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Presenting the Real You: Authenticity and public speaking

Posted by Chad O'Connor  March 23, 2012 11:50 AM

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My friend John is the best public speaker I’ve ever seen. He can stand up in front of any crowd, talk about any subject and have the audience eating out of his hands. When I first met him, I was jealous. I wanted to elicit that same response from an audience. To my everlasting disappointment mimicking John was never a feasible strategy for one simple reason: I’m Kellyanne.

While it is tempting to try to replicate another's techniques, what I’ve discovered after years of presenting all types of information to all kinds of audiences in every format possible is that it’s not about being funny or quick, it’s about being authentic.

Authenticity is giving your audience a window into who you really are while working to establish and maintain a connection with them. Connecting with your audience is a process, not an event, so you must continuously adjust your presentation style to meet their needs in real time. Adapting to your audience may seem like the very antithesis of authenticity but it’s not. Using questions, anecdotes, and humor you can find a balance between the presentation you want to give and the presentation your audience wants to hear.

I begin most presentations by making each member of the audience tell me a little bit about themselves. I ask for basics like their names, their occupations and why they chose to participate in the program. But I also throw in a random question like: If you could do anything today what would it be? Or what’s your favorite song?

As simple as it seems, this question and answer session provides insight into what the audience is thinking and feeling. I get an understanding of what they value and are expecting from me. I use the time to mentally move things around in my presentation, gauge the tone of the room and establish a relationship based on two-way communication. As my audience tells their stories it gives me an opportunity to share a few of my own. That’s what helps establish a connection.

The best anecdotes aren’t necessarily related to the subject matter at hand, but rather provide the audience with a chance to play voyeur. They offer a glimpse of who you really are when you aren’t standing in a conference room while moving through a PowerPoint. The key to making these anecdotes resonate is this: they must contain universal themes that everyone can relate to. It also helps if you can tell them in under a minute.

I used to produce cable news and I had one explanation for why ratings were almost never as high the second night on any given story: we’d fall into the topic trap. We all know about trending topics and hot topics. But the truth is people don’t really respond to topics - they respond to stories. If we didn’t have new mystery, outrage or drama related to the people involved, inevitably the audience recognized they weren’t going to learn anything new and tuned out. I’ve adopted this basic principle to most of my anecdotes and consistently work with clients on developing their own anecdotes to be true emotional stories and not just topics of interest.

Since most of my presentations are to new audiences I’m able to reuse and recycle the same anecdotes. One involves a guy I knew in college and something he did that was not so nice. This helps me to establish a connection with my audience through a universal human experience: the broken heart. Another is a funny incident involving a very popular network news anchor, a butter knife, and the White House press room. This gives me credibility as a former network news producer without having to ramble about my resume. Inevitably these stories get a laugh and I learn what my audience thinks is funny, allowing me to weave the same humor into other areas of my presentation.

Humor and Jokes
While we all enjoy a good laugh, unless you work in a comedy club, your audience probably did not come to be entertained. Audiences are more likely to remember material that is presented in a humorous way. But humor only adds value if it is relevant to both the audience and the presentation.

Humor is having a laugh within the context of what you are doing or saying. The best humor comes from personal experiences. And since my authentic self can be quite sarcastic, I often use an ironic story to make my point. Jokes are self-contained interruptions to the natural flow of a presentation and require the audience to react. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. If you are a natural jokester and practice the craft regularly, a well-timed one-liner might make sense for you. Just proceed with caution.

Getting back to my friend John the “best presenter I know,” interestingly enough he has been known to come to me for help with presentations because in his words “I just get up and talk about whatever is on my mind, you actually put thought into what people need to know and want to hear.”

It’s great to have a friend who can see the real me, hopefully my next audience can too.

Kellyanne Dignan designs and leads the media, public speaking and presentation training programs for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications clients. Prior to joining Rasky Baerlein, Dignan worked in broadcast and digital communications producing content for major media outlets.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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