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Alison Fragale: “Speaking takes practice”

…If I had to sum up the key message of all of my work it is this: People aren’t crazy, you just don’t get them. If you understand people (including yourself) better, then you are equipped to choose the right strategy or tactic to achieve success. Whatever your problem, understanding the psychology of the people […]

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…If I had to sum up the key message of all of my work it is this: People aren’t crazy, you just don’t get them. If you understand people (including yourself) better, then you are equipped to choose the right strategy or tactic to achieve success. Whatever your problem, understanding the psychology of the people involved is the first step in solving it.


As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alison Fragale.

Alison Fragale is an organizational psychologist, international keynote speaker, and award-winning tenured professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, where she specializes in the areas of negotiation, power, and influence. Although she hates to fly, she loves traveling the world speaking to women’s leadership groups, private sector organizations, and senior military officials. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children, and loves, in no particular order: cheap coffee, not-so-cheap wine, fabulous shoes, home organizing, sushi, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Orange Theory workouts, Hallmark movies, and The Golden Girls. You can learn more about her and her speaking work at www.alisonfragale.com.

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?

When I think about my career now, it was all very much shaped by pieces of my childhood. First, I loved school. I was the nerdy kid who asked the teacher for homework on the first day — who does that?! I didn’t think about becoming a teacher at the time, but looking back it seems almost inevitable that I now teach as a profession.

Second, I was very dramatic as a child (and still am), so I need a stage. My mom told me that she tried to channel my drama into acting and took me to try out for a commercial when I was about 5-years old, but I went silent and hid behind her legs as soon as she took me in the audition room. My Days of Our Lives dreams ended right there and I never did any kind of acting growing up. But teaching and speaking is its own kind of performance, and I am drawn to that part of it. Also, in karmic fashion, I now have a daughter who shares my flair for the dramatic. Still trying to figure out how to channel that into something productive.

Finally, I was raised believing that my career would be in business. Both of my parents owned their own companies. I wasn’t pushed in that direction but I just assumed that was what you did when you grew up! Being a professor and a speaker is like being CEO of a firm of one — it’s very entrepreneurial. And, being in business academia and speaking to business leaders enables me to make an impact on organizations of all sizes, from smaller firms like my parents’ to large Fortune 100 companies.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was working in management consulting for McKinsey & Company, and I was struggling to get my clients to cooperate with me — nobody likes the consultants. Those interactions got me thinking about the importance of understanding and navigating the people around you at work. I ultimately pursued my Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University to become a professor. When I entered academia, I considered myself a researcher and a teacher, but I never considered that I would want to, or be able to, speak outside of the classroom. However, early on in my career I was approached by a senior colleague who did a lot of speaking and he asked me to co-present with him. I did it, and I wasn’t very good at it, but I liked it. I liked being able to share the academic science of human behavior with leaders who were trying to navigate people problems every day. It gave me a foot back to the business world, to answer the questions that I was asking when I was struggling as a young consultant.

Teaching and speaking for a living is not for the weak. You stand all day, things go wrong all the time and you have to improvise, and your audience is quick to tell you everything they don’t like about you. But, I am drawn to it because I believe in the message. The science of human behavior is the critical knowledge we need to successfully navigate relationships, both inside and outside of work. I love sharing that knowledge to help people live, work and lead better.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I used to never say much about my kids in my talks. Not for any particular reason, it just wasn’t part of my storytelling. One day, though, I was speaking to a room of senior government leaders and I mentioned that all three of my kids were named after famous Chicago athletes, including Walter Payton (who passed away in 1999). I remember thinking, “Is this oversharing? Will someone in this room internet troll my family now that they know all of our names?” But at the end of the session a man came up to me and pointed back to a woman sitting in the audience. He said, “That’s Walter Payton’s sister-in-law.” I made eye contact with her and she came up and introduced herself, telling me that she was married to Walter Payton’s brother. I told her that Walter Payton was my husband’s childhood idol, and that our son was so proud of the story of his name. I showed her some pictures of my son, and she promised to pass the story on to her husband.

That day was a turning point for me in two ways. First, I realized that the personal stories — those that really have nothing to do with the content of the talk — are every bit as meaningful as the data and advice. Second, I realized that you never know who is in your audience! Since then, I mention my kids’ names in almost every talk. I have another child named after Michael Jordan and I’m waiting for someone to stand up and tell me that they are a relative of his and offer to introduce us. Hasn’t happened yet, but it will!

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?

This story is still not funny to me, but everyone else gets a good laugh from it. I am passionate about women’s leadership development and love speaking to women leaders. Now, organizations are putting money into developing women’s careers, but that wasn’t the case when I was starting out in the early 2000s. So I was very excited to have my first event speaking to a room full of women leaders at a large organization. It was a big audience and we were having a great time, laughing and talking. We had bonded. That is, until I started to present some research on flirtation in the workplace. This wasn’t my research, but I presented it as part of a comprehensive review of gender differences in influence tactics. A spirited conversation broke out in the room, with some women saying they identified with the research findings and had used flirtation as an influence tactic. Other women responded that these tactics were inappropriate. At this point I was only an observer, but I thought the conversation was real and raw. However, it got too real for some of the program sponsors in the back of the room. An HR representative from the firm stood up and told the room that the conversation was over, they were to ignore what I said because I had misspoken, and that none of the participants would be punished for what they said in the discussion. All of the participants went silent and looked at the floor. Spoiler alert: This was my first and last time speaking to this organization!

At the time, I was blindsided. Punish employees for self-disclosing during a leadership development program that was supposed to be a reward for their great performance? Diminish me for merely presenting the research of my discipline? I never saw any of it coming. In retrospect, though, I learned two lessons that have helped me a great deal. First, it is critical to be fact-based as a speaker, but your audience doesn’t just look to you for facts. They also want you to tell them what to do with those facts. As an academic, I would often say, “just a fact, use it as you wish,” but I realized that wasn’t true. I needed to educate AND interpret for my audiences.

Second, I also realized that the culture of this organization, based around fear and intimidation, wasn’t a good fit for my style and beliefs. Now, I choose my clients as much as my clients choose me. Fit between a speaker and the audience is incredibly important. As one of my fellow speakers and dear friend, Rachel Sheerin, has said, “I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m definitely someone’s shot of tequila.”

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?

I’ve been helped by more people than I can count or remember, but I will highlight one person here: my UNC colleague Mabel Miguel. Mabel is also an organizational psychology professor in my area and she is a master speaker. When I first arrived at UNC, Mabel invited me to lunch. We had never met before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When she arrived at lunch she told me that her teenage daughter insisted on taking her drivers’ license test that day. Not wanting to cancel on me, Mabel dropped her daughter at the testing center to wait in the long line and told her to call when she got near the front of the line. Mabel and I started our lunch and we were having a great time. The phone rang and she bolted from the table, driving to the DMV to sign some paperwork for her daughter. She then drove back to lunch, where she picked right back up where she left off, mid-sentence. This process repeated 2–3 more times during the course of a marathon lunch — me, sitting and waiting, and Mabel, sprinting back and forth between the restaurant and the DMV. That was 16 years ago and we’ve been dear friends ever since.

When I put myself in her position, I realize what a generous act that entire first meeting was. First, she took the initiative to welcome a new colleague, not just with a welcome email but with an investment of her time. Second, she made me a priority on a day when most others (including myself) would have simply rescheduled. As I tell this story, I’m making a mental note that I need to do better paying this gift forward!

Because we became friends, though, it gave me an opportunity to watch and learn from her as a speaker. She has a very conversational, casual style, but always commands a room. From Mabel I learned that you can be both the expert in the room, and still one of the gals (or guys). By the end of my talk, I want my audiences to feel like I am just their very knowledgeable bestie. The two best compliments I receive after talks are a) you could be a stand-up comedian, and b) I want to be your friend. Both of those reactions stem from a style that I’ve cultivated in part by watching Mabel for over 15 years!

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?

I have two pieces of advice. First, as the hockey legend Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Unfortunately, the science suggests that women are less likely to take the shot if they are not 100% sure they will score. In general, women have a greater fear of failure than men in the workplace and this holds them back from pursuing their dreams.

As a champion for women’s advancement, I find this concerning. Failure isn’t fun. Worse than failure, though, is constant success. Decades of research prove that ambitious goals drive better performance. But ambitious goals, by definition, should be just a little out of reach. If you’re consistently crushing your goals, you’re just not aiming high enough. Not being an immediate success on stage doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it just means you’ve set sufficient stretch goals, and in the long run you will achieve more success for it. If the prospect of being a speaker appeals to you, ask yourself “Do I want it enough to commit to being great at it?” If so, follow Gretzky’s advice and take the shot.

My second piece of advice is to pivot. Very few speakers go from not speaking at all to speaking full time overnight. Most pivot — they keep one foot in their old world and pivot their second foot to a new endeavor. If you are working in industry and you want to speak more there are lots of opportunities once you start making it known you want to speak. My husband is in finance and he speaks at conferences all the time — he enjoys it, he’s good at it, and the people who see him at conferences then extend invitations for him to speak at their events. He doesn’t want to be a professional speaker, but if he did he has already built the network for it. Start by speaking at your organization’s annual meeting or retreat. Then, reach out to your regional and national industry conferences and get to know the organizers. Offer to put a panel of experts together — less daunting than commanding the stage by yourself. Eventually you can put together your own talk and give it a few times at different events until you perfect it. And, voila, you’re a speaker!

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?

I help people understand other people. My field, psychology, is the science of human thought and behavior, and I am fascinated by all of it. I never tire talking about the predictabilities of human beings, and people never tire of learning about people.

I speak on a wide range of topics, but if I had to sum up the key message of all of my work it is this: People aren’t crazy, you just don’t get them. If you understand people (including yourself) better, then you are equipped to choose the right strategy or tactic to achieve success. Whatever your problem, understanding the psychology of the people involved is the first step in solving it.

More specifically, my expertise is in negotiation, power, and influence. I get up every day motivated to make people more effective advocates and relationship-builders, both for themselves and their organizations. These skills are applicable to everyone regardless of title or industry, and I am energized by the wide variety of audiences I serve. I speak to senior military leaders and ethics professionals on the psychology of power and how power can turn good people into bad leaders. I speak to women leaders on the unique influence challenges they face. And I speak to all leaders about how to use negotiation skills to achieve their goals in both informal and formal negotiations. I find the variety of organizations and individuals I get to work with very inspiring.

Can you share with our readers a few of your most important tips about how to be an effective and empowering speaker? Can you please share some examples or stories?

Speaking takes practice. A lot of practice. Good speakers make it look easy, but speakers are like ducks — calm on the surface, working like crazy behind the scenes. When I first started teaching as a new professor, I scripted out every word I was going to say in class and memorized it. Every single word. It took me 8–12 hours to prepare for a one-hour class, plus all the time reciting my script at night and in the morning. I taught a 30-course class over a 15-week semester — I was exhausted by the end. It took me about ten years until I stopped preparing that way. Now, a lot of that early work is committed to memory and I’m experienced enough that I can ad lib and go where the audience takes me, but it wasn’t that way for a very long time.

Even worse, none of that preparation yielded a perfect talk or perfect class the first time around. All of them went through many iterations to get it right. My advice is to start speaking on one thing and keep evolving it until you love it and you can give the talk in your sleep. Sadly, at this point you will likely get bored of it and start preparing the next talk!

As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?

I get this, more than people know. I’m introverted, and I have a lot of public speaking anxiety. People who meet me now wouldn’t guess either of those things because I have decades of daily practice. In addition to practicing a lot, my best advice is to get the audience speaking as soon as possible. Even now, I always have butterflies when I step in front of an audience, but they disappear as soon as someone from the audience makes a comment or asks a question. At that point, I’m no longer “speaking,” I’m just having a conversation. I now structure my presentations to invite audience participation as soon as possible.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

To be clear, this is a “Do as I say, not as I do” list. I’m going on 20 years of speaking in front of large audiences and I still make these mistakes!

  1. You will never run out of material. When I started, my biggest fear was that I would run out of things to say with 30 minutes left and we would all stare at each other in awkward silence. That’s never happened. Not even once. Instead, that fear drives me to pack my talks too full of information and I find myself rushing through 20 points in the last five minutes. Every talk I give I strip material out from the prior version, and I still have more material than time.
  2. No one knows what you were supposed to say but you. Related to my first point, there’s no need to break a sweat rushing through 20 points in 5 minutes because you are the only one that even knows you wanted to make those 20 points. Cut out 19 points and make one final point really well. The audience only sees the talk you give, not the talk you planned to give. Don’t spend time ruminating over deviations from the plan, just adjust and smile!
  3. Know when your shoes expire. For every pair of shoes you own, you should know exactly how long you can stand in them before your feet revolt. I have 8-hour shoes, 4-hour shoes…all the way down to “only from my car to the nearest seat” shoes. Nothing ruins a good presentation like hobbling off the stage. And I’ve had to walk barefoot through the airport after making a poor shoe choice during a talk. Speaking is not glamorous work.
  4. Model yourself after someone who has your style. Or perhaps better said, don’t model yourself after someone who doesn’t have your style. There are a lot of great speakers and a lot of different speaking styles. It’s really helpful to learn from other speakers, but you need to pick mentors you respect who also have style elements that fit you. If you model the wrong style, it looks as if you’re wearing someone else’s clothes. To model the right people, though, you first need to be self-aware about your own style. I’m humorous, personal, self-deprecating, and irreverent, but also academic and data-driven. Once I understood my style, it made it easier to learn from other speakers.
  5. Not everybody loves your art. Being a speaker leaves you feeling very exposed and vulnerable, and subject to more feedback than any one person deserves. Most of that feedback is positive, but some of it is not. If I got 99 positive comments and one negative comment, I would ruminate on the negative comment for days. It can demoralize you if you let it. But once I was getting a massage on vacation and it was one of the best massages I ever had. At the end I told the masseuse how much I enjoyed the massage and then said, “you probably get compliments all the time.” She said, “Usually yes, but at the end of the day massage is an art, and not everybody loves your art.” That resonated with me and my own work. Speaking is an art, and not everyone loves your art. This helps me learn from the more critical feedback, get better, and move on.

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?

One positive outcome of Covid-19 and the resulting work from home orders is that it has forced both audiences and speakers to embrace and innovate virtual events. I have almost a decade of experience in presenting virtually, but until now there has been a universal resistance to virtual learning. And, most presenters weren’t very savvy with virtual production. I see all of that changing quickly now.

One advantage of virtual is the ability to blend pre-produced content with live content. This allows audiences to learn on their own time, and save live events for more interactive, immersive experiences. I’m working with an instructional design firm to produce asynchronous modules for negotiation, power, and influence trainings. This content will augment my live events to give organizations more flexibility to provide their leaders with high quality content, and allow them to learn on their own time. I’m on track to launch my first modules by the end of 2020.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

Does wine count as a self-care routine? If so, that’s my answer.

Beyond that, water, exercise, and sleep. I highly recommend everyone read “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. The science of sleep is fascinating, and the book will convince you to make eight hours of sleep a priority. The overachiever’s belief that one can survive on 4–6 hours of sleep is false, as Professor Walker convincingly proves. This is the most habit-changing book I’ve ever read.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Football legend Lou Holtz said, “Never tell your problems to anyone…20% don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.”

I heard this quote from a dear friend and mentor, Army Lt. General (Ret.) Jim Campbell and it has always stuck with me.

I am a glass half empty person and I often lead with the negative as a result. This quote has helped me to refocus on bringing positive energy and stories to myself and others. Now, when someone asks me, “How are you doing?” I try not to rattle off a string of meaningless complaints. Instead, I try to offer something positive that I am grateful for in response.

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?

Women supporting other women! We could use more of that in the world. Imagine if the old boys’ club had a sister school, open to women of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

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!

Other than Michael Jordan? I’d love to sit down with Oprah and talk about all things related to women’s empowerment and advancement. I’m working on a book proposal about the science of how women build brand, and there’s no better master of that than Oprah! My schedule is pretty full, but just have her call me and I’ll move some things around for her. Thanks!

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

Thanks to Covid-19, yes I am! I had no social media presence until then, but I used some of my work from home time to start sharing content on LinkedIn. I now post regularly on topics related to my research and speaking — Negotiation, Power, and Influence, and Women’s Leadership — as well as my random observations about life, parenting, and human behavior. Follow or connect with me there. And watch out for a newsletter launching in 2021. I’ll announce that on LinkedIn when it goes live!

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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