Authenticity is one of the most important qualities in leadership communications today. We want leaders who look real. We believe that people are authentic when they show us their hearts or are open with us in a way that feels sincere. We think of others as authentic when they are transparent about their motive and intention, and we know there is no hidden agenda.
It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Just be yourself, don’t fake it. And yet. Ever listened to an otherwise brilliant speaker with the feeling that he or she wasn’t real? Or have you been told by others that you don’t seem natural when speaking in public?
Even sincere speakers sometimes come across as artificial. Often that is because the non-verbal signals are contradicting the words we are using. For example, saying “I’m really thrilled to be here tonight” in a monotonous voice and with an expression of indifference on your face. Or stating that “We are absolutely convinced that this is the superior solution” while staring at your feet and fidgeting with a pen. When there is a disconnect between our verbal and the non-verbal communication, people will judge us at best unconvincing and at worst fake.
To avoid looking over-rehearsed, some speakers choose to walk in unprepared and just improvise. Overwhelmed by the stressful situation, their speech gets hijacked by nervous body language and persuades nobody. Other speakers rehearse meticulously, practicing every gesture, and come across as contrived. The reason is that our body language is directed by emotions or impulses from the brain that precede the conscious thought. That is, the authentic gesture comes before we even think and pronounce the words. If the gesture gets pasted on after the words, it looks artificial.
“So if rehearsing is bad and not rehearsing is worse, there’s no way I can win this game?”
If you want to be an authentic and convincing communicator the secret is to focus on your mindset and your intention. Nick Morgan in his book Trust Me, gives the advice to rehearse your speech or presentation with the aim of being open, connected, listening, and passionate. Instead of practicing a particular body language or tone of voice, practice giving your speech adopting the mindset of each aim in turn, feeling it more than thinking about it. If you are able to genuinely experience these feelings, the non-verbal communication will take care of itself.
1) Being open
To rehearse being open, give your speech as if you were relaxed at home talking to a loved one. Or imagine that you are hosting a party, wanting your dear friends to feel welcome and cared for. You will notice your shoulders coming down, a smile emerging, and your body adopting a relaxed, open stance.
2) Being connected and listening
Think about wanting and needing to connect with the audience. Remember that any communications act is not about you, it’s about your listeners. Try to put yourself in their shoes: what is their current emotional state and point of view on your topic? Imagine using all your senses to connect with the audience. See them, hear them, feel them, smell them. Imagine your breath, your voice, and your energy reaching out and psychically touching them.
3) Being passionate
Connect with your own feelings and emotions, which might be positive or negative. How do you connect with the subject matter at hand? Why are you giving this presentation? What would you like people to feel or do as a result of your speech? Once you know what your passionate purpose is, how do you embody it?
Each of these aims demands a more thoughtful approach to communication than you may be used to. You may find the practice difficult, weird or risky. And that’s exactly why we like to follow authentic speakers – because they dare to speak from the heart.