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Authentic public speaking – why being real makes all the difference


It’s all about connection, say Millie Baker and Daniel Kingsley

9Many of us are fed up of being sold to, manipulated and spun at.  Yet most presentation and public speaking training still relies on the old fashioned model of a speaker ‘performing’ well and trying to sell themselves and their message to the audience.  There is another way.

This article gives a brief overview of the landscape of authentic public speaking, explains why we think it’s important, and offers some starting points for anyone interested in exploring further.


It may seem strange that we need training to help us be authentic, be more ourselves. ­You would have thought this was the one thing that couldn’t be sold – and yet the number of communication trainings that promote the idea of authenticity can’t be counted. Grayson Perry, the contemporary artist, recently said that qualities like realness, integrity, sincerity and authenticity are “very, very valuable in the marketplace”[1] He was referring to the art world, but he could equally be talking about any other area of business.

The trending of these qualities isn’t a random phenomenon. It reflects a deep need and desire in our culture for the genuine. When it comes to communication, authenticity is simply more satisfying than pretense, and we haven’t had enough of it lately. Hence the importance of understanding the relationship between authenticity and public speaking, an aspect of communication that touches all of us and for some is a defining element in their quality of life.

‘Public speaking’ covers a wide variety of scenarios from chatting to colleagues at the coffee machine to giving a keynote speech. We use the term in this article very broadly to refer to any communication act taking place between an individual and a group, and we view everybody as a speaker, be they trainer, manager, team-member or mother.


Why is authentic speaking important?

As a speaker, if we drop the attempt to perform and present an inhibited version of ourselves, we can relax into being who we actually are, which is far less effort. We remain more flexible and spontaneous, and can fall back on our natural responses; so it becomes easier to navigate the unexpected (like the cleaner walking in during a presentation or the projector exploding – you know how it is). This ability to accept and trust ourselves in relationship to groups, feeling comfortable in our own skin, is the foundation of authentic robust confidence – and it influences every aspect of our social experience.

As a listener, it is much more relaxing and engaging to be with a speaker who is able to show more of themselves and connect with us.  The sense that the speaker is interested in our responses and taking part in a conversation draws us in.  If someone is willing to be real with us and we can sense this, we are much more willing to trust and engage with them as a person, and accordingly are much more open to their message.

Finally, the ability to connect more directly with an audience influences a speaker’s impact and therefore the efficiency of presentations, meetings and talks overall. This makes an understanding of authentic communication vital for trainers both in the way they deliver their trainings as well as giving a direction for the content of communication trainings in general.


What authentic public speaking isn’t

Despite the popularity of the idea of authenticity, we feel that many training approaches have missed the full potential of what authentic speaking can offer. There seems to be a popular misconception that training in authentic communication teaches people how to perform authentically, as if there would be techniques for ‘how to come across as authentic’. As long as you learn to stand, gesture and vocalize in the right way, an audience will perceive you as genuine, and be more easily persuaded of your argument. This situation is perhaps exacerbated by the strong link between the acting world and public speaking training.  There is no doubt that those with actor training have an invaluable contribution to make in this field,  yet the words ‘act’, ‘perform’, ‘stage’, and ‘role’ can easily support the unconscious belief that to do a good job in public speaking requires us to adopt a personality or speaking style somehow removed from our natural way of communicating.

One extreme approach to ‘managing nerves’ involves not only scripting the words of a talk and rehearsing it’s delivery, but also choreographing every single hand gesture, side-step and toss of the head. This is not only prohibitively time consuming, but ignores the fundamental issue behind public speaking nerves, which is that people believe they are not OK as they are. The fact is that no amount of scripting and rehearsal will help somebody with performance anxiety feel relaxed and genuinely confident. The source of the fear is deeper than these things can reach, which is reflected in the fact that so many accomplished performers still experience stage fright regardless of how perfectly rehearsed and they are (Laurence Olivier, John Lennon, and Adele are a few famous examples of this).

Similarly, advice to “fake it till you make it”, or as Amy Cuddy said recently in a TED talk, “fake it till you become it,” [2] may be useful as an emergency strategy, but it does suggest there is something wrong with us; if we feel nervous about speaking, it must be because we are not adequate as we are and should learn how to become a ‘better’ version of ourselves. There is a real risk with this kind of thinking that we develop superficial layers of performance confidence to get by, grow to believe them ourselves, and then wonder why deep down we still feel like something of a fraud.

Despite these shortcomings, public speaking training based around performance and external technique continues to be the most popular approach, regardless of whether the training includes the word ‘authentic’ in the title. We’ve sometimes resorted to talking about ‘radical authenticity’ in order to distinguish what we’re offering from more traditional methods.  But it’s a misleading phrase, implying a kind of stripping off of all forms of protection, as if to be really authentic we would have to appear raw and quivering. As if we need to get up on stage, psychologically undress and straight up confess to the audience: “I’m addicted to boiled sweets, frightened of the dark, and I’m so terrified of speaking to you that I’ve temporarily gone blind. This is the Real Me! Now let me tell you about the sales figures for last quarter.”

But it’s not inauthentic to choose what we reveal. Some of us are bolder, but not everybody enjoys appearing (metaphorically) naked on stage. Some of us need a couple of protective layers in order to feel safe, and that safety actually supports us to be more authentic. What really makes the difference is whether we have a basic disposition towards being authentic and connecting with our listeners. This is the attitude which makes a subtle difference to everything we say and do, and the tone to which the audience will chime.


What it is

In any moment, our identity as we communicate can include elements of performance, role-playing, contrived and self-conscious ways of holding our bodies and using our voices, or it might include elements that are less intentional and more spontaneous, more natural, relaxed and at home with what is actually arising in us. The audience doesn’t see these elements distinctly (we see a cake – not 400g flour, 200g sugar and some glacé cherries), but they combine to create an overall impression of who we are. A disposition towards authenticity and connection means that we have prioritized the more natural end of the spectrum as the place we want to speak from and connect with our listeners.

With a disposition towards being authentic, we make it our default mode and infuse everything we do, including taking on professional roles like ‘trainer’, ‘community leader’, or ‘manager,’ with the quality of authenticity. There is no exact description of this because everybody is different, but we know authenticity when we see it. The naturalness, expressed through the body and voice, of somebody who is not afraid to step forwards and show themselves; the openness of somebody who isn’t hiding behind a smoke screen of professionalism and performance.

Authentic speaking tends to include aspects of the personality that show up in private relationships, the ability to show elements of sensitivity and vulnerability, humour, surprise, or any of the rainbow of emotions that wave through us – you know, the stuff that makes us human. If you are in any doubt that these things are attractive to an audience, check out Dr Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability (a quality she embodies exquisitely in the talk itself), which turned into an internet sensation overnight and has been viewed almost 6 million times on TED.[3]

We’re fundamentally interested in other human beings being human. As Brené Brown says, “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”[4] The question is how we can practically translate these insights into the way we do public speaking.


Authentic Public Speaking in practice

The ability to see the people we are speaking to and allow them to see us, as well as the ability to connect with them, remaining open and available as a speaker, is what Lee Glickstein has called Relational Presence.[5] Training in Relational Presence has been the most effective strategy we have found to support people to relax, develop deep confidence, and step forwards more authentically in public speaking, and we’d like to outline some of the ways we approach this here.

One way we help people strengthen their Relational Presence is by exploring and developing the ability to have non-invasive extended eye contact with their listeners. This is the kind of eye-contact we usually have quite easily with people one to one, but which often gets lost when we speak to groups. And by ‘extended’ we don’t mean staring.  We just mean eye contact that is more than fleeting; that is long enough for our brains to register new information about the person in front of us, that they are a real human being, and that they are not a threat.

Research by Dr Stephen Porges[6] suggests that this sort of eye contact is one of the most basic ways that human beings ascertain they are safe.  He suggests that establishing non-threatening eye contact switches the nervous system from a fight-or-flight (sympathetic) mode, to a resting (parasympathetic) one.   Most crucially, the parasympathetic mode is also one in which human beings become more willing to relate.

This is very much in line with our experience in the training room.  We have found that when people establish this kind of eye contact, they usually feel much calmer and more able to think clearly, and those in the audience are more willing and able to relate with them.

When people are communicating with groups or audiences, we encourage them to have their eyes with one person at a time, being with that person as they speak long enough for their system to switch to this more relational mode.  This is very different from the standard public speaking advice to ‘scan’ an audience.  It involves slowing down to the point that we can actually see that there are individuals there.

At the same time, seeing those you are with need not mean getting involved or overly concerned with what they are thinking, or whether they like what you’re saying. It merely reflects an availability and receptivity to them on a human-to-human basis.


Setting yourself (and your audience) free

We view the optimal attitude to speaking as one in which you ‘do your thing’, whilst remaining open to the audience, allowing them to have their responses, whatever they are.  Livingston Taylor describes it like this:

“When you’re on stage, you are not running a democracy.  You’re in charge, and people want you to be.  Accept the fact that you’re not going to please everyone.  Heck, some nights you’re not going to please anyone.  You have the right to do your show as you see fit.  By the same token they have the right to dislike it.”[7]

When a speaker does their thing and allows their listeners to do their thing, a great deal of freedom opens up.

The degree to which you allow yourself to ‘be seen’ by your audience is a choice.  As long as your basic disposition is towards being authentic and connecting, it is always a valid option to put on a couple of layers of professionalism or performance in order to feel safe. But remember that the less of you is present, the less the real human being is available for your audience to connect with, and this is often experienced by them as alienating and boring.

We can always choose how much of ourselves we wish to reveal to an audience, but our experience is that to the extent we are willing and able to lead, an audience will usually follow, and the benefits from showing even a little bit more of our humanity are significant.

In summary

The essence of authentic speaking is to take the risk to be a bit more real, connect with your listeners, and keep open a two-way channel of communication.  The risks of doing so are often overstated, and the potential benefits in terms of building deep confidence and getting your message across with impact are priceless.

If you’re interested in experiencing all this first hand, come to one of our authentic public speaking courses.


[1] Grayson Perry, Reith Lecture 3: Nice Rebellion – Welcome In, BBC Radio 4, 29 October 2013

[2] Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are, TED Global June 2012

[3] Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability, TEDx June 2010

[4]Brené Brown: Daring Greatly – How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead, Gotham 2012

[5] Lee Glickstein: Be Heard Now, Broadway Books 2001

[6] Stephen Porges: The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation, Norton 2011

[7] Livingston Taylor: Stage Performance, p. 63, Mentor 2011

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