Why is Public Speaking Important for Women in Leadership?

Carla Kimball
©2004, Carla Kimball
All rights reserved.

I was recently asked to write an article on this subject for the Massachusetts Women in Technology (MassWit) Spectrum newsletter. This article represents a new, but very exciting direction for me as it gave me the opportunity to integrate an academic research interest from a number of years ago with my current interest in public speaking and I wanted to share it with visitors to my site.

A couple of years after receiving my MBA in 1982, I was a struggling computer consultant. With a year of self-training in dBase and a minimal understanding of how computers worked, I was offered the position of software specialist by the dean of my business school alma mater. The primary responsibility for me in this newly-formed position would be to design, develop and teach a computer-based decision support course for an also newly- formed executive education program, and to teach software applications to incoming MBA students. Gulp… While this was a tremendous opportunity for me, inside I cringed.

Until that time I had been only minimally successful at overcoming my deep-seated fear of speaking in public by forcing myself to speak up in class when I was attending business school. But the thought of teaching classes – and to executives no less – was terrifying! I was faced with a dilemma. Either I accept this dream job that was offered to me on a platter and find a way through my fear, or to continue to shy away from speaking in public and plod along at jobs that really weren’t very fulfilling.

How often has this happened to you? How often have you passed up job opportunities because they meant that you would have to do presentations? How often have you asked others to speak for you when, in fact, you were the expert on the topic? How often have you hidden in the background, wanting to be heard but afraid to speak up?

While fear of public speaking has been reported as the nation’s number one fear, research has shown that women have exceptionally large obstacles to overcome. In the last 20 years Carol Gilligan, The Stone Center at Wellesley College, and other sociologists and educators have focused their research specifically on women’s development from adolescence through adulthood. In Women’s Growth in Connection, Stone Center authors describe their findings that while a strong developmental theme for women centers around relationship and connection, developing a “voice” or the ability to express themselves is especially challenging. Carol Gilligan, in her book Mapping the Moral Domain, found that girls in early adolescence lose their ability to speak up. Formerly outspoken and vocal, girls in their early teens become silent and afraid to stand out.

Mary Belencky and coauthors, in their book Women’s Way of Knowing, describe the various ways that women know and, therefore, communicate. The first three modes of knowing – silence, received, and subjective - involve women not speaking for themselves. It is only in the procedural and constructed knowledge positions that women begin to integrate all their voices and are able to speak up. From the procedural position, women become adept at communicating publicly their reasoning and objective knowledge, and from the constructed position, women are more likely to speak from an original, complex and integrated knowledge base.

Public speaking requires both the ability to speak up and to relate to others. It isn’t just about standing in front of a podium and speaking to a large audience. It also means speaking up in meetings, communicating effectively with clients, and answering tough questions presented by a team of colleagues and superiors. It means being able to convey your ideas effectively on the telephone, one-on-one and to small and large groups of people. It is the ability to influence and inspire others and to effect change. It means to speak with agency, credibility and authority. It means to have impact. It means to be visible, to take a risk, to take a stand. It also means to listen well and to establish a strong relationship and connection with the audience. And, finally, it means to be fully ourselves, to be authentic – to be confident enough to show our humanity, our frailties and our vulnerabilities along with our strengths, wisdom and knowledge.

By definition, effective leadership demands the ability to connect, communicate and inspire. Daniel Goleman and others, in their ground breaking book Primal Leadership, say that public speaking is central to what they call “resonant leadership” and “vital to many [leadership] competencies”. They describe the four major EQ (emotional intelligence) competencies as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship skills. Belencky and Gilligan refer to a similar constellation of competencies as “connected knowing” as opposed to the more masculine “separate knowing” which roughly parallels Goleman’s description of “dissonant leaders.” While women in our culture are often quite adept at the connected knowing states of resonant leadership, until we can overcome the silence that descended upon us in our adolescence, our natural leadership abilities will never be fully expressed.

When I was offered that position at the business school, I made the life-changing decision to take on the challenge. I started by teaching classes in dBase at a local community college. While extremely difficult for me (I remember having terrible headaches after every class), this felt like a reasonable first step towards moving away from the self-constraining limitations of my fear. After four very successful and gratifying years at the business school, teaching hundreds of students and execs, I learned how much I enjoyed sharing my knowledge and expertise in front of a room. And, my career as a public speaker was launched.

As women, we are natural leaders. We have all the skills and competencies necessary to influence and inspire people to change and move forward. However, to really get this out into the world, we must allow ourselves to be visible, to speak up, to speak out, to simply speak… While some women are natural extroverts who find their way back to their voice with relative ease, many of us must make conscious and courageous decisions and work very hard to move away from the silence that holds us back and to assume our natural roles as leaders.


Carla Kimball, M.A., M.B.A. is a speaking presence coach, workshop facilitator and president of RiverWays Enterprises. Over the past 18 years she has presented and coached on a diverse set of business, stress management and communication topics to thousands of business and service professionals. Client companies include leading financial management, health care, and accounting firms.

Carla offers a selection of regular public speaking presence and presentation skills programs and coaching services for individuals as well as for corporate groups. Carla works from inside-out and helps people become more confident speakers while establishing a strong relationship with their audience.

Carla is a prolific writer on public speaking topics and currently offers a 26 week subscription to The ABCs of Presence in Speaking, Leading, and Life!, a newsletter which presents one article and exercise a week organized alphabetically with a unique perspective on public speaking issues. She has also distilled her approach to public speaking presence into a workbook/audio set entitled the SpeakingPresencesm Toolkit.

Carla is based in the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire at the intersection of Interstates 91 and 89 and centrally located to all of New England, including Boston, Western Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine.

Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind. Mary Field Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, Jill Mattuck Tarule. 1986, Basic Books, Inc.

Mapping the Moral Domain. Carol Gilligan, J. V. Ward & J. M. Taylor (Eds). 1988, Harvard University Press.

Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie Mckee. 2002, Harvard Business School Press.

Women's Growth in Connection: Writings from The Stone Center. Judith V. Jordan, Alexandra G. Kaplan, Jean Baker Miller, Irene P. Stiver and Janet L. Surrey. 1991, The Guilford Press.

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We are centrally located in the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire close to the intersection of Interstates 89 and 91. As such we are in in the heart of New England and close to Boston and all of Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New York and Maine.

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