Words to Live By
It took just nine words to change Angela Lussier’s life: “you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.” That’s good advice for entrepreneurs of all kinds, but it was especially relevant for a shy, self-conscious, but creative and ambitious woman who decided her path to leadership was learning to overcome her fear of public speaking. Today, through the Speaker Sisterhood, she’s helping women around the world do the same — and, in the process, discover who they really are and what they were meant to do.
Angela Lussier has a surprising entrepreneurial bent — surprising to herself, that is.
It began at UMass, where she studied a VHS tape to learn how to cut her boyfriend’s hair. “My neighbor walked by and said, ‘can I have a haircut too?’ I said, ‘why not?’ Then his roommate walked in and said, ‘can I have a haircut?’ I said, ‘sure.’ Soon a whole bunch of guys on the floor wanted haircuts.”
Soon, she was setting up shop in a back room and charging for haircuts, which she did until the dorm shut her down. It wasn’t until later that she realized she had been an entrepreneur, if only for a short time.
It never occurred to me that it was a business,” she said. “I just wanted to make some money to put gas in the car and buy clothes.”
Lussier tells the story to demonstrate how opportunities cross our paths all the time, and sometimes what seems to be the least likely possibility can become a successful business.
Which explains why someone who was terrified of speaking now runs a business teaching women how to find their voice.
It’s called the Speaker Sisterhood, and it helps women become more effective public speakers. But it’s much more than that, she said. “It creates a safe space for women trying to find out who they are and what they’re meant to do.”
It’s a winding story that can be told only from the beginning, after college, when Lussier went to work in marketing for Rock 102 and Lazer 99.3, a job where her natural creativity was encouraged and rewarded. But she soon learned not every job was like that; an executive at her next employer, an executive recruiting firm, eventually told her, “we knew your creativity would be an issue when we hired you.”
So, in 2009, she started out on her own, initially as a career consultant, helping people figure out what jobs were the best matches for their skills and passions. Her grounding philosophy? “You have to work in a place that respects your talents and gifts and uniqueness.”
Lussier knows something about that, having had to overcome her own physical uniqueness. She stood six feet tall at age 12 and had to endure barbs like “ogre” and “jolly green giant” — experiences which led, she realized years later, to an intense shyness and anxiety about public speaking.
“At the recruiting firm, I realized that being shy was not a great attribute to have. Looking back to the radio station, the people who were the most respected, the most followed, were people who were excellent communicators, and even better public speakers. I had this fear of being seen, being made fun of, but I wanted to be a leader. So I signed up for Toastmasters.”
It didn’t go exactly as planned at first. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to tackle this fear of speaking because I want to be a leader.’ Six months later, I’d never said a word.” That’s when the club’s leader told her she was on the agenda for the next meeting, where she would deliver a four-minute speech about her job. “I said I wasn’t ready, but she said something that changed my life: ‘you’ll never be ready; you just have to start.’”
It wasn’t easy. In fact, she sat in her car outside that next meeting, petrified of going in, wondering if people would make fun of her or think she sounded stupid. But she took that first step, even though she read completely from notes, never looking up at the audience.
“The important thing was, I didn’t die,” Lussier said with a laugh. “So I continued to go back and give more speeches, and every time I gave a speech, not only did I not die, but I learned something about myself. I learned why I was so shy; I was able to connect it to my adolescent years, feeling so different, feeling like people didn’t understand my creativity, feeling like the black sheep in the family, like I didn’t relate to other people. Public speaking gave me not only a voice, but insight into who I am.”
That recognition would eventually form the basis of the Speaker Sisterhood, though the story would take a few more turns first.
Lussier’s first step was recognizing she needed public-speaking skills to advance her career-consulting business, so she developed a free workshop series on how to find a job in a tough economy (remember, this was right after the recession peaked), interviewing skills, self-marketing, résumé writing, and other topics.
She pitched the idea to area public libraries without success, until Forbes Library took her up on it, allowing her to stage two separate eight-week series, a daytime series for unemployed job seekers, and an evening series for people with jobs looking for a change. After that first booking, other libraries came on board.
But she still needed to write the material. And deliver it. And she was still far from fearless on that front.
“When the first workshop came around, I drove there thinking to myself, ‘who do I think I am? No one’s going to come to this. I’m not a business owner. I’m only 28 years old; why would anyone take career advice from me?’ I sat there in the library parking lot, and a voice told me, ‘maybe you should do this because you want to be a leader.’”
Not only was the workshop a success, but Lussier gained a paid booking through it, and people kept showing up at the free library events, leading to more exposure and more paid bookings, including, eventually, one for a local Fortune 500 company. She had no idea of her worth at that point — the firm seemed surprised when she came up with a fee of $200, and she realized later she should have charged 10 times that — but she started to recognize that speaking about careers, which originally was a way to boost her consulting business, had potential as a revenue stream in itself.
“That was a huge turning point for me,” she said. “I had become a professional speaker; I’d built this skill, and people like hearing me speak. I thought, ‘I’m actually a leader; I actually did this. I can’t believe it’s happening.’”
So, while she continued her career-coaching business, she started asking herself a few questions: “where have I been most successful? What do I enjoy doing? What do people always ask me about?”
She sat down one night in front of a fire, coffee at the ready, and filled a journal with the answers to those three questions. And the one common denominator to all three was public speaking, her former nemesis. “It was like a neon sign blinking from the highway. I thought, ‘why did I not see this until right now?’”
She had already enrolled in the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator program, but decided to switch gears midstream and morph into something different, to build an online school to teach women how to be professional speakers.
Angela Lussier addresses a Washington, D.C. audience at a TEDx event in 2010.
“We need more women on stages, more women getting paid what they’re worth, more women leading conferences,” Lussier told BusinessWest. “It took me a long time to see there should be a Toastmasters for women — a place where women can get together and share their voices and be honest and say the things they don’t get to say in the world.”
As an experiment, she co-hosted an open house for her first speaking club to see who would respond. About 10 women showed up, all strangers. At first.
“Each woman shared her story about fear of speaking up, being belitted at work, being told their opinions don’t matter, feeling like they don’t have any idea how to say what they’re thinking. Or, they’re working in a job now where they have to train people, and they’re terrified, but they don’t want to lose their job.”
Something happened that day that surprised Lussier.
“As we went around the circle, it was like each woman was giving the next woman permission to tell the truth. They came as strangers, but they left as sisters. I had never experienced that kind of transformation; I had chills for two hours. I knew this was not just a public-speaking club, but an opportunity for women to walk in the door and shed their role as wife, mother, boss — to show up as themselves and say what’s on their mind.”
She knew she had something special, and the e-mails that followed proved it — e-mails from women who didn’t attend the meeting, but knew someone who did, and wanted to join. So she built waiting lists and eventually launched clubs in Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley, training the women who would lead each one. Recently, a Greenfield club opened its doors, as well as a second club in Northampton.
But Lussier saw potential for the Speaker Sisterhood clubs well beyond Western Mass., creating a curriculum and licensing model to take the concept nationwide and even international. Lehigh, Pa. and Portland, Maine were the first club sites outside the Commonwealth, and a New Zealand club marked the first overseas expansion.
“You don’t have to be a public-speaking expert to start a club, but you do need to have leadership experience and meeting-facilitation experience, and a sincere interest in helping women build this skill set,” she said, reiterating what she considers the heart of the clubs’ popularity.
“Yes, we’re running speaking clubs that teach skills, but these clubs also use public speaking as a tool for self-discovery,” she went on. “What I say to members is, ‘this is your public-speaking journey, and the more you learn, the more you’ll find out how little you know.’”
And they are learning about themselves, she noted. One woman, who works in a healing field, signed up because she wanted to build her skills to teach workshops, and after a few months, she remarked that, when she spoke before a group, she felt like a floating head, disconnected from her body. What she came to realize was that she spent so much time talking to people one on one, in a spirit of empathy, that she started to take on the energy of each person she spoke with.
“She said, ‘I become them, so in front of a group of people, I have no idea who I am. That teaches me I’ve spent my whole life being other people, and now I have to discover who I am.’ To hear someone say that is transformative — not just for the speaker, but for the audience. We’re all learning from each other’s journeys.”
Those journeys vary, she said, from business owners who want to get better at promoting their services, to teachers who interact with kids all day, only to freeze up when they meet with parents. “One has experienced several tragic deaths over the past few years and felt she’s lost herself in grieving those deaths, and she wants to discover herself again.”
The curriculum takes the form of an ‘adventure guide,’ with chapter titles like “Adventures in Storytelling,” “Adventures in Humor,” “Adventures in Audience Interaction,” and so on.
“It was a thoughtful decision to call it an adventure because anything can happen. It’s not about perfection; it’s not about doing it right. The emphasis is not on trying to be a perfectionist, but enjoying the journey. It helps a lot to reframe public speaking that way.”
By prioritizing sharing experiences over perfection, she added, participants feel less alone as they realize so many others feel the same way they do. “And that helps them build confidence in themselves.”
The meetings include prepared speeches, but also a lot of improv games, which challenges club members to be present in the moment while stretching their creativity. She knows it’s a lot to ask from new members, many of whom are approaching the club from a place of anxiety.
“The first day, there’s a lot of fear. Their voices are trembling; they’re looking around the room, thinking, ‘do I belong here?’ Then they speak again at the end, and there’s a transformation over two hours. They go, ‘wow, I’ve never been able to speak like this. This is what I need.’ I feel like the biggest step you take on your public-speaking journey is the first step. Every single step after that gets easier. So I always applaud the guests for showing up. That’s not easy.”
By the Book
Amid her transformation into the leader she’d long wanted to be, Lussier has also shared her words with the world through her books. The first, The Anti-Résumé Revolution, was a direct result of that first eight-week workshop, inspired by one attendee asking her for her notes — which totaled 120 pages. So she combined them with her own story, interviewed others who had followed her advice, and self-published in 2009.
“The whole concept is not just waiting for opportunities to show up on a job board or the newspaper, but to go out and create your own future and taking action on your ideas,” she explained.
She managed to get the book into the hands of Seth Godin, one of her heroes and the author of Purple Cow, which drives home the importance of being different and standing out fron the crowd. He recommended Lussier’s book on his blog, broadening her visibility immensely.
“That changed my whole perspective on what’s possible,” she said. “I wrote a book in my basement which was now being shared with millions of readers, being taught in colleges, and being read by people all over the world. It helped me see that, even if you think what you’re doing is only for a small audience, you never know what could happen.”
Two more books followed. She published Who’s with Us? in 2015 — sporting the subtitle From Wondering to Knowing If You Should Start a Business in 21 Days. It was the result of talking to hundreds of people about their business ideas, and takes the form of 10 self-assessments potential entrepreneurs can use to gauge their next move. She recently followed that with Do + Make: The Handbook for Starting Your Very Own Business, which progresses beyond the assessment phase and dives into practical action.
Clearly, Lussier has found multiple outlets for her entrepreneurial bent and her passion for writing. But her heart lies mostly in the work she’s doing with women — not to give them a voice, but to help them discover their own.
“It’s the most amazing work I’ve ever done. I know I was born for this reason — to start the Speaker Sisterhood and build clubs around the world,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to help thousands, if not millions, of women discover who they are, and how amazing they are, so they can go out and do what they were put here to do. Ever since I was 5 years old, even when I was a teenager and felt like an outcast, I knew I would do something important someday.”
That’s the voice that echoed in her head the night she sat in her car, stricken with anxiety, ready to drive away and abandon her dream of becoming a better speaker.
However, “I thought, ‘I’m not going to do something important if I go home.’ And even when I started my business, that was just the road to the thing; it wasn’t the thing. Now, every meeting I go to, I can’t believe I get to do this; I can’t believe this woman is discovering things about herself because, years ago, I sat in a car and said, ‘you’re going to go in and give a speech.’ That blows my mind.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]