Learn from the world's greatest female public speakers

From Oprah to Malala Yousafzai, Rihanna to Michelle Obama, what can we learn from the world’s best female speakers?

Table of Contents

Inspiring Female Speakers

Introduction

This is one part of a two-part series on great public speaking role models. This part focuses on female speakers. If you’re looking for great male public speakers, head on over here.

Writers of dialogue always listen to how people speak.

It’s the same with speaking. A good way to improve your own speech writing and delivery is to listen to experienced speakers.

Put another way, to be the best verbal communicator you can be, you must study the world’s best speakers.

The more you listen to experienced speakers, the more you will absorb their techniques into your own talks.

You can learn a lot by paying close attention to how they construct their talk and to the pace at which they deliver it.

Everywhere from YouTube to TED.com, the world’s best speakers are just a few clicks away.

If you need to speak before an audience regularly — or, indeed, if public speaking is something you would like to practise — you should make a recurring calendar appointment with yourself to dip into a selection of talks on YouTube or TED.

Here are some exceptional female speakers who can inspire you in any communication or public speaking setting.

Oprah Winfrey

Great female public speaker Oprah Winfrey

Here, we take a look at Oprah Winfrey’s techniques and break down a series of tips and tactics straight out of the Oprah communications manual.

The American TV host — and, who knows, possible future United States President! — is one of the most influential people in the world, and her communication style has earned her the love of millions worldwide.

Oprah routinely shares great advice on becoming a great executive communicator.

So let’s see what she can teach us about effective communication.

1. It’s a conversation

 

Oprah never lectures.

Instead, she converses with her audience. If you listen to Oprah’s show, you feel as though you are talking to her one-on-one.

When presenting, this is the feeling you want to give your audience—to make each audience member feel as though you are talking to him or her individually.

When creating your speeches and presentations, forget the big fancy words and the complicated terminology.

Read over the script and make sure it sounds conversational.

Ask yourself simply: Is this how I would talk to a friend?

After all, a speech/presentation is simply a conversation you are having with many people.

2. Open with a big promise

 

Oprah always opens her show with a Big Promise.

She provides her audience members with a roadmap (an outline) of all the exciting things that will happen during the show.

Here’s just one example:

Today on Oprah, Dr. Phil will show you five easy steps to reigniting the romance in your relationships.

After that, Suze Orman will show you how to eliminate all your credit card debt.

Putting the heat on romance and getting debt free??? Now there’s a big promise to start any performance. And every talk or presentation or speech you deliver, whether from a conference stage to 1000 delegates, or to your team in a cramped meeting room, is a performance.

If it’s applicable in your scenario, always provide your audience with a quick outline of the value they are going to get out of your speech.

3. Share personal stories

 

Oprah shares plenty of personal stories about her successes and struggles.

These personal stories create rapport with the audience.

Personal stories are interesting to listen to, and they’re also memorable.

When creating your speeches and presentation, reach into your reserves and try to find the personal stories you can use to back up your core message.

They add credibility to your message and make your speech interesting.

The outcome of getting personal is that you will subtly demonstrate to your audience that you’re just like them.

No matter what our station in life, all of us want that reassurance.

By sharing personal stories, Oprah shows her viewers she was just like them.

Even though she’s a billionaire, her authentic personal stories about her struggle with weight-loss made her seem like “one of us”.

It gave her massive credibility, which in turn gave her the ability to connect on a deep emotional level with her viewers.

If you want to inspire people with your message, if you want your audience to connect with you, you need to make them feel that you’re just like them.

Share your successes, by all means.

But make sure you don’t forget to also share your struggles.

4. Show them you care about them

 

Once you’ve established that you are just like your audience, the next step is to prove to them that you really care.

That you care about their problems, struggles and challenges.

Oprah made her viewers feel that she cared about them.

She did this by empathizing with their struggles and letting them know that she was facing those very same struggles.

When giving your speech, let your audience know that you care about them, then tell them why.

Have you faced a similar situation in the past?

If so, let them know!

And don’t sugarcoat it. If you can remember what it was like, dive into those memories. That will build rapport and relationships.

5. Stand for something bigger than yourself

 

Your speech can’t be all about you. It has to stand for something bigger than yourself.

Oprah’s show stood for:

“Live Your Best Life”.

What do you stand for?

Do you have a purpose that drives you forward?

What value will your speech provide your audience?

It really pays to think about these questions before any speech, talk or presentation—and the truth is this applies equally to personal and business communications.

6. Make it emotional

 

Oprah’s stories of struggles and successes were full of emotion.

Why is it important to invest your communications with emotion?

Because emotion is the fuel that drives action.

If you want your audience to take action, then you need to use emotional stories that will touch them and inspire them.

7. End with enthusiasm

 

End on a high note.

Make sure that when your audience leaves the room, they leave feeling excited and hopeful.

Craft the ending of your speech or presentation so that your audience leaves feeling hopeful about the future.

No matter whether your company is aiming for $100 million revenue, you’re aiming to build a successful team and culture, or you’re trying to help colleagues with a healthier work-life balance.

Whatever your goals, ending your presentation on a high note will carry you and your team or audience forward towards that future.

Fail to do this, and all the wind might be out of the sails before you even leave the room.

Here’s one of Oprah’s best performances, her Golden Globes Speech in 2018.

Abby Wambach

Great Female Public Speaker Abby Wambach

Mary Abigail Wambach is an American retired soccer player, coach, and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

A six-time winner of the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award. She retired from soccer and began a new direction to her life.

She wrote the highly acclaimed Wolfpack, a leadership book based on her own experience. She’s married to Glennon Doyle where they co-host a hugely successful pod cast WCDHR (We Can Do Hard Things).

One of the things we most admire about Abby Wambach is that she’s not the “polished” keynote speaker we seem to have grown to expect, but that doesn’t get in the way for her ability to move and inspire her audience.

You don’t need to be perfect to be a great communicator, you just need to believe your message and connect in an honest way and speak from the heart and she does that powerfully.

There is a blend of courage and vulnerability when she communicates with her listener.

Have a listen!

Michelle Obama

One of the best talks by Michelle Obama was her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

She highlighted the importance of the United States coming together as a country and working towards a common goal. She also discussed the importance of having a leader who embodies the values of empathy, compassion, and integrity.

But it wasn’t just what she said, but how she said it. Watch her body language and presentation style below, and see what you can learn.

Brené Brown

Brene Brown is an Internet phenomenon.

Her speeches have been viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube, TED and elsewhere online.

She is a researcher of shame, vulnerability, courage and empathy.

Her TED talk—”The Power of Vulnerability”—is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world with tens of million of views.

She is also the author of three #1 New York Times bestsellers.

But the real reason I bring Brene Brown up here is because she is a stunningly powerful presenter.

Her confidence on stage is a sight to behold. Here we analyse why.

1. Wholeheartedness

 

Brene Brown’s confidence is based on wholehearted living and wholehearted presenting.

What is wholehearted living?

It roughly translates to:

By accepting vulnerability in our lives we can live more meaningful, more connected, more successful lives.

Her research is based on following 10 guideposts for vulnerability which she urges us to practice daily.

But does she practice these guideposts when she speaks to her audiences?

In short, is Brene Brown a wholehearted presenter?

Hell, yes!

And you can learn so much from her if you want to connect in an authentic way with your audience.

Let’s discuss a number of her 10 guideposts in the context of her presentation approach, so that you too can bring Brene Brown’s confidence into your own presentations.

Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity (Letting go of what people think)

 

“To be willing to let go of who you think you should be, to be able to connect” — Brene Brown


Brown communicates with her audience as if she’s having a chat over coffee.

She talks in an authentic, conversational easy way.

She has the courage to be herself (in true Texan fashion), to “show up authentically”, no pretense, no facade.

To adopt Brene Brown’s confidence and become a more powerful, impactful, confident presenter, we need to let go of what others might think of us—our colleagues or managers.

You need to have the courage to show up for your presentation as your true self, not trying to be something you are not—this honesty connects powerfully with any audience.

Guideposts 2 & 3: Cultivating Self-Compassion (Letting go of perfectionism), and Cultivating A Resilient Spirit (Letting go of numbing and powerlessness)

 

Brown’s TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability”, was originally going to be named something like “Variables Mitigating Self Actualising”.

Which begs the question: why the change?

Well, how often do we intellectualise our language? Speaking in conceptual language stifles audiences.

Why do we do it?

In truth, we do it to protect ourselves, to appear like we are worthy and perfect. We put “armour” on — complex language, or a data dump on a PowerPoint slide — to protect ourselves from being vulnerable.

When we strip the humanity from our presentations, it numbs and stifles presenter and audience alike.

By allowing self-compassion (as Brene does in her talks) we allow ourselves the permission to be imperfect in our presenting.

This allows us to show vulnerability, to show emotion when we speak, whether that’s fear, anger or asking for help if we need it.

By allowing this self-compassion, a presenter becomes more resilient as a result. And ultimately creates a more honest, authentic, stronger relationship with the audience.

Guideposts 4 & 5: Cultivating Gratitude and Joy (Letting go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark), and Cultivating Meaningful Work (Letting go of Self-Doubt)

 

Brown refers to scarcity as a mindset of “never enough, never perfect enough, never relevant enough…”

Many presenters live in constant scarcity, or what some people might recognise as “imposter syndrome”.

Brown admits to working daily to overcome her scarcity self-talk and to conquer her “imposter syndrome”.

Moving from “I am not worthy” to I am worthy and enough. In the context of becoming a confident presenter, we need to let go of our scarcity self-talk.

This is a huge factor to overcoming fear/lack of confidence when presenting.

Guidepost 6: Cultivating Creativity

One of the most striking things about Brown is the skill with which she weaves years of research with her personal, vulnerable, honest stories—both funny and painful.

I just love the quote:

Stories are just data with a soul

The vulnerability in her stories, metaphors and analogies resonate very strongly with her audience.

Stories help audiences to remember important points and they also build that important empathy with listeners.

In order to connect with audiences, there needs to be a balance of Evidence-Based-Content (Head content) mixed with emotive content (Heart content). Brown achieves this balance perfectly. This results in a fully engaged audience when presenting.

Throwing data coldly at audiences will numb them, and yet we see this all the time.

So I strongly encourage you, on your journey to becoming a confident presenter, to close your laptop, get a pen and paper out or go for a walk.

Get creative, brave, and playful with your presentation content.

Guidepost 8: Cultivating Calm and Stillness (Letting go of anxiety)

This one is, I believe, absolutely essential to becoming a confident presenter.
Listen to Brene Brown speak (I’ve included the videos at the bottom).

There is no rush, no anxiety, no sense of urgency. She pauses, to think and reflect.
Now this is confident presenting.

She’s not distracted with whatever content is coming next. She’s not worried about “getting through” her content. She remains present with what she is speaking about.

Of course she has researched and prepared her talk.

But she is also a big believer in the power of meditation and the importance of breathing, and we experience this as she speaks.

Working to understand the role breath plays is vital to help connect with both our content and our audience.

Guidepost 10: Cultivating laughter, play, intuition and trust (Letting go being cool and being in control)

Brown has fun in her presentations, and as a result the audience has fun.

She laughs at her stories, she laughs at herself!

Whilst her content is grounded in strong evidence, she allows herself not to take herself too seriously.

She doesn’t rely heavily on a script or slides, and she reacts to her audience’s reactions throughout.

She “lets go of total control and certainty” – not totally but just enough!
Conclusion: How to Gain Confidence from Wholehearted Presenting
Implementing all of this in your own talks, speeches and presentations is easier said than done, of course, but as we’ve seen from Brown, weaving personal stories through your talks certainly makes it easier.

To reach the level of confidence embodied by Brene Brown requires preparation, practice and BRAVERY, but when achieved it will totally captivate an audience.

All 10 of Brene Brown’s guideposts encourage us to show vulnerability in some way.

As a presenter in a corporate context, this requires immense bravery.

This bravery will ultimately give you a deep sense of connection with both your message and with your audience.

I strongly encourage you to explore wholehearted presenting if you want to become a confident presenter.

It really does work.

Watch Brene Brown’s confidence at first hand in her two most lauded TED talks below – “The Power of Vulnerability”, and “Listening to Shame”.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai delivered a power speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2014.

In this talk, she discussed the importance of education for girls and the need to support and empower young women around the world. She also spoke about the power of young people to bring about positive change in the world.

Showing both great humility and plenty of humour, Malala gains ovation after ovation by standing at a lectern and bravely speaking her truth.

Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet delivered a powerful speech on taking up her new role at the United Nations General Assembly in 2018. 

She discussed the importance of human rights, gender equality and the need for global cooperation to address challenges such as climate change and conflict.

Despite sitting down at a UN assembly, she was able to inject powerful feeling into her address.

Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan is a renowned author, entrepreneur, and keynote speaker specializing in leadership and organizational culture. With a background in the media industry, she has held executive positions in tech companies and authored influential books like “Willful Blindness.” Heffernan’s insightful ideas on teamwork and innovation have made her a sought-after speaker globally. Her work inspires leaders to prioritize collaboration and create thriving work cultures.

Why I admire her as a communicator?

She brings a presence of credibility and groundedness to her communication.

She weaves story and analogy through all her communications – this helps us relate and remember – but never loses sight of the core of her message. By the end the audience usually has a memory and a fact to connect with and remember.

There is something about er story or the message being far more important that she herselfh . It’s like her message takes centre stage as opposed to herself taking centre stage – there is something so powerful in that.

Her stories (and the characters that lie within) are not just nice little add-ins to pepper her message – they form the heart of it. Her delivery is calm, clear and honest.

Her messages are grounded in research and evidence but shared through story – this gives her the credibility and the connection needed to be a powerful speaker.

She’s brave in her content and talks about the topics often glossed over or sugar coated in corporate life.

All 3 of these clips show:

  1. Bad ass topics
  2. Brave stories and characters
  3. Bold statements

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel may not have won many prizes for warm charisma, but she was still a powerful leader across Europe, and one of her best talks was a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019.

The video is dubbed in English, but that shouldn’t stop you noting her posture and body language as she delivers her message.

Christine Lagarde

Who is Christine Lagarde?

Christine Lagarde has spent her entire career breaking stereotypes in banking. She’s also a cool customer when it comes to communicating!

She was the first woman to serve as France’s finance minister, as managing director of the International Monetary Fund and now as president of the European Central Bank.

In her current role, she has been faced with stabilizing the Eurozone banking system during the pandemic, a role which requires calm but clear and direct communication.

She has become one of Europe’s most influential ambassadors in the world of international finance.

What can you learn from Christine Lagarde as a communicator?

A former colleague said of Lagarde:

“She knows how to impose calm without posing as morally superior.”

Instead, she displays “a touch of humanity.” She communicates with such calmness and poise. You can always sense a warmth when she communicates, whether that’s a keynote, 1-2-1 interviews or as she walks down the street speaking to the Press.

She’s carries herself with poise, great physical presence (and oh SO chic!), just observe how she sits, how she walks, how she holds herself – this alone exudes confidence and composure as a speaker.

Despite the complexity of her subject matter, she speaks with clarity and has the ability to distill complex information and make it understandable and digestible for her audiences.

This clarity comes from an ethos of prioritizing preparation, and she clearly works at crafting clear, compelling messaging.

She’s known for her straight talking – which is what is needed as she navigates the web of complexity within her role.

Whilst she’s not without controversy, she is also willing to raise her hand when she doesn’t know something or has made a mistake. I believe this helps her connect with her audience.

You just know beneath the complexity of her role and what she communicates there is a wry smile, and I’d like to think that once the day is over she kicks back with a glass of red!

Lagarde is a champion for gender inclusion and notes that although she has faced sexism throughout her career, she is breaking down barriers for future female leaders.

Have a listen:

Julia Gillard

Who is Julia Gillard?

Julia Gillard is an Australian politician who served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013 and made history as the first woman to hold the position.

What can you learn from Julia Gillard as a communicator?

Yes controversial, yes divisive, but that’s the nature of politics!

She had a tumultuous three years in power without doubt but as a communicator she certainly deserves respect for not just her infamous speech in parliament on Misogyny (2012) but also as a communicator/public speaker in general.

If you haven’t had the chance to hear this speech – have a listen, you’re in for a compelling time!

(Background to this speech before watching: Want to see a dinosaur torn apart? Then you’re in the right place! Frustrated at the antics of the leader of the opposition at the time, Tony Abbott, Prime Minister at the time, Gillard decided that enough was enough for all that sexism and misogyny, and stood up in Parliament to tear Abbott “a new one”!)

One of the most cutting, no holds barred, blistering attacks by one politician on another you’ll ever see, and delivered with perfect poise and control.

Rihanna

Who is Rihanna?

With all the belting tunes, the glitz, the glam, the pouting and the twerking, you’d be forgiven for not really tuning into “spoken Rihanna”.

Well we’re here to tell you she’s someone we could learn a little from as a great communicator.

What can you learn about communicating from Rihanna?

When she takes the “sex pot” mask off – she’s such a captivating communicator.

Faced with constant questions (often frustratingly intrusive), she’s assertive when called for, yet keeps calm, in control and respectful at all times when others would not.

She’s selective with her words and creates a great sound bite!

You get a true sense of the person she really is – no pretense, no mask.

She speaks with credibility and knowledge, yet keeps it real.

This is a powerful speech she made at Harvard, where she used the platform to speak about the charity work she’s involved with, and offer a message to all listening about the importance of giving.

She connects in a powerful way with her audiences through speaking from the heart and connecting emotionally with her message.

We like that she hasn’t altered her accent and really speaks her truth. What you see is what you get, fully true to herself.

She can be “bad-ass” and takes risks when speaking. She’s not afraid to say the things that need to be said, and there is something very admirable about that in a public speaker.

She doesn’t take herself too seriously either – when called for!

Key tip: Keep it short, keep it sweet … and keep a whole lot of attitude!

Rihanna, please continue to “shine bright like a diamond”!

Tara Mohr

Who is Tara Mohr?

Tara Mohr is an influential author, speaker, and leadership expert dedicated to empowering women to overcome self-doubt and unlock their full potential. Through her book, “Playing Big”, she has inspired countless individuals to make a meaningful impact in their lives. Mohr’s work continues to support women in navigating challenges and creating lives of purpose and fulfillment.

Oh, I have long been a fan of the work of Tara Mohr and love her writing and philosophy around confidence and “playing big”. She is the founder of a global leadership programme for women, and has spent her career teaching women to find their voice and their confidence. I just so happen to also really like her communication style and approach.

What can you learn about Tara Mohr as a communicator?

Listen out for the clarity of her delivery. She has this wonderful aura and calmness and composure, which comes from the ability to embrace pausing, and not being afraid of the silence.

She has wonderful pacing. No rush, but also not monotonous.

She demonstrates honesty and vulnerability as she shares personal experiences and stories with her listeners. This really helps the listener relate and connect with her in a meaningful way.

Also, her content is backed up with clear evidence to give her that credibility.

This shows the importance of blending credibility/research with emotional content. We need both to instill confidence in any audience.

She illustrates to me that you don’t have to put on “a performance” when speaking to a large audience.

Being you is good enough. Especially when you have a clear and engaging message, tailored for your audience and fully rehearsed, so you feel comfortable and at ease on your stage.

This is down to physical preparation, which includes tension release exercises, breathing exercises and a focus on being physically grounded.

This physical preparation also helps her become very present when speaking. We see/hear this often in her communication.

Jo Malone

Who is Jo Malone?

Jo Malone is a British perfumer and entrepreneur known for her exceptional talent in creating luxurious fragrances.

Her strengths lie in her creative innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, which she showcased through her eponymous brand “Jo Malone” and later with “Jo Loves.”

Her ability to blend unique scents and her keen business acumen have made her a prominent figure in the fragrance industry.

Beyond her entrepreneurial endeavors, Jo Malone is also a captivating speaker. Her speeches are known to inspire and motivate audiences, as she shares her personal journey, entrepreneurial insights, and the power of following one’s passion.

Whether discussing the art of scent creation or sharing her experiences in building successful brands, Jo Malone’s speeches leave a lasting impact, igniting creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in her listeners.

What can you learn from Jo Malone as a communicator?

First, she’s so goddamn honest! She’s so open about her life – the successes and failures.

She exudes warmth and energy when she speaks, like she’s happy to be on that stage! Whether she is or not!

She shares wonderful stories and connects in such an emotional way with her audiences.

She makes no apologies for what she believes in – so she speaks with an integrity which I admire.

There is no waffle or padding when she speaks.  

There is a clarity and a focus to her message  – a paired down simplicity which I really admire.  This comes from great preparation and rehearsal.   

In our work at Confident Speak, we have experienced people wishing to alter their accents to sound a certain way which they perceive as professional/polished particularly at a senior level.  

But listen to how Jo Malone “owns” her accent.

This short clip as Jo speaks about her life and origins in business gives a great sense of her communication style.

And here Jo talks about growing a business by tapping into your determination.