What Can You Learn from the Top 5 Women Business Communicators?

By Marilyn Ringo

Many successful business women are making it to the top, in no small part, due to their great spoken communication skills. If you are shooting for the C-suite or to grow your career, you may want to take a few lessons from the women I consider to be today’s top five businesswomen communicators.

The lessons are:

Stay true to yourself. Forge your own, confident, feminine style and executive presence, which just might include some Jimmy Choo shoes.

Channel your inner passion and enthusiasm for your job to communicate your vision and move the troops.

Give us clear, focused messages with memorable stories, analogies and other evidence to build credibility and listener buy-in.

Work hard at public speaking just like you do your career. Spend time to be good at this. It takes practice and rehearsal to make it look effortless.

Here are the top five businesswomen, who in my opinion, exemplify these lessons and whose success you can replicate with the right attitude, practice and knowledge:


Diane Swonk, Chief Economist, Mesirow Financial

Diane is the go-to-economist for NBC News, CNN and other media outlets and is in high demand as a speaker on the economy because she is such an effective communicator. She explains complicated information in a way that is clear, simple and memorable. She is an expert at using analogies to make her point. In a speech to her firm’s annual investment outlook meeting, she drew parallels between the “Great Recession” and “The Wizard of Oz”, as opposed to your usual graph-laden, data-driven economic talk. During a recent TV news interview she explained: “This economic recovery is like a toddler, not too stable”, and on why the economic recovery is so slow she shared, “The economy had a massive coronary. It’s a wonder we’re not dead…We’re still in a lot of rehab. And rehab can take a very long time.” And, on top of it all that she’s fashionable, sounds smart and enthusiastic. Plus, she genuinely enjoys spreading the economic word.

Learn from Swonk – here are some great examples of her in action:

– Swonk gives her memorable “Wizard of Oz” speech on the economic outlook for 2011 at Mesirow Financial’s Seventh Annual Investment Outlook.

– Swonk on NBC Nightly News story using her notable analogies (in my opinion, the best ones occur about two-thirds of the way through this clip.


Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

Sheryl Sandberg is the face of a new generation of high-level women executives in the technology world. She knows how to engage and move her audience, whether she’s speaking to a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talk audience, her global sales team or the graduating class of Harvard Business School, her alma mater. Her recent TED Talk about how to get more women into top leadership roles is a wonderful example of focusing a message into a few key points and then bringing them to life with stories, analogies, studies and other evidence. Her storytelling technique engages her audience because her stories often include personal experiences that amusingly illustrate her core ideas. To make her point of how there are still too few women business leaders, she shared a story of when she went to pitch a deal at a New York City private equity firm. There had been so few high level women in the firm’s offices that the people in the conference room didn’t know where the ladies’ room was.

In addition to focusing her message well, Sandberg has a lovely, conversational delivery style. She’s fashionable yet professional, a good example of combining femininity with strength. And she’s a great example of the power of practicing. Her rehearsal is evident in the way she confidently moves on the stage and can connect with the audience with or without a teleprompter.

Watch this TED talk and learn.


Padmasree Warrior, CTO, Cisco

Padmasree Warrior is another example of a woman leader in the high-tech world who communicates her ideas clearly, and compellingly, no small feat for someone trained as an engineer with English as a second language.

In a “Women of Vision” keynote address, Warrior talks about “putting fear aside and sharing your passion” to inspire and lead others. She speaks of the times she had to face the fears of making a risky decision or of getting up to talk to hundreds of accomplished women. Her confident presence and brilliant smile on stage as she enthusiastically shares her vision for future women leaders is testament to having conquered her fears in favor of sharing her passion.

One challenge she takes head-on is the notion that in the past women felt they needed to be different to be noticed as leaders. She remembers how “we were told to talk different, act different sometimes even told to dress different” – ‘different’ meaning more like men. “Today,” she says, “women have to be women to be great leaders,” leaders who are “authentic, approachable and open,” a style that feels “more human.” She’s an example of this style on stage as she presents her ideas in a conversational, very real way that embraces who she is as a woman who knows her stuff. As I tell executive women in presentation coaching sessions, “be you, just be the ‘maximum you.’”

Warrior inspires confidence in this Warrior’s Women of Vision Keynote Speech.


Virginia Rometty, President & CEO, IBM

This year, Time magazine named her to its list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Fortune consistently places her on its annual list of the most powerful women in business. And last year, IBM named Virginia “Ginni” Rometty president and CEO, the first woman to hold the top position in the company’s 100-year history. People in the know say her business savvy helped her rise through the ranks, but it was her communication skills that got her to the top. An IBM executive who’s been in meetings with her told me Rometty personally connects with everyone in the room with “incredible eye contact that makes you want to follow her lead.”

Rometty is a masterful story teller because she shares personal insights and lessons learned and delivers memorable quotes, such as “Growth and comfort do not co-exist.” She communicates confidently, clearly and colorfully, all important traits when articulating a vision for the future success of her company and inspiring the people who will help accomplish that success.

At the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit last, Rometty shared her career advice, (shown here emphasizing that comfort and growth do not coexist.)


Ursula Burns, Chairman & CEO, Xerox Corporation Forbes just ranked Ursula Burns the 17th most powerful woman in the world. She is the first African-American woman to head a major US corporation.

Her communication style is like no other woman on this list. She is rapid fire, direct, tough, passionate, funny and fearless. You can hear the lower east side of New York, where she was raised, in her speech. Her communication strength lies in the back and forth of Q&A and less formal speaking situations like conference panels. That’s where her enthusiasm and passion for her job comes through loud and clear. When responding to a question, she has a way of getting to the heart of the answer. Ask her what Xerox is about today and she’ll tell you: “Xerox creates values that create jobs that solve problems.” Ask her for career advice for other women, and she’ll tell you be true to yourself. “You can probably be somebody else and follow all your life but you cannot be somebody else and lead.”

A mark of good communications is to be able to have nice, tight answers, not to ramble on or talk around the point before eventually getting to it. I was coaching a marketing executive at a large insurance firm a few years ago. We were talking about getting to the point sooner than later when answering questions. She said, “That sounds just like my husband. He tells me, ‘Baby, quit circling the airport and land the darn plane!’” Burns knows how to come in for a landing.

In this PBS segment , Burns is featured as “Makers: Women Who Make America”.


This video highlights how a personal story can really bring a poignant point home. Here Burns shares the advice of her mother who encouraged her to focus on giving back, not getting rich.

In my role as a speech coach at Speechworks for over 15 years, helping women executives communicate successfully, I’ve found that their “aha” moment often comes when I share a fundamental principle of effective spoke communications with them: It’s not about perfection. It’s about connection. None of these women are “perfect” communicators but they know how to connect with and engage their audiences to move and influence them as leaders should. They’re great story tellers. They know how to focus their messages for crispness and clarity. They’re not afraid to embrace who they are as women.

I suspect that like most of us, none of these women were born presenters. It’s likely they weren’t planning on being on the stage or in the limelight as they pursued their degrees in engineering, computer science, economics and business. It’s more likely they learned to be good communicators through lots of practice, good coaching, and taking lots of opportunities to speak. We all can feel fear, hesitation and nerves when speaking publically. In spite of this, it’s the gumption to face the fear, failing a few times and getting right back up that helps us to learn not only to effectively communicate but to succeed. These women embody strength, drive, passion and a willingness to share genuinely, which has served them well in the business world and something that has taken them to the top.

Marilyn Ringo is a former News Anchor for CNN Headline News and an Emmy Award winning television producer and reporter. She has been a Speechworks coach helping professionals communicate successfully for over 15 years. She teaches Business Communications in the Georgia Tech MBA program. For more information, please visit www.speechworks.net or contact Marilyn at Marilyn@speechworks.net.


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