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Updated: May 4, 2023

'Throw out your script' and other takeaways from the Mainebiz Women's Leadership Forum

women on stage at event Photo / Alexis Wells Communication was the topic of the day at the Mainebiz Women's Leadership Forum on Wednesday in Portland.

Early in her career as chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Leigh Saufley implored state lawmakers for funding to turn dilapidated courthouses into safe, respectful places.

When nothing happened, she started a program to bring legislators to courthouses in their regions so they could see the poor conditions of the buildings with their own eyes, and they responded immediately.

Reflecting on that experience years later now as dean of the University of Maine School of Law, Saufley told a Mainebiz forum in Portland that she likes to think of the human brain as having scaffolding.

“I misunderstood the scaffolding in which I was trying to put information,” she said of her initial ask of legislators. The experience taught her a valuable lesson about knowing one’s audience: “If you’re not where they are, it’s not useful.”

Saufley was joined at the Mainebiz Women’s Leadership Forum on Wednesday by three other panelists in a 90-minute discussion moderated by Quincy Hentzel, president and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

The other panelists were: Meredith Strang Burgess, president and CEO of Burgess Advertising & Marketing in Falmouth; Carolyn Nishon, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra; and Laura Shen, chief diversity and inclusion officer at WEX Inc., a global financial technology provider based in Portland.

With honesty, humility and at times even humor, panelists offered a masterclass in business leadership and success to around 250 attendees.

Connecting with audiences  

Asked about communicating to different audiences, Saufley noted that the audiences for Maine Law are similar to those for the court system itself with some exceptions.

Law students, she noted, are energetic, committed, hopeful and “will challenge everything,” while faculty members are similar to judges in terms of having expertise they want to share.

As someone who speaks to large and small groups and the public at large, Saufley said it’s important to consider the listener’s perspective and needs when communicating. 

At the Portland Symphony, Nishon noted that she realized that musicians are juggling multiple jobs and responsibilities and, as a result, their attention is divided.

Keeping that in mind when giving a detailed financial presentation where she saw “eyes rolling to the back of their heads,” she switched tack on the spot because of the importance of “knowing your audience and knowing where they’re coming from.”

Sharing experiences from other industries, WEX's Shen said she speaks to audiences of employees, customers and shareholders, while Burgess said her work entails finding the right audience for clients’ products and services.

“It really keeps you on your toes,” Burgess said.

Effective public speaking 

Offering tips on public speaking, Saufley recommended preparation, practice and perspective, while Nishon cautioned against sounding too scripted or robotic.

“Throw out your script and be ready to look people in the eye,” Nishon said.

Shen suggested pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, as she learned to do in an acting class, saying, “It is something you have to intentionally work on.”

Burgess pointed to the impact of personal stories: "That’s what sticks with people," she said.

Strategies & tactics    

Asked about communication strategies and tactics, Nishon said she’s “always thinking about where I’m coming from,” and what message she needs to get across. She also suggested getting any difficult subject out of the way first. 

Burgess suggested starting any public talk by telling the audience what you’re going to talk about and then at the end, tell them what you just told them.

"It’s kind of a fun exercise to test yourself that you actually told them something,” she said. 

Shen said she prepares for any meeting by thinking in terms of the situation, the complication and the results, as well as the next steps. 

Later in response to an audience question about finding mentors, some panelists recommended simply reaching out to people  for coffee and highlighted the value of informal mentorships.

Along those same lines, Shen talked about curating a network of friends and mentors for a personal board of directors "so you can have that dynamic feedback session."

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