Authenticity is a powerful foundation for a successful presentation. But to be your best as a speaker you have to get it right on the inside and on the outside.
On the inside, you have to know what’s true for you, why you are passionate about your topic, what you really think, feel, believe and value. Speaking out of that awareness gives you a strong foundation to connect with and move your audience.
But you also need to use the outward behaviors and techniques of effective public speaking to fully engage your audience. In some cases, I have seen speakers who failed to come across as authentic because, even though they knew their passion, it wasn’t coming through in their behaviors.
Set clear goals
A good place to begin is to get clear on the desired outcomes of your presentation. What impact do you want to have? What do you want your audience to do, or think, or feel? Knowing the purpose of your presentation gives you focus.
I once coached the chairman of a sustainability-focused company as he prepared for a keynote. Talking with him one-on-one, his fiery commitment to the company’s cause was obvious. But that didn’t translate into his speech, which lacked a clear purpose. He wasn’t sure what kind of impact he wanted to have on his audience. This showed up in his closing remarks—there was no inspiring call to action, no way for them to turn passion into concrete action.
After some brainstorming, it became clear that his real goal was not just to teach people about sustainability but to turn them into evangelists. His revised call to action reflected this: it included specific suggestions for how the audience could spread the word about sustainable practices in different real-life situations. It ended up being a great talk. And because it connected more deeply with his purpose, it became more authentic.
Use slides effectively
Used well, slides can add impact to your message. Used badly, they distract from your message and decrease your connection with the audience. Public speaking is a relationship, and the more you are relegated to the background, the less relationship there is between you and the audience.
My favorite slide tips are:
- Each slide should convey one big idea. You should be able to say, in one simple sentence, what the point of each slide is.
- Images and text should be simple, clear and accessible. They should support and reinforce what you are saying.
- Use video or audio only if they strengthen, rather than distract from, your message.
- Ask yourself: is everything on the slide necessary? Is it clear and easy to grasp in a few seconds?
Finally, not every presentation needs slides. A lone presenter standing before an audience can be incredibly powerful, especially for talks meant to engage and inspire rather than solely to share a lot of data.
Practice and edit
Practicing out loud helps reveal what works and what doesn’t, so you can make your talk better. You’re rehearsing, but part way through it strikes you: “This story is too long. I’m getting bored with it. I need to cut it down,” or “There’s something off about the transition from my introduction to the next part.” So practice and edit together.
People often ask how much to rehearse. Some find that too much rehearsing causes them to become more mechanical and less engaging, while others find a lot of rehearsing helpful. Also, the higher the stakes, the more prep you’ll typically want to do. I usually recommend several run-throughs of an entire presentation. You want to be comfortable enough with the material that you don’t have to think about what comes next—the topic of the next slide, what story you’re going to tell, etc. It can also be helpful to memorize the first sentence you’ll say for each slide. I usually rehearse until I can get through the whole thing, without stopping, and I feel good about it.
Usually you won’t want to memorize the entire presentation or deliver it the same way each time, but you do need to know where you are headed. That way, you can focus on connecting with your audience instead of on remembering what to say.
Project confidence with your body language
Body language is hugely impactful in public speaking. When there is a conflict between the words someone says (“I feel great about this new product!”) and the way they say it (hunched shoulders, no eye contact, folded arms, shifting from side to side), the audience pays more attention to the body language and tone of voice than to the words.
Best practices for body language include:
- Make steady, natural eye contact with one person at a time for several seconds, as if you are having a conversation with that one person.
- Smile occasionally or show other authentic emotions on your face.
- Stand tall with your weight over both feet instead of slouching or leaning into one hip.
- Use the space by occasionally walking to a new location, then “planting” there and facing the audience.
- Gesture naturally, avoiding crossed arms or other closed positions that block you off from the audience.
A senior leader I once coached had trouble standing still when he gave a presentation. Smart and energetic, he didn’t quite know what to do with all of his energy. His eyes darted around quickly, his hands moved frenetically and his weight shifted from side to side. It made him look less confident, and it made it harder for the audience to connect with him.
We worked on his stance, keeping his weight solidly over both feet and making sure he held steady eye contact with one person for 3-5 seconds at a time. The change was not immediate. He had to keep working at it, but he improved, and eventually he got very positive feedback.
Bring your voice to life
Your voice is a major part of what you convey to your audience. Just as music uses dynamic changes, pauses, highs and lows to convey emotion and meaning, so your voice is an instrument that adds color and life to what you say.
The most common problems I hear in presenters’ voices are: too quiet, too fast and too flat. So make sure that you are loud enough for your audience to hear and that your pace isn’t so fast that it’s hard to understand. And add some color and inflection to your voice.
If talking too fast is an issue, try this exercise: when you are rehearsing, try speaking way too slow. Like, at 50% speed. It’s not that you will do this in front of your audience, but the exercise will slow you down a bit. Another strategy that helps is simply to pause more often when you speak.
For more on voice, see “Executive Presence and Your Voice.”
Have a conversation, not a performance
Jerry Weissman, one of my favorite authors on public speaking, says that some people view public speaking as a performance, a one-way broadcast from them to their audience. This mindset of “putting on a show” results in less connection with the audience, not more.
It’s better to think of a presentation as having a conversation with the audience. Pick out one person in the room and talk like you are having a conversation with that one person. Then, a few seconds later, pick someone else. “Speak only to eyes,” as Weissman puts it. This approach also works well for high-stakes Q&A sessions or smaller meetings.
Remember: techniques are a means, not the end
Sometimes leaders I coach are so focused on learning the “right” behaviors that they forget how crucial connection is for good communication. As you practice new public speaking behaviors, remember that these techniques are a means to an end. They are not the end goal. Your goal isn’t to correctly check off a list of behaviors. The goal is to make a connection with your audience and to have an impact.
Approaching a speech with the mindset of “connecting with the audience” or “trying to really engage the other person” is more effective than focusing on “giving a good speech.” I’ve seen leaders go from flat and awkward to highly engaging just by making this one mental shift.
For more on this topic, see the Harvard Business Review article, “How to Become an Authentic Speaker.”