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How to be an authentic speaker

Earlier this year I worked with Michael, an ambitious business executive preparing a conference keynote speech. After we had consolidated his content, Michael rehearsed his speech in front of me. Despite being used to the immense pressures of corporate finance, Michael appeared out of his depth: he stood rigidly in one spot, spoke at the speed of light, and had his hands clasped like he was pleading before a judge.


Although his material was excellent, something was obviously missing, and it wasn’t just his poor delivery. The person in front of me wasn’t Michael, it was an imposter.


In a competitive market growing wary of shiny brands and Barbie/Ken-doll personas, the ability to deliver spoken messages with sincerity and authenticity is more important than ever.


Unfortunately, many budding speakers and leaders, like Michael, spend a disproportionate amount of energy on their material and neglect to consider how they come across. What is the best way to come across? As you! (Best version edition).


Michael wasn’t Michael because his speech was missing two of the three key elements of public speaking: performance and conversation. Both critical for an authentic delivery.


Three key elements of public speaking—a breakdown:


Conversation: We engage in conversation every day. When a speaker is called “conversational,” it is often taken as high praise. Conversation lends itself to a confident and relaxed manner and helps the audience feel as though you’re talking to them as a friend, rather than a student in a lecture hall.


Composition: refers to an oral or written work. Like writing an email, essay, or blog post, composition is about collating and structuring ideas. It suggests a certain level of preparation that conversation does not. Performance: is all about delivery (voice and body). It goes beyond the basic exchange of information. It’s that added element that makes people say, “you had to be there.”


As speakers, our audience expects us to not only deliver interesting content (composition), they also want to receive that content like they would from a friend (conversation), and they want to be entertained (performance).



Unfortunately ‘performance’ has received a bad rap in recent years, conjuring up images of a phony and over-the-top actor.


This should not be the case. Performance, in the context of speaking, is not acting. Performance is utilising the voice and body naturally in order to support key ideas and increase engagement.


When I asked Michael to consider incorporating more performance and conversation into his keynote, he said doing so felt uncomfortable and inauthentic.


I changed tack.


“Michael, if someone had to describe you as a speaker in three words, what would you want them to say?”

“Credible, confident, and inspiring.”

“Right then. Let’s take it from the top. Don’t deliver it in a way that feels comfortable, deliver it as the best version of Michael—credible, confident, and inspiring.”


The improvement was obvious.


There’s a lesson here: Comfort doesn’t always correlate with what is correct.


Driving on the right side of the road in the States is uncomfortable, but it’s the right thing to do. Using your voice and body in new ways is uncomfortable, but if it helps you appear more confident and authentic, it’s the right thing to do. Besides, like most things, uncomfortable gets comfortable pretty quickly.


Comfort doesn’t always correlate with what is correct.

People like Michael tend to undermine an authentic delivery in one of three ways:


  1. Under-prepared

  2. Over-rehearsed, or

  3. Trying to be someone else


Under prepared:


I’ve met many business professionals that believe the key to appearing natural is by ‘winging it.’ While this sounds good in theory, come presentation day you’ll find yourself in one of two camps:

  1. Overconfident and blasé: Although your natural charisma has its charms, your message lacks clarity and focus. You tend to use a lot of words for someone that doesn’t say very much. Authentic? Perhaps, but you’ll lose your audience for the lack of composition.

  2. Self-conscious and nervous: Your body language—tense with the stress of being under prepared—will undermine your credibility and authenticity. How can you be the best version of you when all you can focus on is how nervous you are?


Over-rehearsed:


At the other end of the spectrum there are those that memorise every word and gesture but their phrases fall flat and messages lack emotion. Speakers that take this approach do so to be sure the words come out as intended, but it comes at a cost: Not only is memorisation time consuming, but—because our brains learn sequentially—if we forget where we’re up to, it’s extremely difficult to recover. Delivery is also sacrificed. The result? A robotic, empty performance devoid of conversation.


Trying to be someone else:


“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” This cheesy, motivational poster quote actually makes good sense. Yes, observing experienced speakers can be informative but don’t mimic them. You may appear disingenuous and will likely come across as a second-rate version of someone else.


Authenticity in speaking is the ability to deliver a message in a way that is genuine and consistent with your values, personality, and interests. This often means showing our colours, including what excites and frustrates us.


So how do we be our authentic, best-version selves when speaking in front of a group? Incorporating a balance of composition, conversation, and performance is an excellent start.


Harvard Business Review contributor, Nick Morgan also suggests focusing on the four ‘intents:’

  • Intent to be open

  • Intent to connect

  • Intent to be passionate, and

  • Intent to listen

Here are the four intents with my commentary.


Intent to be open


How would you speak in front of a small group of close friends?


No doubt you’d display relaxed body-language, smile, make eye-contact, and you’d be willing to share stories and ideas that may make you vulnerable.


Aim to emulate that behaviour for your speaking assignment.


If you don’t, your audience may interpret your being ‘closed’ as defensive.


Actionable take-away: Observe yourself in conversation with friends and family. Take note of how you use your body and voice. Adopt those same behaviours when rehearsing your speech/presentation. Record and review.


Intent to connect


Speak as though you need to engage your listeners. Pretend the success of your speech/presentation is riding on the audience being engaged from beginning to end.


Allow the meaning of what you’re saying emerge through how you say it. In other words, use your voice and body to colour your message with varying shades of emotion and energy.


Actionable take-away: Before delivering your speech/presentation, spend time talking to members of the audience. This will humanise them and reduce nerves. Assume they’re eager to hear what you have to say.


Intent to be passionate


When we’re asked to speak, it’s often on a subject we know a lot about, and thus something we’re passionate about. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to go ‘inward’ (apprehensive and suppressed) rather than ‘outward’ (self-assured and expressive) when confronted with a captive audience. This psychological retreating can cause even the most interesting of topics sound like a dry recitation of a tax law textbook.


Fight the urge to go inward, and remember that a delivery that feels too passionate to you (the speaker) is probably not quite/only just passionate enough for the audience.


Actionable takeaway: When speaking, be present focussed. Think hard about what you’re saying, and let your expressiveness show.


Intent to listen


A sign of an excellent speaker is being able to respond to the needs of the audience in the moment.


Do they seem bored or tired? Get them standing and engage them in an interactive exercise.

Are they struggling to understand a concept? Take time to explain further.

Did they enjoy your whiteboard demonstration? Consider what else you can use the whiteboard for.


Listening to your audience means reading the room. Tune into their mood and respond accordingly.


Nothing says ‘authentic’ like a presentation that and can pivot in the moment, and is thus unique to a particular audience and setting.


Actionable takeaway: Prepare some backup material and exercises. Observe the faces and body language in front of you. Ask yourself, what do I need to do to ensure the audience receives maximum value from this speech/presentation? Beware plan-continuation bias.



Next time you’re preparing a speech/presentation, I challenge you to incorporate a balance of composition, conversation, and performance, and focus on the four intents. In doing so, best-version, authentic you will show up and steal the show.


Don’t worry about Michael. After reviewing the video we took of his improved delivery, there was no turning back. When the keynote came around, he wow’d his audience. Credible, confident, and inspiring.



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