Authenticity: not what you say but who you are

You can’t talk long about speakers or speeches before the word ‘authenticity’ crops up. Aspiring speakers are urged to strive for authenticity as though they were on the hunt for the holy grail. 

Authenticity is a yardstick against which speakers and presenters are judged. But as a measuring tool it can sometimes seem a little ill-defined – especially when you are stepping up to the front of a room before a new audience and you’re feeling more than a little anxious.

“Don’t worry. Just be real. Be who you are,” is the sort of well-meaning advice presenters often hear. But in that moment ‘who you are’ is a flustered bag of jangling nerves. The advice is well-meant, but not always helpful.

Let’s see if we can build out from ‘be who you are’ and make it more practical. 

The dictionary definition of authentic is ‘genuine’. And synonyms for authenticity include trustworthiness, dependability, credibility and reliability. In other words for a person to be praised for authenticity requires that they demonstrate evidence of certain praise-worthy human qualities. 

So ‘be who you are’ (assuming you are a good person) is OK as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. It seems to assume that if you are trustworthy and credible, people will detect that – as if through osmosis. 

But in that moment that you stand up to speak to an audience – whether colleagues or strangers – you have other things on your mind. Will you remember your script? Will the projector work? What will you do with your hands? Is that flush that you are feeling on your neck and cheeks as vivid and visible as you fear it is?

When you look at your script and launch into your opening remarks, it can sometimes seem that a stranger has invaded your body and is speaking for you. Words are being said – but they’re not the words you normally use in conversations with friends. They are more formal words, longer words, posher words. Oh yes – you wrote that script… but you wrote it in silence as an essay rather than a speech. It makes sense – but it’s not conversational. It’s not the real you. It’s not authentic.

True authenticity starts when you give yourself permission to express some of your innermost feelings to outsiders. And when you are comfortable expressing those feelings in the sort of everyday language you would use in conversation with a good friend at a coffee shop or bar.

Authentic speaking means incorporating aspects of your personality that show up in private relationships. That would include your ability to show sensitivity, vulnerability, humour, surprise, disappointment, elation.

That’s the stuff that makes us human. And it’s the stuff audiences are craving. As humans, we are hard-wired to connect to others on an emotional level.

But to do that we have to let our guard down. 

  • We have to abandon pretence and artifice.
  • We have to stop trying to be someone else.
  • We have to dump from our scripts any words we don’t use normally in conversation with people we care about.

We have to start focussing on our passion. We have to focus on our enthusiasm for the topics we choose to talk about. If your idea will make life better for people, or save money, or create jobs, or bring joy – don’t be afraid to show your excitement. Don’t talk about your ideas in the abstract. Make them real.

Speaking is about establishing a connection, a bridge, to the audience. It’s a two-way street. The speaker must understand what the audience needs and wants.

Your audience will judge you harshly if they suspect you are simply putting on a show. They’ll not be impressed if the person who speaks from the podium has morphed into quite a different personality to the person they chatted with 10 minutes earlier.

So being authentic IS about being true to yourself. But that means understanding all the qualities that make you who you are. And giving yourself permission to dig into those qualities as you prepare your speech or presentation. 

It’s about how you think about your presentation, how you think about your audience, how you capture your conversational self in your script, and how far you give yourself permission to reveal the joy or despair that lies behind your message.

It’s about opening yourself up. About allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It’s about understanding that a speech is not words coming out of a mouth. It’s a message coming from a heart.

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