Gloria Steinem & The Fear of Public Speaking

by Janice Tomich

I would never have suspected that Gloria Steinem was afraid of public speaking.

I’m an executive public speaking coach, and Steinem is one of my heros. She saw the need for change and she caused change to happen. Steinem is an articulate and well researched woman whom I would never have considered having such fear of public speaking and being so scared of presenting that it stalled her career and the change she sought.

When Steinem’s career took off she was often asked to give public presentations. Did you know that she adeptly outmaneuvered the requests to escape the invitations? And sometimes not so adeptly she just plain out cancelled at the last moment. Ouch.

She believed that her energy best be used in her writing and for a while she hid behind her written words. But she realized if she wanted change that she also needed to grab the mic and speak.

Here is a snippet from Interview Magazine conducted by Maria Shriver and the entire interview here:

STEINEM: Yeah. I’d have to cancel appearances at the last minute because if I tried to do them, I’d lose all my saliva and each tooth would acquire a little sweater. I didn’t begin to speak in public until I was at least in my mid-thirties-or maybe even my late-thirties. I suppose I’d chosen to write as a way of expressing myself partly so I didn’t have to speak. It was only the beginning of the Women’s Movement and the impossibility of getting articles about it published that caused me to go out and speak publicly. Even then I couldn’t do it by myself, which is why I asked my friend Dorothy [Pitman Hughes, child expert and activist] to speak with me. For that first decade, I almost always spoke with her and one of two or three other partners.

SHRIVER: And then slowly just by doing it and following your fear . . .

STEINEM: I discovered that you didn’t die, and that something happened when you were speaking in a room that could not happen on the printed page. And, you know, Dorothy and I were one white woman and one black woman speaking together, and that turned out to be very good. We didn’t do it on purpose, but it turned out to attract more diverse audiences and made a very important point. After she had a baby and wanted to travel less, I spoke with [civil rights lawyer and feminist activist] Flo Kennedy and [writer and organizer] Margaret Sloan-Hunter.

I am enchanted by these words in the snippet above: “Something happened in a room (while speaking) that could not happen on the printed page”.

Steinem felt the human connection that is obscured when using the printed word. Authors don’t often know who their fans really are.

But in a room, ahhh, yes, that feeling when you are speaking about your ideals and your plans to make things better. There is nothing more exhilarating when the people in the room understand and they want to be part of your vision for a world that will be a little better because of your vision.

“Janice gave me the words and the practice to hold my own as I worked through tough business negotiations. I learned how to speak up for myself in a powerful, persuasive way that was true to who I am. ”

​​​​Margarita Quihuis
ESG Advisor, ED: Peace Innovation Institute, The Hague Peace Innovation Lab Stanford

Find your voice…
(info on communication coaching package)

It is a magical and power “to” feeling. (Thank you Gloria Feldt for her definition of powerful and power to).

Steinem moved from being supported by a speaking partner to speaking on her own. I believe that she caught the public speaking bug, bolstered by the power of her spoken words.

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