We have all heard speakers we would call ‘authentic’ but unpacking exactly what this means can be a bit confusing. Public speaking is a performance and 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 being yourself. In fact, the trick is to come across so naturally that it doesn’t look like you are performing!
But this highlights a paradox that many inexperienced speakers face. The advice to ‘be yourself’ is not overly helpful when you are trembling bundle of nerves. The advice does not actually 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.
What you are really being asked to you to do is 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 a lot of practice to achieve that…Being ‘real’ is not quite enough. An authentic speaker also has confidence and credibility.
Let’s take a look at how you can develop the quality of authenticity. Make sure you read the last point – it takes time and you will have some awkward moments along the way. There is no need to be hard on yourself.
Have a conversation with the audience
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 do not read from notes or memorise their speech word for word. 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 vast majority of public speaking, whether that be in the workplace, the boardroom, or at a community event, should not sound overly rehearsed.
You achieve this by being totally 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 practice you must – 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’ and ‘nevertheless’ are a dead give away that you have attempted to memorise something written. It’s funny because I had caught myself on that exact thing when I was practicing but the word slipped back in on the night!
Include personal experiences and stories
An authentic speaker uses personal stories and experiences to connect with their audience. These stories are relevant and not designed purely to make the speaker look them look good.
For example, if I was turning this article into a speech I would probably put up a PowerPoint slide with a lot of 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.
Learn a few stage presence tricks
An authentic speaker has what we call ‘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, cutting out filler words, and smiling.
For eye-contact, make sure you cover all parts of the room and hold the gaze of each person just lightly 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 give the audience the opportunity 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 ‘and’. Don’t worry about the occasional filler but if you use too many suddenly they can become the only thing that is noticeable.
Some people smile naturally as they speak. But if this doesn’t work for you, just remember to stop and smile periodically – as long as it is appropriate of course!
Each of these things require a bit of work but you will find that they make a disproportionate difference to the quality of your delivery.
Have a service mindset
An authentic speaker is focused on serving their audience – not on trying to please or impress. It is hard to be authentic when you are worry about how you are being 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.
COVID19 has given us plenty examples of leaders who have acknowledged people’s pain and sacrifices while delivering a hard 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 in a cynical way but the vast majority (regardless of their political persuasion) saw it as a great demonstration of empathetic leadership and humble professionalism.
I sometimes 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 are unlikely to go directly from being an inexperienced and nervous speaker to a truly authentic speaker. You will probably 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 particularly authentic. In fact, 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 because 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 feel like I am 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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