Jill Tietjen Of Technically Speaking On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
… When I was a senior in college, I competed at a regional student engineering conference. I was the last speaker of the day in the student competition and the only female — all of the other competitors (nine) were male. My knees were shaking so hard that I was gripping the podium so that I could remain upright. I never wanted to be that scared again. I have leaped at opportunities to be trained as a speaker. Each training has allowed me to become more and more confident in my speaking. After 16 hours of training over two days for my expert witness work, my confidence soared. Prepare, practice, and train.
At some point in our lives, many of us will have to give a talk to a large group of people. What does it take to be a highly effective public speaker? How can you improve your public speaking skills? How can you overcome a fear of speaking in public? What does it take to give a very interesting and engaging public talk? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker” we are talking to successful and effective public speakers to share insights and stories from their experience. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Tietjen.
Jill Tietjen is an author, speaker, and electrical engineer with twelve books published to date. She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. She has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I am the oldest of four children and I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. For those people who have seen the movie Hidden Figures, that was set at what became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. That was where my father worked as an engineer for his entire career. Us four kids were always expected to do our personal best and we knew we were going to college. I was fortunate that by the time I was ready to apply for colleges, my first choice — the University of Virginia — admitted women as undergraduate women. I was in the third class that admitted women. I graduated from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and throughout my electric utility career, I have written and spoken — I was trained as an expert witness, wrote testimony and provided oral testimony on the stand before regulatory bodies — primarily state public utility commissions.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always say that the current path that I am on was started by an outreach program for the Society of Women Engineers in 1987 — an essay contest on great women in engineering and science. Researching those women in order to sponsor an essay contest for sixth graders, learning how little women’s stories and history are told — how little we learn about women in our formal education process — has galvanized me to write about women, to write women into history and to tell their stories through speaking as well. I did that in parallel with my engineering career for these many years since 1987. The large majority of my time is now spent speaking and writing about women through history, although I still occasionally undertake writing and speaking projects related to my engineering career. I have had 12 books published to date.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I don’t know that it is the most interesting but it certainly brought many elements of my career, my life and me personally together. While I worked for Duke Power Company (an electric utility based in Charlotte, North Carolina) in the 1976–1981 time frame, I became a member of Duke Power’s Speaker’s Bureau. Community organizations or schools or neighborhood organizations could request a speaker from Duke Power and a member of the Speaker’s Bureau was assigned to give the talk. I was assigned to give a talk to the “39 and Holding Club”. I was about 25 years old at the time. I am 5’2” tall.
It is pouring down rain when I arrive at the church where I am speaking. I walk in and check in at the registration table. The woman sitting there looks me up and down and says “I thought Duke Power was sending an engineer.” I said, “They did.” For whatever reason, maybe the rain, the sound system is picking up the local Top 40 station. I get all set up and we eat lunch. Oh, by the way, my topic is “Nuclear Power.” I have now figured out that “39 and Holding” means that the average age in the room is probably higher than 70 — it is a club for retired people. I am introduced and I get up to speak. Some older woman in the crowd yells out, “She’s so short.” This was back in the day when you turned off the lights to show 35 mm slides. The lights went out and almost everyone in the room went to sleep.
It was obviously a very memorable experience for me. I learned a lot because of it. I always try to find out as much as I can about my audience before I speak now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I arrived at a facility somewhere in North Carolina while I was a member of Duke Power’s Speaker’s Bureau with a slide projector with a three-pronged plug. This building was an older building and every outlet only accommodated two-pronged plugs. I did not have an adapter with me and the extension cord also had three prongs. After some very significant panic, an adapter was found. I always carry almost every piece of equipment I could possibly need when I speak today (of course, the equipment is different, but I still carry a three-prong to two-prong adapter!).
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My boss’s boss at Duke Power Company, Bill Reinke, recognized my speaking ability when I was still pretty fresh out of college. He was the one who recommended that I become a member of the Speaker’s Bureau and saw that I had the training that was offered. I am forever indebted to him for that support — and I have told him that.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
In my 2022 book, Over, Under, Around, and Through: How Hall of Famers Surmount Obstacles, I tell fifty stories about women in halls of fame in Colorado, around the U.S. and around the world and how they overcame the obstacles in their lives. One of the “lessons learned” happens to be in my story. When my first husband and I were both 22 years old and had been married nine months, his parents died in a murder-suicide and his two brothers (14 and 18 years old) came to live with us. I learned from that portion of my life to prepare for the worst that can happen. I do not mean to dwell on it — just to examine it as one of the scenarios that might happen and to decide what you would do if it did happen.
So to people who are thinking about this career path but are afraid of failure, my advice is to think about what is the worst that can happen. What might that be? Having to go back to your previous job? Getting a different job? Getting training? Depending on someone else for housing or living expenses while you get on your feet? Look at the possible outcomes, figure out what you would do and then damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead on this career path.
What drives you to get up everyday and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?
Women are important to the world. Women have value. When we value women and their accomplishments, society and the world will be better.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
I am looking to speak everywhere I can and having colleges and universities use Over, Under, Around, and Through as a community read. Building on the two books I have co-authored in the Her Story series : Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America and Hollywood: Her Story, An Illustrated History of Women and the Movies, I am working on other books in the Her Story series as well and seeking additional speaking opportunities. Her Story Kenya, the first book in the Her Story Africa series, is in the book design process with a publisher in Nairobi, Kenya. Her Story Magic is almost completed and looking for a publisher. As series editor for the Springer Women in Engineering and Science series, I am always looking for volume editors. I am the lead co-volume editor for the Women in Power volume and will be providing chapters for the Women in Renewables volume. As you can tell, I am involved in many projects and love being busy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote I use in many of my presentations comes from Thomas Edison and reads “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” First, it means that you need to recognize that an opportunity is being offered to you. Then, you need to say yes to the opportunity. And finally, you need to work your hardest and put forth your best effort to take the best advantage of that opportunity.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker?” Please share a story or example for each.
The key to effective speaking is preparation, preparation, preparation.
First, Learn about your audience and gear your talk to them. See the story above about the “39 and Holding” club.
Second, practice your speech. Practice in front of a mirror. If possible and someone you know is willing, practice with a live audience. Time your talk — timing is often very important — to honor the expectations of the audience to which you are speaking and the meeting organizers.
I received a call to speak to an audience of about 1,000 in Kansas City for National Engineers’ Week at a lunch. The first thing they told me was that the talk should be twenty minutes. One of my engineer friends who was on the organizing committee called me to tell me that the talk was twenty minutes. I received a third communication that the talk was to be for twenty minutes. Finally, I learned that this commitment to twenty minutes was the result of the previous year’s speaker — he had taken a full hour at the end of which there was no one left in the audience. You better believe I ensured that my presentation was no longer than twenty minutes!
Third, know your equipment so that you don’t have any surprises. See the story above about 3-prong to 2-prong adapters.
Fourth, know your material inside out and backwards. This story about knowing your material actually happened during the course of my expert witness work. The company president refused to attend the expert witness preparation. He got on the stand totally unprepared. When he was asked questions about meetings and meeting topics — he made stuff up. Then the attorney and the company employees had to do something called “rehabilitating the witness” — which is effectively correcting his mistakes in the record.
Learn everything you can about the material but when you are asked a question for which you don’t know the answer say “I don’t know.” If it is something you think you can find out, get the questioner’s contact information after your talk and follow up with them with the answer. If it is just a smart aleck question, you can say “I don’t know” and then forget about it. And, those do happen.
Fifth, prepare for the question and answer session. Write down every question you can think of that you might be asked. Prepare an answer. And don’t be surprised if you get questions for which you are not prepared. Two examples:
1. I was testifying before a state public utility commission for a permit for a new power plant. I had written multiple times in my prepared written testimony that this new power plant would provide safe, economic, and reliable power. The deputy commissioner asked me if the other possible types of power plants would be unsafe. Of course, the answer was no and I had not prepared for the question.
2. I was speaking to fifth graders in Connecticut about women in history. One of the fifth-grade boys asked me what I now call the most hostile question I have ever gotten — “Well, you know there were men in history, too.” I was not prepared but thank goodness the teacher bailed me out. I now have the answer to that statement/question nailed.
As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?
When I was a senior in college, I competed at a regional student engineering conference. I was the last speaker of the day in the student competition and the only female — all of the other competitors (nine) were male. My knees were shaking so hard that I was gripping the podium so that I could remain upright. I never wanted to be that scared again.
I have leaped at opportunities to be trained as a speaker. Each training has allowed me to become more and more confident in my speaking. After 16 hours of training over two days for my expert witness work, my confidence soared.
Prepare, practice, and train.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We must educate women worldwide and we must learn to value women.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Melinda Gates. I want to work with her to educate women worldwide and demonstrate the value of women.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!