Speaking with Authenticity: Know Your Audience, Tell Your Story

If understanding what you are passionate about is one foundation of a highly authentic presentation, then understanding your audience is another.

Knowing your audience means learning what’s on their minds, what their concerns are and what’s important to them. You need to know who they are and be able to speak their language, at least to some degree. In fact, creating a presentation often includes an element of “translation” from your frame of reference into the language and context of your audience.

Different audiences have different expectations. Some time ago I led a workshop for a team preparing for a very specific high-stakes presentation, and as a teaching tool I showed them video clips of other speakers presenting to the same audience. I chose one less-than-ideal example that I thought was good, but overly technical. I explained what I thought the speaker did wrong and asked what the workshop participants thought. They disagreed with me: they thought it was an excellent, confident and credible presentation.

I realized that the workshop participants appreciated the technical depth because they were scientific experts themselves. A less technical speaker, and especially one who was more “salesy” or who prioritized style over substance, would not have been as credible or as authentic to that group.

This isn’t to say you need to match the technical expertise of your audience. But the most effective speakers adapt both their message and how they convey it, to make sure it really “lands.” Authentic speakers are able to do this translation work and still remain true to themselves and their own point of view.

Understand your audience

You need to know your audience well enough that you can make genuine overtures to their context and world-view. You do this to get your message to resonate, not to compromise your authenticity. Consider:

  • Who is the audience? This is the most basic question. Is it a group of engineers? Product managers? Scientists? Salespeople? Are they early career or CEOs? Men, women, US-based or global? Find out what you can.
  • What is on their minds? What are your audience’s priorities? What are they interested in or inspired by? What are they worried or concerned about?
  • Use some of their language. Be adaptable, using more technical language for a technical audience and using more simple, plain English for a broader or more mixed one.
  • Understand the context. Different organizations, events and locations have different norms. A keynote at a tech startup conference will be quite different from a status update at an internal all-hands meeting.

Talk with event organizers or participants, look at the event website or social media, and see what you can glean. Show up early and chat with people. A few minutes of conversation can give you important insights.

Once you know your audience, you are in a better position to fully connect with them. But importantly, this doesn’t mean abandoning your core message. The task becomes to communicate your message, staying true to what you think and believe, but conveying it using language that speaks to them.

One approach is to ask yourself: How would someone in this audience make my point? What words or examples would they use? How can I include more of their context and speak to their concerns? Another strategy is to put yourself in the audience’s shoes: How will they hear this? Will it resonate? Translating your ideas for a particular audience while remaining true to yourself can be tough, but it’s definitely possible.

Tell a story that will resonate

Including stories or anecdotes within your presentation can be powerful and can make your presentation more authentic and “real” for your audience. Think about your experience of hearing presentations—is it the concepts you remember, or the stories? Stories stick better. Used well, stories clarify complex concepts, humanize the speaker and emotionally engage the audience. To do this authentically, talk about real people or situations that have meaning for you, using concrete details to lend color and emotion.

Emotionally compelling or personal stories are not always helpful. Some audiences may react negatively to what they see as a departure from the facts. On the other hand, technical presentations don’t need to be dry. A speaker’s ability to convey the larger story behind the science or the technology can make a huge difference. Steve Jobs was brilliant at conveying the bigger story about a new technology in a way that captured people’s imaginations and inspired them to buy. And the most successful presentations of new drugs to FDA advisory committees “tell the story” of the drug in ways that are lucid, even inspiring. In both cases, the “story” is about the bigger context, the development path and the impact of the new breakthrough. That kind of story is woven through an entire talk.

An easy way to use story is to think about something exciting, meaningful or interesting you’ve encountered, which has some relevance to your topic. This can be an achievement, an interaction, something that’s happened in your org or team. It can be something from your personal life, a media piece or a movie plot. If you do a lot of public speaking, keep your eyes open for good story content—it’s everywhere. Remember, whatever is really engaging for you is likely to engage your audience, as long as it is relevant. What you feel as the speaker, your audience will feel. So make sure you find your stories interesting!

It’s also crucial to edit stories so they have the right amount of detail (not too much) and so they resonate. And think about the transitions before and after the story—how does the story work with the content around it? Why is it meaningful? It can help to spell that out.

Use humor

Don’t underestimate the power of amusing your audience. Good humor is almost always welcome in public speaking. Laughter breaks tension, helps everyone relax and opens listeners’ minds to the speaker and their message. It also helps your audience see you as a real person they can connect with.

Whether you personally find something funny is a good starting point in gauging whether it will be funny for your audience. Find something that makes you laugh out loud if you can. Then consider what you know about your audience and the context. Will that sort of humor break the tension and help you connect with them? Is it appropriate? Grand jury testimony isn’t the moment for your favorite joke. And to be safe, test your humor with a few colleagues.

Connect through personal sharing

When we share some part of ourselves, especially something personal, it gives people a glimpse of who we really are. This makes it easier to connect. This is true in interpersonal relationships; it’s also true in public speaking.

While self-disclosure can be an effective way to engage an audience, it does involve a judgment call about what you share and how you frame it. There are levels. You might share your candid ideas on the subject at hand, your personal core values, or a challenge you faced. At the other end of the spectrum, you can share a deeply personal story from your own life. As the speaker, you get to decide what level of self-disclosure feels right to you. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool.

If you’re trying to discern how much to disclose in an important presentation, ask yourself:

  • Does it help connect me to my audience?
  • Does it serve them?
  • Is this an audience/context where the sharing may hurt my credibility?
  • Is the sharing genuine, or am I using it to manipulate my audience?

Because so much depends on the specifics, there’s no simple rule about self-disclosure. When in doubt, get the advice of a trusted friend or colleague.

And remember, if you share something “heavy,” it’s also your responsibility to lift up, inspire, educate and otherwise leave your audience better off than you found them. As a client recently pointed out to me, you don’t want to use your audience as a therapy session.

Focus on serving the audience

A genuine desire to help others, to be of service, can also make your talk more authentic. If you’re focused on looking good or impressing the audience, you are worried about the wrong thing. Instead, think about the value you can offer. Depending on the presentation and the context, this could mean informing, inspiring or motivating to action. The difference here is that you are thinking about them, or about your mission, and not about you.

The more clarity you have about this positive intent and the better you know yourself, the less likely you are to lose touch with your authentic self, even if you adopt different surface behaviors when speaking in different contexts.

Also see our posts on connecting with your passions, using techniques effectively and transcending your script.

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