an opera singer and men used to scold her when she wore a watch on stage because it distracted from — It made her — She needed to be more ornamental, and they were just like, “Yeah, it gets in the way. It’s too practical. Don’t wear a watch if you’re singing opera.” The one thing I’ve noticed after is occasionally the feedback I would get would be very like you could tell that a person was simply infuriated that I had been on stage instead of them, and they needed to articulate and express that. And I would let them just sort of spill it over me in the bar, and then be like, “Ok, I’ll talk to you later,” and go hide in my hotel room.
RZ Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that can come out at you, and the motivators tend to surface sometimes and the like.
14:18 PF Where do you go right after? If I’m in a hotel, I usually just want to get into the room.
LH Oh absolutely, yeah. I know plenty of people who would prefer, before and after, to hang out and make small talk to get their energy out. That sounds like my worst nightmare. So I will just go find a hole. I usually spend that time looking through Twitter for the conference hashtag or tweets directly at me to see which parts of my talk resonated the most. And so I’ll use that to focus my energy on iterating on my talk and making it better the next time, and that’s like where I try to put my brain.
PF A human being is so incredibly vulnerable after that experience.
LH Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Totally.
PF And nobody really acknowledges that because they’ve seen you on stage. “My God, you’ve just had your moment. Good for you.” And you just want to get under the blankets. You know? Oh my gosh.
LH Yeah so I spend a whole chapter in the book on just feedback, which is a weird thing because feedback is not just obviously about public speaking, but for me like thinking —
RZ Sorry I’m going to interrupt you.
RZ We should mention the name of the book.
LH Oh yeah, thank you. Great idea! [Laughs.]
RZ And who published it, our friends at A Book Apart. The book is called Demystifying Public Speaking.
LH Yeah, thank you.
RZ It’s a wonderful length, as are the other Book Apart books. There are sort of —
PF They’re very humane.
RZ — humane length for a book. Uh they’re all great, but this is an exceptional one, and it’s available now.
LH Yeah, yeah.
RZ It’s available everywhere: online —
15:29 PF We’ll put a link in the post.
RZ Yeah, in the show notes, we’ll definitely share the link.
LH Thank you. Thank you. I need to get better at figuring out how to market this thing, so I appreciate it.
PF You’re doing it really wall. Too much, too much — When you look at the transcript later, you’re like, “Ooh.”
LH Oh yeah. Was this an ad for this person? [Laughs.]
PF This is just right. We’ll get it in there.
RZ Eased it in there.
LH Right, right.
RZ Sorry, keep going.
LH Oh yeah thank you. I have this whole chapter on just feedback, um and I focused some of it on how to get feedback before you give the presentation because I think it’s really valuable, but also there’s a ton in there about like how to distill feedback. Like when you receive feedback from someone, how do you know if it’s actionable, and helpful, and how do you know when you should just discard it?
LH I spent a lot of time on just like, “How do you think through that stuff? How do you feel better, how do you use it to improve things?”
PF What’s the feedback you should discard?
LH Great question. Um so — I try to think about whether something is actionable, uh and whether it’s more of a reflection on the feedback giver than on me.
PF Got it.
LH Cuz more often than not, feedback, frankly, and this is not just about public speaking, but like in a performance review, or really anytime, feedback is most often about the giver than the receiver.
16:35 LH Yeah, you shouldn’t just discard things out of hand, but definitely ask yourself, especially if you have an emotional reaction to the feedback, ask yourself why. Is it because it was inappropriate? Is it because it was just bad timing? Is it because you have to murder your darlings or whatever, and that this is one of your darlings? So yeah, there’s like a bunch of things you can ask yourself to make sure it’s valuable.
RZ Sometimes you get crazy eyes.
RZ You ever get crazy — ?
PF Oh yeah.
RZ You just look into the eyes and it’s crazy eyes.
PF It depends on the context. This wasn’t me, but I remember there used to be an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and there was like the cover article was about impeaching George Bush, and there was a vent at town hall and the people who stood up to ask questions after that, it was just like laser beams right into your skull. It was wild.
RZ Do you enjoy it?
LH I do.
RZ As I hear you talk, it sounds like it was — it’s like you’ve overcome a lot to get to where you are. Are you at a point now where you’re like, “Oh! Yes, I’m going to put in a talk for this?”
LH Yeah, for me what public speaking does is I feel like I’m giving something to a part of the community that might help them. So my motivator and most of my work, whether it’s in tech or not, has been how can I go and help somebody with their thing? And so for me, especially when it comes to talking about public speaking, I do hope that I’m actually helping people find their voice, or get the courage to get up on stage, especially because we have this super homogenous group of speakers in our industry, and that’s going to really — I mean we’re not going to do great as an industry if that keeps up. So my book was really written with underrepresented communities in mind. Like how can I help get more diverse experiences, ideas, voices, et cetera, up on stage to share what they have?
PF Want to get that number up above like 4%?
LH Yeah, seriously. Yeah. Yeah.
18:17 PF So what was a moment when you just killed it, when you just went out there and you nailed it? Was it the 2,000 people at the — ?
LH That’s a great question. There was a moment that was like my most fun moment. I was speaking at a mobile web conference, and I was telling my normal like how to make websites fast talk specifically about mobile websites. And like part way through the talk, I’d been there for about two days, I was on the second day of the conference, and so I had a good read for the room. It was like an intimate setting. The crowd was great. I don’t know how to describe it: everybody was into it, and receptive, and was really cool with all the speakers, like engaged and laughing. But about halfway through my talk, I was talking about mobile web fonts, meaning like if you have a bunch of little graphics, you can use a font to just lay those icons. And as I was talking about what you can do with icons to make them faster, I realized I had this story, this really funny story from Etsy. We had had a bug on our website where — So at Etsy you have individual items listed. You can have a star rating for the item or for the seller. Then we had this bug where instead of stars showing up, like you know: four stars, five stars? A horse head showed up instead. And this was because of this bug in our icon font system. And so I told this story just like — I’m not an improviser.
RZ That’s kind of a great bug.
LH That’s a great bug, yeah.
RZ So instead of stars, instead of three stars you got three horse heads?
LH You get like — well just — It was only for the half stars so you had four and a horse stars.
PF Oh wow.
LH It was incredible.
RZ It’s The Godfather bug.
LH Absolutely, and it’s like the goofy IOS horse head. It’s not like the cool looking horse. It’s like the really goofy looking horse. It was amazing.
RZ That’s a tremendous bug. You guys fixed it eventually?
LH Yeah. I mean we had a great laugh about it. Well, most of the sellers actually on the site, they were the ones who were posting in the forums that there was this bug and they didn’t know what was going on. Like, did Etsy do this intentionally? Are they trying to be funny? This isn’t April Fools Day. [RZ laughs] Yeah, it started this thread of horse puns internally at Etsy, where we were all making jokes about this. It lives on. We’re a very, like, pun-focused organization [laughs].
20:19 LH So I told this story, and I pulled up a screenshot of it, and I got raucous laughter. It was like my most successful moment of improvisation, which I’m terrible at. I can’t really — I’m terrible at just coming up on the spot with how to give a talk so yeah I think that’s like my highlight.
PF I can understand that. It’s a high stakes game. It is and you could get into that improvisational little like, “Oh this anecdote is fantastic,” and then 30 seconds in you’ve suddenly lost control of your bladder, that’s what would happen.
LH [Laughs] yeah!
RZ I want to shift gears slightly to get into your background, [oh sure] and your role at Etsy, and Directory of Engineering tends to imply managing other people.
LH Yeah, I manage managers now.
RZ You manage managers. Ok, so where you from?
LH I’m from New Jersey.
LH Yeah, so pretty close.
RZ And did you ricochet around the country before you ended up back in Brooklyn?
LH All up and down the east coast. I went to school in DC, and I lived for a little while up in New England, and then back down here.
RZ Ok. I’ve worked with engineers. I’ve hired engineers. I’ve promoted engineers, and there is that moment —
PF You’ve fought with engineers.
RZ I’ve wrestled with engineers [laughter].
21:27 RZ There is that moment when that engineer is so damned good you’re asking it actually not be engineer-y as much anymore because you want them to manage other engineers, and it’s this sort of existential leap [oh yeah]. So tell me a little bit about Director of Engineering, managing managers.
LH Yeah so I —
RZ Below, the tree below you, how many people is it?
LH All tolled, right now it’s about 35.
PF That’s a lot of engineers.
RZ That’s a lot of engineers.
PF That’s plenty of engineers for anybody.
RZ Yes, but Lara looks well.
LH Yeah, I feel Ok.
RZ She seems happy [laughter].
PF Whatever your engineer management regimen is, it’s —
RZ Yeah, by the way, can I just mention everything I’m hearing about, it sounds like this really, really happy place where there are like chocolate fountains and horse puns.
PF Oh yeah.
LH There’s horse puns. There’s very few chocolate fountains only because we’re very focused on healthy living so there’s no soda in the office, for example.
RZ Oh really?
LH Yeah, it’s like that.
22:23 PF I remember going over a few years ago for lunch, and it was like a foreign cooperative. Everything was very —
PF Yeah, eatsy. It was really nice.
PF It was like seven kinds of quinoa. It was really —
RZ Culture is a big deal for Etsy, clearly.
LH We’re values aligned. We’re a B corporation, which means that we have a socially good focus, as well as a like a financial bottom line.
RZ Oh interesting. Ok. Tell me about managing.
LH I love it. So —
RZ You love it? Let’s just pause for a moment and let that sink in.
PF Did you start as a programmer?
LH I did.
PF Ok, did you love programming?
LH Yeah it was fine.
PF You love management.
LH I do, yeah.
RZ You love managing more than programming?
LH Yeah, absolutely that’s true. I know um I work with a lot of new managers. One of things that I’ve done at Etsy is start a new manager cohort to help make sure people got comfortable as they adjusted to the management life style. So I’ve talked a lot with people who are going through that existential crisis and I find that, more often than not, people feel like it’s an existential crisis rather than just like knowing that this was what they were meant to do. I felt like it was what I was meant to do.
RZ Even right out of the gate?
23:26 LH Absolutely.
RZ Oh interesting. So you knew you were going to be coding less, and you’re like, “Well, that’s the right path for me?”
LH Definitely, yeah.
PF Were you kind of mentor-y as a programmer?
LH I was. I thought a lot about — again it’s the whole like giving back to the community and helping people thing. Like a lot of my engineering focus had to do with like leveling up other engineers [mm hmm], but also for me it had a lot to do with helping other engineers be better communicators, and better teammates. It was that kind of thing.
RZ That’s unusual. ‘
PF It’s also, as organization scale, the soft scales get so important so quickly, so if you’re in a growth environment like Etsy, I could see that just like once they realized you could do that, it would be very exciting to the organization.
LH Yeah, I started to manage, actually, before Etsy, and I was terrible at it at first because I didn’t really understand why like humans had emotions that I had to care about.
PF Oh my God, it’s so tricky.
LH Yeah. I really, at that point when I started becoming a manager, I realized I wish that everybody was a robot, and just functioned logically.
PF Especially yourself.
LH Totally! [Laughs.]
PF If I could get rid of all my feelings and needs, and just see this objectively.
LH Right, right.
PF How did you overcome — Let’s pretend this isn’t an incredibly personal question to me. How did you overcome the need to be liked?
24:35 LH Uh I don’t know that anybody actually overcomes that.
LH Yeah, that’s not — Yeah. That can’t be possible. For me, it had a lot less to do — These days it has a lot less to do with, “Are people going to like me based on this decision that I made,” and much more like, “How can I support people when it gets hard based on this decision that I’ve made?
PF Ok. Right. You might be bringing some bad news.
PF It’s just how life is sometimes.
LH Totally. What I find is worse than bad news is like confusing news, or news that I have a hard time owning or believing in.
LH Yeah, that’s way harder than just bad news.
PF Managing ambiguity is hard.
LH Oh my gosh, yeah.
PF Cuz people don’t want it. They don’t want you to come in and be like, “I don’t really know where this is going to end up.”
LH Totally. “Here’s some new information that I have. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.” Yeah.
PF But then later they’ll find out you’ve been hiding that information all along, and that wasn’t good either.
LH Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about that particularly recently. It’s funny — so I typically communicate early and often to the people who report to me in some varying degree of like, “This is information I need you to not share,” or, you know, some level of confidentiality. And it’s really tricky. You have to really believe that your people are going to respect that, and they’re going to understand why they need to respect that.
25:43 LH So it’s almost like you have to have built that trust relationship so that you can share things when they’re still messy, and still ambiguous, and trust that they’re going to know what to do with that information.
PF Yeah, that, to me, feels like the highest stakes game. It’s just you need to be as transparent as possible, but you can create so much confusion [mm hmm] because someone’s trying to get their job done, and if you drop an ambiguity bomb on them, they won’t know what to do from day to day. And you need them to keep working.
LH [Laughing] yeah, and especially because I manage managers, I need them to still keep their teams healthy.
LH Yeah, it’s really tricky.
RZ It’s — you know the communication hopping is a tricky thing. I have a particular position, and I need to tell the manager below me, and I don’t mean below in a derogatory way —
LH I understand, yeah.
RZ — to communicate something to their team. And the manager’s just not that bought-in to my position [LH chuckles]. And it starts to get either negotiated like, “Would you mind if I just lop off this part of the sentence and the beginning part, or whatever,” or they stand their ground and they say, “I don’t believe in, I don’t agree with, the position you’re putting forward here.” So how do we — then you’ve got to work it, right? Then it’s very tricky, and that’s one hop. Imagine like three.
PF There’s also, you have the fantasy of the perfect lieutenant, but that’s not always great either cuz they’re just gonna — the person who just executes seems like it would be great, but then they go and they execute, and you realize you hadn’t thought the whole thing through —
LH [Laughing] totally!
PF — and it’s only blood on your hands. It’s terrible.
LH Right. It’s terrible. Yeah, there are moments where I’m like, “Oh I wish that everybody was just like me,” right? Wish my direct reports were just like me. And, you know, that’s a terrible idea because what you need is a bunch of people who are going to push back on you and help you find holes in things and practically help you work through these super complex, not black and white, problems.
27:38 PF It’s true. You wake up and you’re like, “I’m going to go in for a day of suspicion.” There’s going to be so much suspicion, but then on the other side of it, you’re like, “Well that was really, really good.”
PF [Heavy sigh.]
RZ I think I’ve said this way back in one of the earlier podcasts. If you forced a position on people that’s changing how they work — I’m not going to speak to the advertising community, or the medical community, or I can’t speak for the engineering community. If you force their hand as to work a certain way, whether it be a certain language, or a certain platform, or a certain whatever —
PF Yeah we don’t do sound effects on this show but just [makes explosion sound].
RZ You’re in for some tough days. That’s just a reality. It may be wrong. In your heart of hearts you know you’re ceding to them because it’s the hot, new thing, and they really want to code in it, but you’re in for a lot of pain if you’re going to force that decision. So it’s tricky. I could tell you some stories [LH laughs].
PF You know what I love though? I do love the — I like watching people turn stuff around and figure stuff out. That’s very satisfying.
PF Ok, so you love it though?
LH I do.
PF We’re kind of like going through the —
RZ We could go for another hour and a half about why you love — [LH laughs] By the way, we are both managers. We run a wonderful studio here in New York City and we thoroughly enjoy managing everyone inside of it.
PF Oh we have smart people who challenge us all day.
RZ All day.
PF All day.
RZ And that’s by design. We got to construct it on our own. We didn’t inherit a whole lot. And uh —
29:07 PF We drive them bananas too.
RZ Yeah well I don’t know about bananas.
PF At least one banana [LH laughs].
RZ What’s like a calmer fruit?
PF Papaya [LH continues to laugh].
RZ Papaya [laughs]. Uh Lara, before we started recording I said, “Do you want to cover anything?”, and you just said the word, “Doughnuts.”
LH Oh yeah I did.
RZ I’m like, “Sure, Lara, we’ll talk about doughnuts when we get to it in the podcast,” so go.
LH Good segue.
RZ Talk to me about doughnuts.
PF Very organic, this — [RZ laughs].
LH I said that because I feel very strongly about — This kind of came up a few minutes ago, but this achievement-focused thing [mm hmm]. One of the trends I saw in myself, and as a manager I started to see in other people, uh is like in this industry when we do cool, new things, they’re often intangible. Like it’s very rare that we’ve done something and you can physically hold it, or point at it, or like you can show it to your parents and be like, “This cool thing I did.”
RZ Right, an end table.
LH Right, totally yeah.
RZ Except for I mean unlike everyone else who sells stuff on Etsy.
RZ That’s the irony of Etsy. Everybody else has actually got a tangible thing, but yeah so continue.
30:08 LH Totally, yeah. I started to realize, like as an achiever, I wasn’t feeling like I was achieving anything. I’m the kind of person who, for whom every day starts at zero. I could have won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, and today I’d be like, “What am I doing today?”
PF Yeah, “What’s new?”
LH It doesn’t feel good.
PF “What am I having for lunch?”
LH Yeah, so after one of my talks, I was at an airport, and there was like an airport Dunkin Donuts. I went and I had a doughnut, and I sat with it, and I was like, “Yeah, this marks my achievement of giving that talk.” And that kicked off —
RZ You didn’t say that out loud at the airport did you?
LH In my head. In my heart.
RZ Good. Good, good. Ok, continue.
LH I mean I was also at an airport Dunkin Donuts. I don’t think it would have mattered if I was — [laughs].
RZ [Laughing] in Newark.
LH Basically, yeah. So I started this trend of having a doughnut for everything that felt like an achievement, and then documenting it. So I have this page on my portfolio that’s slash doughnuts and so I started to talk about it and what I started to realize was there were a ton of young career-driven women for whom this is the same thing. We never feel like we’re accomplishing — I’m sure this is true for men too, but I’ve heard it mostly from women who are like, “Oh yeah, everyday starts at zero. How do I feel like I’m achieving anything?” And I’m like, [whispers] “Doughnuts.”
LH Find your doughnut. Like it obviously doesn’t have to be a doughnut. I know one person whom like a margarita and a hot tub is their doughnut — but something that makes you feel like you’re taking a moment to think about that achievement and celebrating it.
31:30 PF Doughnut is very practical though. Margarita and hot tub is, you know you gotta schedule that.
LH Very impractical.
PF — but doughnut, especially when we know that the bar is set roughly at Dunkin or Entenmann’s level.
PF Yeah cuz here could be like, “Oh I’ve got to go to Dough, and I’ve got to get a special cup of coffee, and —” No, any old doughnut.
LH Any doughnut.
PF Ok. If I see you with powdered sugar all over your face, today’s a good day.
RZ Today’s a good day.
LH It’s a constant state of being for me, yeah.
RZ Sooooo —
PF How many doughnuts then?
RZ I was about to ask that question.
LH A lot. A lot, yeah. I consume a lot of doughnuts. I don’t document them all. We also, when I was in the infrastructure group at Etsy, I learned that the director of the infrastructure group brought in doughnuts every Friday, which meant that like every Friday when I had a doughnut, I thought about what I would have achieved but also I eat tons of doughnuts outside of the achievement doughnuts.
PF Really, doughnuts become this overall life metaphor for progress and happiness?
RZ They look like badges actually [LH laughs].
PF Oh yeah.
RZ Except you’re eating them, but they look like badges a little bit.
32:29 LH Totally. Well and yeah I started to finally feel better about where my career was going because I was like not able to just document it, but to reflect on it. Like I can look at my doughnuts from last year and be like, “Oh right. I did that thing.”
PF Wait, so there’s a journal?
LH There is, yeah.
RZ Yeah, there’s a URL. Where is this journal?
PF First of all, what’s the domain name?
LH Slash doughnuts.
PF Oh that’s a great domain name. I mean — You’ve SEO optimized the hell out of it.
LH Listen, I’ve developed [RZ laughs] a brand around the doughnut thing, yeah.
PF I mean It’s fair that you’re an expert in website acceleration itself [LH laughs]. I would expect the overall doughnut experience — Does the doughnut experience launch quickly?
LH You mean like —
PF If I go to that page?
LH Yeah, it’s very fast.
PF Even on mobile?
LH Even on mobile. It is mobile optimized, yeah.
RZ I know a couple of people who do corporate sponsorships that I could connect you with. There’s got to be a brand out there that’s willing to tie their name to this story.
LH One of the best parts about the doughnut thing is that um often when I’ll go speak at a company, or speak at a conference, or actually this happened when I was speaking at Google IO. That was the same week that I did the Velocity Keynotes. They hired me a car to take me from one conference to another because it’s Google, and they put a box of doughnuts in the back seat for me because they know, yeah.
PF No way.
RZ Oh wow.
33:36 LH It’s getting around. Yeah. It’s like a thing that people know about, so people give me doughnuts now.
PF I mean they also probably just checked your personal profile and web history.
LH Yeah [laughing], probably [RZ laughing]. Totally, yeah. She’s looking for doughnuts near me.
PF Wow, 30,000 doughnut queries [laughter]. Well you know guys —
LH Yeah, totally.
PF So I have a question which is if I want to get started, let’s say I have been told I’m going to give a little talk to 20 people at my company. I’ve got this product I need to talk about. It’s my first opportunity to do this, fairly young person. Where do I get started? Obviously I go purchase your book called Demystifying Public Speaking —
LH [Laughing] thank you!
PF — from A Book Apart, but let’s say I haven’t quite done that yet, or I’m not ready to invest in an ebook.
RZ Related to your setup here, I mean it looks like an instruction manual. I think that’s kind of cool about it. It doesn’t look like — Have you seen those like business — ?
PF Those books with the words? [LH laughs.]
RZ No. No, I’m talking about the airports, speaking of airports, like Crushing It. It’s like 700 pages, and just shows a guy holding big bricks.
PF You know what they like too? The Delta Force Guide to Concrete Public Speaking.
RZ Yeah, it’s like a former army general who wants to talk about business and —
PF He’s killed over 36 people and now he’s going to tell you how to kill the competition.
LH [Laughing] right! Oh gosh!
PF Not that.
34:55 LH It’s not that. I really stayed away from philosophies. Like I really stayed away from like inspiration.
RZ It’s practical.
LH It’s super tactical, yeah. It definitely gives you things you can do, uh depending upon what it is that you like have a fear about.
PF So I’m young, I’m scared, and I have to get up in the next two days and give a talk. Where do I start?
LH Oh gosh. So let’s pretend like this person already knows what they’re talking about, and like let’s say that they’ve got like a draft, like slide deck put together.
LH Ok. So the first thing I would tell them is like pick your feedback crew. Who around you, probably at your company, do you rely on to give you good feedback? Let’s go ask them how this is sounding. Yeah, this is, for me, the number one thing that can help you prepare and practice and feel better.
PF “Suzy, Sam, and Jared, let’s get into this conference room on —”
LH Totally. Let’s huddle.
PF Ok, “At 2 PM.”
LH Yeah and you say to them, “Hey, I’m going to do this run through. Here’s the kind of feedback that I’m looking for: does this make sense? Is this what’s expected of me? Am I doing anything weird with my hands?” Pick some things that you want them to give you feedback on.
PF Cuz you know how bad you are.
LH Right! And you probably know what it is that you want to get better at, but also, we as humans are really scared of receiving feedback, so having that list tells you you can prepare your brain for what feedback you’re about to hear.
PF True. Rich has been telling me he has a piece of feedback for me all day, and I’ve been telling him to wait.
LH That’s perfect. So that’s a pro move.
RZ I haven’t shared it with him yet.
LH That’s a pro move, so doing that ask —
RZ Which is the pro move? Telling me to wait or me telling him [inaudible]?
LH Well, technically both but saying [RZ laughs], “I have some feedback for you. Is now an ok time to give it?” That actually is — This study, it’s like a physiological response we have when we say, “Yeah sure. Now’s a good time.” It actually opens up our brain to be way more receptive to feedback. Our Amygdala gets de-hijacked.
LH So good job.
PF Wow, you’re waiting for me to de-hijack my Amygdala.
RZ I think that’s not his plan, Lara. I think his plan is to —
LH To never receive it?
RZ — hope I’m going to forget it.
PF Maybe to go home.
LH Yeah, it’s scary.
PF I know better. He will not forget it. Rich has an amazing tell when it’s feedback time, which is, “Can I make an observation?”
RZ It’s terrible isn’t it?
PF Well we can’t use it in the organization anymore because everybody’s heard it [crosstalk].
RZ You notice I don’t say it anymore?
PF No, it’s done. You killed it.
RZ I killed it.
36:59 LH What do you say instead now?
RZ I just say the feedback.
LH Oh [laughs].
RZ Yeah. “Dude, your hair! It’s standing weird.”
PF Yeah. [RZ laughs] this is my hair in particular. Rich once told me that I look like an expensive bird.
LH That sounds specific but maybe not actionable.
RZ Or flattering. I mean it’s not — I didn’t mean it in an unflattering way. Have you ever seen like really expensive, expensive sounds like you have to buy them, but like exotic. I meant the word exotic and I said expensive. Let’s move away for — [laughter].
PF I had to go buy a lot of gel.
LH So if I’m talking to my feedback crew, and I’m saying, “Here’s what I want to hear feedback on.” Uh if you also have time, I would suggest describing what good feedback looks like or sounds like. And that is a specific and actionable feedback. So I’ll give examples.
PF Are you a compliment sandwicher?
LH Please God, no. No, absolutely not. Yeah and that is classic feedback giving because we as feedback givers are so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or triggering them or making them uncomfortable.
LH So we often do compliment sandwiches as humans.
PF Mm hmm.
37:58 RZ I think Etsy sells compliment sandwiches [LH laughs].
PF It does. They’re little —
RZ They have to be knitted.
PF It’s a sweater —
LH But compostable, yeah.
RZ Compostable [laughs].
PF It’s a sweater. There’s a compliment on the front, and one on the back.
RZ It’s a poncho.
PF Oh Lord.
LH Yeah. So right yeah, in the book I explain the system that I learned from a company called Life Labs. It’s also in New York, using suits of cards. So hearts and diamonds is feedback that’s positive. Hearts is like, “Good job.” It’s like not specific or actionable. Uh but a diamond is like, “I specifically think that you talked really professionally and eloquently about this topic. It was really easy to understand you.” That’s a diamond.
LH Then there’s clubs and spades. Right? This is constructive/negative feedback. A club is like, “You’re terrible at this.” And a spade is like, “I got really bored during this part of the presentation. Maybe a visual would help me stay more focused.”
RZ Very helpful.
PF That is very helpful. Great. So your friends give you these cards virtually.
LH Yeah and you can also choose when you want to receive — Like maybe you’re the kind of person that it’s really scary to receive feedback face to face. Like you can ask for like an email to be sent to you from your feedback crew, or maybe like ask them to submit an anonymous Google form that you’ve set up for them. You know any way that would make you feel the most comfortable to receive that feedback.
PF Gotcha, so just get in there and figure it out. People will always work with you on things like that.
39:15 LH Totally. And they’ll spend all of their energy focusing on like creating specific and actionable feedback, so they will be less scared of just giving you feedback at all.
PF Is there a YouTube video of you giving a talk that people could go look at?
LH There is. If you go to larahogan.me you can see a bunch of different videos of talks.
RZ Oh great.
PF And if you type in /doughnuts —
PF — an incredibly accelerated doughnut page. All right, well this is all way more valuable than really any other guest we’ve ever had [LH laughs].
LH Thank you. That is actually a great diamond. I really appreciate it.
PF That’s good. Normally it’s all just spades [LH laughs], and what’s the other, the bad compliment?
PF Club. Spade — Ok. So um —
RZ This is one of the most delicious pages on the internet.
LH Oh did you pull it up? Was it fast?
RZ I pulled it up. It was very fast. And uh it’s just joy and doughnuts [LH laughs].
PF That’s great.
RZ As I take a cursory scroll.
LH I will say other people have created their own doughnut pages. Sometimes it’s cupcakes. Sometimes it’s beers.
40:12 PF Whatever works for —
LH It makes my day to see other people’s doughnuts.
RZ Sure, sure. This is great.
PF All right. Public speaking, doughnuts —
RZ Yeah, the book is called Demystifying Public Speaking. This was great, Lara.
LH Thank you. This was great.
RZ We got to know you a little bit and we also got some great advice out for people who want to speak publicly. I have to say, just as an observation of the event —
PF An observation you say?
RZ Oh shit [LH laughs].
LH That was perfect. That was perfect.
PF Go ahead, give us your club.
RZ Yeah I was really blown away by how hungry people were for this feedback. The people were so eager to get guidance and advice on this stuff cuz you know I think it’s more than just, “I think this is going to further my career.” I think this is sort of — I think people sort of see it as sort of personal development in some ways. I think we talked about giving talks but I think people are talking about, “How do I speak to a room with six people in it?”
LH Totally, and this book is written such that you can not just do conference talks. This is for any time you have like a metaphoric spotlight on you.
RZ Yeah. And uh so very helpful —
LH Thank you.
RZ — and very empathetic, I have to say.
LH Thank you.
PF Final question.
41:19 PF What’s your favorite kind of doughnut?
LH Old fashioned. Gimme like a diner doughnut that’s like an old fashioned.
RZ To dip it in the coffee?
LH Absolutely. Or hot chocolate.
PF All right, I think we know. I think we’re ready.
RZ Probably dipping an old fashioned into coffee.
PF Let’s just go give a talk somewhere. You ready?
RZ Let’s go.
RZ Thank you, Lara.
LH Thank you.
PF Well, Rich.
RZ She’s just cool.
PF Yeah, honestly that’s a very cool person.
RZ It’s just a positive, cool person.
PF You know what I like too is that the whole thing is built on top of incredibly fast webpage speed. Like this was someone who said, “I need to communicate about how to make the web faster and better. I better go become a better communicator.”
PF That’s cool.
RZ And she just — I think she will just find energy in anything. That could easily lead you down a bad path. Making web pages faster.
42:13 PF It never ends.
RZ You could have a very dark person.
PF It never ends. Right? Yeah, no. This is someone who is like, “You know what? I’m gonna make this good for the world.” Uh [music fades in] so we should tell people that this is Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. I am the co-founder of Postlight. My name is Paul Ford.
RZ And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder.
PF And if you want to get in touch with us, we love questions. We love everything.
RZ We’ve been getting great ones lately actually.
PF Yeah, we need to do another uh question and answer show.
RZ And comments. Some are just comments [laughs].
PF Rate us on iTunes if you’d like. Five starts is good. It’s a nice place to start. And we look forward to talking to you soon. Any questions? You send them to —
PF That’s an email address. Follow us @postlightstudio —
RZ If you want to.
PF — on Twitter, and we will see you really soon. Rich, let’s get back to work.
RZ Have a great week!
PF Bye everybody! [Music ramps up to end.]