Frances Ryan writes in the Guardian of how teaching helped her to overcome her fear of public speaking. My own story is similar, so Frances’s account rings very true:
Teaching is far from a traditional public-speaking gig (for one, it involves far more listening by the speaker), but it helped give me the tools to get up in front of any crowd: thinking on my feet, the ability to engage a room, understanding your audience, and above all, confidence in my own voice. (If you can get a hungover 18-year-old vaguely interested in Aristotle, you realise your powers of persuasion are borderline hypnotic.)
It is generally agreed that public speakers need to project an air of authenticity. That’s what Trump does, in his own way; it’s what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does, in her own way.
But presenting your authentic self when public speaking is not the same as dropping all pretense and performance.
Authenticity ≠ Immediacy
When I’m with my friends, at my most relaxed and natural, I’m authentic but I’m a dire public speaker. I mumble, my sentences drift off and I tend to fall back on phrases like “I mean” and “y’know.”
Back when I was a teacher, I learned that speaking to my students as if I was speaking to my friends hindered my ability to convey the ethos that justified my position at the front of the classroom or lecture theatre. Nonetheless, I still needed to be personable, warm and authentically enthusiastic about my topic.
The question of authenticity has become even more pressing now that all public speaking – even all public communication – must anticipate how material will be received and reproduced online.
Communicators with “digital emotional intelligence” (or DQ) will know that authenticity in a tweet or Instagram story is very much performed and constructed. Genuinely off-the-cuff tweets, delivered as if chatting to friends, can be disastrous.
An authentic performance
Eventually, in my teaching, I developed a style that combined my natural self with a few practical improvements: a slower pace than normal; greater care in enunciation; and, in certain contexts, an effort to suppress any West Midlands twangs in my accent.
I was going for the Berocca Self: me, but on a really good day.
In my speechwriting, I give this same advice to speakers. You don’t need to be as calm and collected as Barack Obama; your nervous energy, presented correctly, can serve as proof of your enthusiasm and excitement. Nor do you need the perma-smile and hyper-confidence of a LinkedIn influencer; recognising your limits can bring others onside.
So, be yourself – but be a performance of yourself.
You, but on a really good day.
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