Speaking with Authenticity: First, Connect with What’s Most Important to You

Early in my consulting career I led a communication workshop at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The topic was “speaking with authenticity.” I was extremely nervous. This was the Stanford Business School, with some of the smartest students and faculty in the world. How could I measure up?

The first two times I led the workshop, it did not go well. I’m sure I came off as detached and cerebral. Ironically, I couldn’t figure out how to be myself with this audience. Yes, in my own workshop about authenticity, I was unable to really be myself. Instead, I focused on how I could look good for an audience that I found intimidating. I was doing exactly the opposite of what I was trying to teach my students.

After an irritating epiphany about this, I decided that if the workshop on authenticity was to have any value, I had to let go some of my concerns about how I appeared to my audience and instead to delve deep into my own thoughts, beliefs, and passions about the topic. I needed to be completely myself—to heck with the audience. If they didn’t like me, so be it. It became obvious that the risk in being fully myself with this audience was exactly the risk I needed to take.

The third workshop was completely different. I felt alive, in the moment, and powerful. I was spontaneous, I spoke with conviction from my experience, and I challenged the students’ assumptions. They were smart, yes—wicked smart. But I was the expert. I was absolutely going to be myself, and tell them exactly what I really thought. In the end, the workshop was a great success, and I repeated it many times at the business school.

Connect with your passion

Much of what has been written and taught about presentation skills focuses on techniques, tips and behaviors that help speakers appear more confident and persuasive. And many of these techniques can be powerful. But there can also be a danger in too much focus on technique.

In my coaching practice, I often have clients who are doing a lot of the right things as speakers, yet they still come across as unengaging or uninspiring. Often what they need isn’t a more masterful application of techniques. What they need is more of the authenticity, freshness, color and passion that arise from speaking directly from their center. Those qualities are important for any leader intent on building trust and influencing their audience, but they’re particularly critical for leaders of mission-driven organizations who need to inspire and motivate others to achieve the organization’s mission.

I have sometimes suggested that clients think about the task of public speaking in two separate buckets. The first bucket has nothing to do with public speaking, or not directly. It’s about figuring out what you really think and believe, what’s important to you, what’s interesting or exciting for you, and how that connects with your speaking topic.

As you are preparing a talk, ask yourself: If I were alone on a deserted island or confiding in my best friend, what would be the absolute truth for me about this topic? Ask yourself: what’s most important to me, personally, about this topic? Why do I care? What am I most passionate about, related to this topic? What makes me come alive here? Give yourself freedom to do this well, as it will evoke your emotions in a way that will later help you connect more fully with your audience.

After you really know what you think, believe and care about most, as a separate step, filter some of that into a great presentation for your specific audience. This second bucket is where you start thinking deeply about your audience, their interests and concerns. It’s where you employ all the techniques of making a good presentation that will speak to your audience. You just want to make sure that you include some of what you learned from the first bucket. The problem is that many people skip the first step.

Mine your core values

I worked with a senior executive at a major technology company some years ago, and I noticed his presentations seemed disconnected. I couldn’t “find him” when he stood up to present; it was as if he became a different person. When interviewing stakeholders who worked with him, one of them said he wasn’t sure what my client really stood for. This lined up with what I saw in his presentations.

I offered several exercises to help my client get more in touch more with his own values. He gravitated to one called the leadership credo (see The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner). In this exercise, you write your leadership philosophy as if you were taking a sabbatical and the document will provide guidance for the company in your absence. He also wrote answers to a number of questions like “What are you most passionate about?” and reflected on his own past in terms of the people, relationships and experiences that helped to form him.

The conversations I had with him after these exercises were inspiring for both of us. He talked about his childhood, how he had two cousins who were brilliant and how he always had to work hard to try to catch up with them. It became clear that this had created a laudable passion in him for working for underdog companies. He loved helping a company catch up and prove itself. That was much more exciting for him than working for a company that was already in the lead.

We spent our next two meetings mapping out his all-hands presentation, building on the foundation of his new self-awareness. The results were powerful. There was much more of “him” in his presentation. A significant part of his presentation revolved around three core values he wanted to drive in the company and why they are so important. After he delivered it, several employees came up to him and said they especially liked the section on core values. He had moved his presentation from a tactical status update to a visionary direction for his whole organization. This is the power of connecting with your authentic beliefs, values and passions and harnessing them to become a more effective and engaging speaker.

What if you don’t actually care about the topic?

This question has come up again and again in workshops I’ve led on authenticity in public speaking. If you are struggling to connect with your topic, I recommend that you look for how that topic connects to something that is important to you. Maybe the particular presentation doesn’t seem important, but the people it impacts are. Or maybe there is a bigger picture, a larger vision or more important value you hold that connects to the topic.

If you find yourself frequently giving presentations on topics you don’t care about, then you might ask yourself whether you’re in the right job. If you really don’t feel alignment between what you are talking about and what you care about, there’s probably a mismatch between who you are and what you’re doing. Finding a better fit will free up energy and help you make the impact on the world that you want to make.

Driving for authenticity

If you’ve gotten feedback that your presentations fall flat, or that they are good but could be better, look at whether you are fully inhabiting them. Do you take the time to unearth your own interests and passions about your topic? Do you feel engaged and excited when you present? If not, go back to step one. Connect with your passions. Your presentations will be more powerful and meaningful, for you and your audience.

Also see our posts on knowing your audience, using techniques effectively and transcending your script.

For more on this topic, see the Harvard Business Review article, “How to Become an Authentic Speaker.”