It is easy to recognise an “authentic” speaker but unpacking what it really means is harder. After all, public speaking is a performance - so how can you perform and be authentic at the same time?
Although public speaking is a performance, it is not the same as acting. As an actor, you are pretending to be someone else, but as a public speaker you are yourself. In fact, the trick is to come across so naturally that it doesn’t look like you are performing!
But this highlights a problem for inexperienced speakers. The advice to “be yourself’ is not helpful when you are trembling bundle of nerves.
“Be yourself” does not mean for you to stand up and tell everyone how nervous you feel, then waffle on about your topic! You might look “real” but in a raw, uncomfortable way that lacks professional credibility and leaves the audience squirming.
Instead, you need to bring your best self to the stage – you “on form”. A high energy version of yourself. The self that you might bring to a job interview! And it takes much practice to achieve that. Being “real” is not quite enough. An authentic speaker also has confidence and credibility.
Let’s take a look at what an authentic speaker does – and how you can do the same.
An authentic speaker sounds conversational
Their energy levels are high, and they know their stuff without sounding over-rehearsed. They don’t read PowerPoint slides or even let PowerPoint dominate the presentation. They don’t read from notes or memorise their speech word for word.
You achieve this by being familiar with the structure and content of your speech and trusting that you will find the exact right words on the day. Every time you practice your presentation or speech – and you must practice– it should come out a little different. The ideas and the way that you order those ideas shouldn’t change, but most of what you say is not “pre-scripted”.
Have some notes if you need them, but use them as a prompt, not a crutch. If you need to check them, take a quick break to do so and then turn back to the audience before you start speaking.
Use conversational language. I was pulled up at a Toastmasters meeting recently for saying “furthermore” in a speech. Words like “furthermore”, “hence” and “nevertheless” are a dead give-away that you have attempted to memorise something written.
There are exceptions. For example, a high-status person such as a national leader might read a formal speech. And a TED talk speaker may well have memorised their speech. But the majority of public speaking, whether that be in the workplace, the boardroom, or at a community event should sound conversational.
An authentic speaker uses personal stories and experiences to connect with the audience
The human brain is hard-wired to respond to stories. Stories can entertain and move us. They can help us understand difficult concepts.
In a professional setting, you may feel that storytelling is too informal. But most senior leaders are comfortable with telling stories.
Stories can be examples. When I give talks on this subject, I put up a PowerPoint slide packed with text and proceed to read it for a few seconds to show the audience what I used to do! This makes me relatable (I used to do what I advise against) and credible (I hopefully come across as a much better speaker when I am not reading the PowerPoint slide). It is also quite funny because many people will recognise a bit of themselves in what I demonstrate.
An authentic speaker has “stage presence”
This can take years to cultivate, but there are a few easy tricks that help a lot. My go-to stage presence tricks are eye-contact, pausing, reducing filler words, and smiling.
For eye-contact, make sure you cover all parts of the room and hold the gaze of each person just slightly longer than you feel comfortable with! It might feel like you are staring, but it won’t feel this way to the other person.
Pauses are powerful. They signal that you are in control and they can be used for dramatic effect – to create suspense or to allow the audience to reflect on something you just said. And the same rule applies. Pause for slightly longer than you feel comfortable with!
Pausing has another benefit. It helps you eliminate or significantly reduce filler words such as um and ah or starting every sentence with “so” or a drawn-out “aaaand’. Don’t worry about the occasional filler, but if you use too many, they can become distracting.
Some people naturally smile as they speak. But if this doesn’t work for you, remember to stop and smile periodically – as long as it is appropriate of course!
Work on each of these one at a time. It takes a bit of effort initially, but they will make a disproportionate difference to the quality of your delivery.
An authentic speaker focuses on serving the audience
They are not trying to please or impress.
COVID19 has given us plenty of examples of leaders who have acknowledged people’s pain and sacrifices while delivering a serious message. Here in New Zealand, the daily media stand up by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, was a great example. Some people interpreted it cynically, but the majority (regardless of their political persuasion) saw it as a great demonstration of empathetic leadership and humble professionalism.
It is hard to be authentic when you worry about how you are perceived. Remember you are there for a purpose and it is not all about you. Show empathy – that you care about your audience and understand their needs.
I have clients who are worried about speaking at funerals, birthday parties, and weddings. I remind them that it is not about them. Guests have come for the people they are speaking about, not for the speaker. This is obvious, but it is easy to slip into “what will they think of me” rather than ‘how can I best acknowledge the person I am talking about?”
Read this previous article “Think purpose, not performance” for more on having a service mindset.
Be patient - it takes time
An authentic speaker has taken years to get there and has had many stumbles along the way. You won’t go directly from being an inexperienced and nervous speaker to a truly authentic speaker. You will find there are a few steps along the way.
I progressed from being nervous to developing a “professional” facade that was a bit uptight and serious. I looked competent and credible but not authentic. I was once told that I was “scary”. I was a bit gutted at the time, but in hindsight, it was some of the most helpful feedback I have ever had. I realised that when I get nervous, I come across as too intense. I now have a little voice in my ear that reminds me to “lighten up” when I can hear that intensity creeping in.
Another persona I occasionally slip into is being overly dramatic – making the performance element too obvious. I do this especially with impromptu speaking. It feels fake, and I know it doesn’t look authentic, but it helps me cover up my nerves. When I catch myself 'acting', I usually try to turn it back to the audience – for example, by asking a question. This reminds me that I am having a conversation, not performing a one-person show!
I don’t always get it right, but when it goes well, it feels like I am ‘in the zone’, and I know the audience is responding well. And the more experience I get, the better the experience becomes.
Be conversational. Be prepared but not rehearsed. Share personal experiences and stories. Learn how to pause, make eye-contact, reduce filler words, and smile. Turn your attention away from yourself and towards your audience. And don’t take yourself too seriously!
Article written by Catherine Syme
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