The entire Vital Voices VVLEAD fellowship team. Photo by Reinout Dujardin.

The Vital Voices VVLead fellowship team. Photo by Reinout Dujardin.

In December 2013, I had an incredible opportunity to teach public speaking in Uganda to 50 women leaders from 25 countries as part of the VVLead South-South Exchange Program. This is a fellowship program created by Vital Voices, a DC-based NGO that focuses on economic and political empowerment of women leaders around the world. Participants came from Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mexico, Liberia, South Africa, Haiti, Myanmar, DRC, Zambia, Pakistan, Kenya, India, Togo, Sierra Leone, Argentina, Cameroon, Peru, Tanzania, and Guatemala – to name just a few!

Reading through the bios of these women, I was humbled.  Was I there to empower them? Not at all – these women were already super-empowered game-changers, all confronting grave social and political risks as they addressed issues such as gender-based violence and discrimination. No, I wasn’t there to empower them: I was there to build their leadership skills so that they could be even more effective.

We focused on three subjects within public speaking:

1) Elevator Speech – how do you introduce yourself and your work in concise, clear language that captures the attention of your particular target audience? Not so easy when in some cultures it’s considered rude for a woman to speak in public or promote herself.

2) Pitching for Funding – how do you give a speech in order to raise money from investors or donors? Not so easy when donors and investors might be looking for very different metrics.

3) Advocating for an Issue – how do you speak to community groups and other potential partners to gain support for your issue? Not so easy when the issue you’re advocating for might go against centuries of cultural tradition.

For each subject, we asked ourselves: Who is my audience? What’s my goal? Why me: why is this a speech only I can give? While the answers would be different for every single participant, the questions remained the same.

While learning the skills of public speaking, we looked at negotiation theory (which I learned from Brian Mandell at the Harvard Kennedy School) and adaptive leadership (which I learned from Ron Heifetz and Dean Williams, also of the Kennedy School), showing the women how to build coalitions and partnerships so that when they were ready to stand up and speak, they did not have to speak alone.

Perhaps even more important was what the participants shared with each other – their life experiences became powerful teaching tools to inspire, educate, or caution one another in their process of creating societal change.

This conference reinforced my firm belief in the importance of strong communication skills to lead in any political, cultural, or professional context – and the importance of cultural sensitivity in public speaking to make sure that each message directly relates to our audience.