When I help people with their public speaking, one of my main aims is to help them be themselves. This can be more complicated than it sounds, however, so I thought I’d offer three key tips. The most important of these tips is the first: don’t try to be anyone else.
Audiences want someone they can believe in, and that requires authenticity. How many times have we sat through a presentation that seemed to hit all the right notes but somehow never quite took flight? Very often, what is missing is a sense that the speaker means it, is enthused by his or her content.
There is no one way of being, no particular accent or voice that you should aim for, and no one set of gestures you should adopt. Indeed, to go looking for a cookie-cutter approach to your public speaking style will be very much to undermine any authenticity you may be able to show on stage.
That leads us to my second tip: don’t neglect professional public speaking techniques. Being yourself still requires a lot of practice! While trying to be true to yourself, you do also need to think about good diction, great breathing, and careful body language. Indeed, I think those non-verbal cues represent a very large portion of how we actually communicate.
And that’s my third tip: think about your gestures. The latest research suggests that very often gestures come before both thought and words: that is, we sort of know what a person is going to say, or how they are making us feel or think, before they actually speak. Public speakers who concentrate on making a particular hand gesture in a specific section of their speech risk coming across as too studied, as inauthentic: their body language will lag behind their words and something in the minds of their audience will react against it.
What do we do about that? Well, you should craft a public speaking style that plays to your strengths, not one which tries to iron out your quirks or eccentricities. Put a little of yourself in your presentation – do not be afraid to express yourself even while you are delivering a carefully prepared speech. If you’re not naturally enthusiastic, do not fake excitement; if you smile a lot do not try to look stern.
Authenticity is a tricky concept to nail down or define, and an even more difficult one to get right. In part it’s about abandoning the idea of perfection: there is a balance to be struck between achieving a style which can communicate with conviction to very many people, most of them strangers, and also one which does not make you seem robotic or stilted.
If you avoid trying to be someone else, practice your public speaking skills, and think about your body language, then you’ll have gone a long way to being authentic.