“Fake news” is the phrase du jour. We seem haunted by the idea of “post-truth”, and uncertain what or whom to believe. This is troubling for all of us, of course, but it poses particular challenges, for example, to anyone speaking to their peers at a conference.
I’ve written before about the importance of authenticity in public speaking. An audience connects with a speaker they perceive to be honest and open. Of course, the appearance of honesty isn’t necessarily the same thing as the actual presence of honesty – but let’s for now assume that we are not in the business of pulling the wool over our audiences’ eyes.
What does authenticity mean? I suppose it means telling the truth about yourself. The truth a speaker tells is not just present in their words or the content of their speech. It’s also contained in their self-presentation, how they stand on a stage and communicate.
For example, think about accents. I’ve written before about how many speakers believe they should adopt a “posh” voice when speaking in public. This is one of the sure-fire ways to appear inauthentic. If the way you speak to them is not natural to you, audiences will be able to tell. It’s best to take care to be clear in your natural voice, rather than adopt an imagined “better” kind of voice.
Likewise, personality is key to seeming “real” on stage. If you are a natural joker, it’s OK not to be serious all of the time when on stage. In exactly the same way, if you are usually sober then don’t feel pressured to suddenly become an all-round entertainer. There’s always a balance to be struck, and erring on the side of your natural style is usually a good idea.
Think about your message. In our cynical age, audiences are sophisticated and sceptical. Your job, whether you are seeking to persuade or inform, is to express yourself in such a way that a passion for your material, and a belief in your message, shine through. Telling a story, and making it memorable, will help bring your audience with you – but only if they believe you mean it.
It goes without saying, of course, that part of achieving this is by avoiding exaggeration or hyperbole. Don’t over-claim or give in to the temptation to “enhance” your material. Superlatives stand out – they invite scrutiny. It’s best to be plain-speaking and open. Let your material speak for itself within the structure and style you devise for it.
In a nutshell, inspiring an audience to believe in you is part of the public speaking challenge – and that’s why focusing your style on honesty, and on authenticity, is so important. We have far too many reasons to be doubtful already. Don’t make your speech another.