“Be yourself. The worst talks are the ones where someone is trying to be someone they aren’t. If you are generally goofy, then be goofy. If you are emotional, then be emotional.”
You’re much more likely to succeed whether you’re presenting, making a pitch, or interviewing for a job if you follow this great advice on public speaking from Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy.
Why authenticity matters
Being authentic means being you. No pretense, no acting, no airs, no trying to talk or act like someone else. When we are at ease being ourselves, we communicate more naturally and with more confidence because our brains are not putting in extra effort to act. The audience sees someone who is comfortable being themselves—flaws and all—and is more likely to trust them.
But what does it mean to be authentic when giving a speech or presentation? Should you behave the same way in every situation? How can you know how to project authenticity to people who you have never met?
To be an authentic public speaker, you need self-awareness and to have an understanding of how you communicate.
Understand your unique communication style
Each of us has our quirks and habits that give us our unique ways of communicating through how we speak, how we stand, and the words we use. Ask yourself these questions: Is your speaking style naturally formal or informal? Are you more effective using slides that are very visual and emotive, or that are very factual and data-driven? Or are you a more persuasive speaker when using no slides at all?
We are hardly objective observers of ourselves, so to better understand your personal style, you’ll need to get feedback from others. Ask for honest and constructive feedback that goes beyond “great presentation!”
Talk to people who know you well—coworkers, friends, family. Ask them when you are most persuasive when speaking, ask them how they would describe the way you talk. Do you gesture a lot? Do you speak with your hands at your side? Do you smile a lot? How do you talk when speaking to your friends or family?
Look at some candid photos or videos of yourself taken when you weren’t posing or aware of being recorded. Pay attention to how you present yourself when you are at ease.
You can also find a community that will give you the feedback you need through a presentation course or a public speaking support group. I teach a presentation course to MBA students, and it’s amazing to see how much personal growth and self-awareness they get from having a community of classmates that gives them the feedback they need.
Bring out the real you
Once you understand your behaviors and style, start building them into your presentations and speeches more often. Experiment and use further audience feedback to figure out when you are succeeding and when you are not.
Try out new techniques that you think might work for you and match your style. If they do, add them to your repertoire. If something doesn’t feel like you, drop it. For example, successful presentations should have a mix of logic and emotion to be most persuasive, with an emphasis on the emotional side. But if you are logical, skew the balance more to the rational side, while leaving some emotion.
And while learning tips and techniques from great speakers can help you, don’t try to be them. Only Steve Jobs can be Steve Jobs.
Tools to be more authentic
Being authentic doesn’t mean always behaving the same way in all situations. This is a common misunderstanding. Authenticity requires self-awareness as well as awareness of your context and situation before deciding which parts of the real you to show.
Think about each presentation situation, understand your audience, and then pick and chose which elements of your personal speaking style will work in that situation.
Authentic public speaking is not one-size-fits-all. You have many behaviors, many ways to stand, smile, and talk. Think of each of those authentic behaviors as tools in a toolbox. Match the tool to the task, and bring out the right authentic behaviors to match the situation.
Will you fail sometimes? Yes. But being authentic requires showing some vulnerability, some willingness to push yourself, and being able to learn from mistakes. Keep on learning from mistakes, keep on learning how to be a better presenter, and always remember to be authentic.