great speaking role models

Part 2: What we can learn from the world’s best female speakers

table of contents

Two Phenomenal Women

1. 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. To be the best, you must study the world’s best speakers.

Several years after the sad passing of Maeve Binchy, the much loved Irish author is still sorely missed.

Whether an ardent fan of Maeve’s literature or not, one simply cannot ignore her innate ability to weave a good yarn and to write great dialogue.

The latter is, I think, an essential skill in novel writing which is all too often overlooked and underrated.

In a blog post by Derbhile Dromey, Derbhile discusses Binchy’s ability to “capture the natural rhythms of people’s speech”.

She goes on to say:

Dialogue brings a story to life. Without it, books would just be big wodges of text … The best way to create dialogue is to listen to people speaking. You’ll naturally absorb their speech patterns into your writing.

In much the same way, a good way to improve your own speech writing and delivery is to listen to experienced 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.

TED talks are, of course, a great source of talks from which to draw.

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

Anyone who needs to speak publicly with any amount of regularity — or, indeed, if public speaking is something you would like to do more of — you should make a recurring calendar appointment with yourself to dip into a selection of TED talks.

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

What Would Oprah Do?

2. The Oprah Winfrey Communications Manual (in 7 Easy Steps)

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

Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes awards in 2018 was powerful and inspiring.

Let’s consider a few of the reasons why.

What vocal delivery techniques did she use to ensure her message was received loud and clear?

But as an executive coach who has specialised in voice, communications and executive presence since 2005, I was compelled to examine the importance of how she delivered her empowering message as much as the content of that message.

These are delivery techniques that you too can take into your speeches and presentations.

1. Authenticity

 

There is no question that Oprah delivered her message with authenticity and honesty in this speech.

Any audience will connect and engage with people who are truly themselves.

Yes, the subject matter she speaks about is emotive, but you really get the sense that she truly believes her message.

Once there is authenticity in your message, then strong vocal techniques will be easier to access.

When you deliver a business presentation, how authentic are you with your audience?

Do you drop into presenter mode? (Hint: So many people do.)

Ahead of your next presentation, consider these two questions carefully:

  • What do you feel about your message to the audience?
  • What do you want your audience to feel about your message?

Not what you want them to know and understand, but what you want them to FEEL.

Do you want them to feel excited, curious, frustrated, sad?

Whatever that feeling is, think about it carefully.

2. Timing

 

She makes great use of pause throughout her speech. The space between your words can be as powerful as the words themselves.

With such strong words she understands her audience needs this time to process her message, but pause is used to strong dramatic effect also.

We can implement pauses to gain different effects.

When we pause before a word or phrase, it creates the classic tension/release.

When we pause after, it gives the audience a moment for the information to sink in.

Listen to the full ten minutes and take note of Oprah’s use of pause.

Pause is essential to perfect timing. What do you need to introduce pause?

Mostly, bravery.

That silence can carry an element of uncertainty, even fear, and it requires bravery for any presenter to accept that silence.

But if we trust the pause, we will hold a listener’s attention.

There is no question about this. It’s so compelling.

3. Pace

 

When we use pauses, we can also vary the pace of our delivery.

The two usually go hand in hand.

Varying our pace and using the power of pause keeps the rhythm of our vocal delivery varied, and prevents the ear of your listener from falling asleep.

You can hear throughout this speech that she varies her pace of delivery for important statements.

At times, you’ll hear her slow right down to emphasise the importance of her words.

At others, you’ll hear her quicken the pace to create energy.

For your next presentation, accept the silence.

Try to use this useful “Tempo Technique” to engage your audience.

  1. Speed up the tempo before you make that important point
  2. Pause
  3. Then slow down to deliver it

It carries your listeners forward and then makes them wait.

Listen to 5.00-5.16 minutes in Oprah’s speech for a perfect example.

4. The consonants

 

This is where the voice geek in me comes out!

They don’t get much airtime, but consonants can really work for us when we speak and they are used well in Oprah’s speech.

They can grab our listeners’ attention and hold onto it. I believe they give speech emphasis and intent. People often think that they need to speak louder to make their messages stand out, but this is not the case.

By Oprah focusing on her consonants she really drives home her message throughout.

Any time you want to drive home a point, implant a thought, do it by giving more thought to the consonants in your words. They will make what you say more effective and dynamic.

Task:

Try this useful “Consonant Technique” to drive your message home.

Lengthen the consonants in the word or syllable you want to emphasise.

This creates the illusion of being louder by bringing everything to a halt while we wait for that word.

5. Power words

 

Not all words are created equally.

When we speak we do not pronounce each and every word and syllable with the same importance.

It is so evident in Oprah’s speech.

If you want your audience to listen and engage then you need to understand what power words look and sound like — and how to give these power words the full power!

Power words are the 1-3 words in each phase or sentence that absolutely reduce it down to its basic meaning.

They communicate the essence of what we are saying.

If they are to resonate with the audience, these words require more time.

They require greater emphasis.

They require more vocal importance.

Now, how does Oprah do this? And how do we do it?

  • First things first: like Oprah does, you need to be authentically communicating your message. To be really connected to and truly believe your message
  • Change of volume: Listen how Oprah either increases or decreases volume on specific power words
  • Pitch variation: She changes the pitch on certain power words to highlight and bring importance to them—she makes them stand out
  • Articulation: She will overly articulate certain consonants in the power words to bring the word out further—lest the audience forget!
  • Change of pace: She tends to speed up and then slows down on her power words/phrases.
  • Pause: She will pause before or after key power words

Task:

Try combinations of any of the above.

They are vital to a strong vocal delivery – that will be listened to and understood by your audience.

You can hear examples of Oprah using power words effectively throughout her speech, but skip to 8.00 mins and onwards for a series of great examples, such as:

  • “maintain hope”
  • “brighter morning”
  • “darkest nights”
  • “new day”
  • “the time when nobody has to say ‘me too’ again”

5. The Clap Trap

 

If you’re in a position where the audience is applauding before your speech is finished, then pausing and waiting for the audience is a faux pas.

It removes the sense of spontaneity.

Oprah doesn’t wait for the applause, and she doesn’t wait for it to stop, before she continues.
Carrying on with her message and refusing the applause implies that she is not expecting a clap.

It tells us that her message is more important than she is.

As a speaker, you always need to be more committed to the message than to accepting praise.

Oprah does this very well throughout her speech.

Skip to minutes 2:22, 3:22 and 7:02 for examples.

Last words on Oprah

 

Be under no illusions.

Oprah would have practiced and rehearsed this speech many times to refine her vocal delivery techniques.

It is always a shame to have a great message but see it poorly delivered.

In fact, in the old form vs function debate, the delivery is every bit as important as the message.

Without exceptional delivery, an exceptional message can fall flat and get lost.

So it’s not enough to have a strong message.

Your vocal delivery needs to support that importance of your message.

A quick recap of everything we can learn from Oprah, one of the best communicators in the business:

  • It’s a conversation
  • Open with a big promise
  • Build empathy through authentic personal stories
  • Show them you care about them
  • Stand for something bigger than yourself
  • Bring the emotion
  • End with enthusiasm

And finally, record yourself when you’re preparing and practicing your words.

It is the only way you can hear exactly what you sound like and then you can make changes accordingly.

That way you will know whether you are showing up authentically in your speech.

You will find out whether you’re using pause and pace to engage your audience.

You will learn how to make your power words stand out and be powerful.

There you have it.

The Oprah Communications Manual in a nutshell!

Next, what can we learn from Brene Brown?

Guiding light

3. Brene Brown's "guideposts" and what they mean for powerful communication

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”