I have very few prized possessions, but one of them is a set of Princess Diana collectible plates from the Bradford Exchange. They were given to me as a gift by someone who really loves and knows me (thank you Linda), and have provided me with hours of joy and entertainment. Here they are in all their splendor.
I just set them out really quietly to take that photo for you. They clinked a couple times, and I worried my kids might wake up. I thought it might be tough explaining why I was taking glamour shots of plates at 11:30 PM but I felt it was worth the risk. Aren’t they pretty?
This one’s my favorite. Princess Diana is wearing a blue velvet dress: dreamy. The gown was known as the “Travolta Dress” because she first wore it on a trip to the White House in the mid 80s where she danced at a gala dinner with John Travolta to music from Saturday Night Fever. I just wish I’d been there to see it.
Okay, I’ve sacrificed all my cool points and let you into my nerdy world filled with facts about the Princess of Wales and exciting late night activities. There’s no turning back. Today is all about authenticity, and I’m kicking it off with a flippin sweet certificate.
Being authentic is likely the single most effect way to achieve your presentation goals. Unfortunately, we can’t all be as lucky as my plates. They get to live at my house where they are cherished – and – they have written certificates proving their authenticity. We have to work a little harder as speakers to convey our genuineness. The good news is that it isn’t that tough and I may be able to help a little.
Being authentic, while key to success (above almost everything else) isn’t often formally addressed by those offering advice on presentations. Perhaps it’s because being authentic is a more nebulous a topic to teach than others. How do you teach people to be more like themselves? It’s kind of a thinker! However, I’ve been really fortunate to work with Jamie and others who have really encouraged and celebrated authenticity. Through those experiences I’ve adopted a few strategies to keep me on track, and perhaps some of them will be helpful to you.
Here are a few of my go-to authenticity moves:
Be a little bit brave. I wonder if there is anything that feels more unnatural than trying to be natural (authentic) in front of an audience. It can feel risky to be yourself in front of a group of people you perceive could judge you. What if they don’t like you? What if they don’t think you know what you’re talking about? What if they think you are the strangest person they’ve ever seen? Yikes! However, would you believe the quickest route to winning audience members over is to show them you trust them enough to be yourself? It’s also good to keep in mind that audiences are rooting for your success. They want you to do well. They are ready to support you. Let them.
Know your stuff. A presenter is free to be authentic only when they have taken the time to become experts in the material they’re sharing with their audience. They aren’t stressed about forgetting their notes or missing key pieces of information. They are prepared and confident.
Know your connections to the material. Be willing to find ways to identify those connections. This doesn’t necessarily mean telling personal stories, or making uncomfortable disclosures. Rather it’s about finding what’s meaningful to you in the material and making sure that comes across in your delivery. So go ahead and get unreasonably excited about your data. Smile from ear to ear when you show your pie chart, if that’s what you feel in your heart. We often feel that we need to restrain our feelings in a presentation for fear that showing our true emotions will be unprofessional. This is not the case. Make sure your clothes are neat, your material is organized, you’re delivery is respectful, and your breath isn’t kickin’ like Jackie Chan. You can smile. It’s cool. Trust me. You’re still professional.
Say less stuff. The best of the best presenters won’t tell you everything they know. They will provide you with only the most relevant and meaningful information. They don’t over intellectualize or constantly remind you that they are an expert by inundating you with insider lingo or too much detail. Being concise is the mark of exceptional and authentic presenter.
You should sound like you. I’m often charged with creating presentations that others will deliver. The goal and key points are usually defined in a planning discussion with the presenter, as well as any essential material for inclusion. Then I set about my work to organize the information, align the material with story ideas, analogies and/or activities, and often design a slide deck with a companion script. This finished product then arrives back in the presenter’s hands with one direction: please change anything that doesn’t sound like you. The words you use in a presentation should be the words you’re using all the time. When I write scripts, they contain placeholder text and notes. They sound like me. Even when I know the speaker very well and try to channel them when writing their script, I can never quite get it. I provide the basic framework, but presenters are then able to make edits and additions so it truly sounds like them.
Do what works for you. Many of us have been guilty of attending a great presentation, and then trying to duplicate the presenter’s approach after the fact and fallen flat. After a few failed attempts, I learned that I have to do what works for me in a presentation. If you aren’t someone who is comfortable with telling jokes and using humor, please don’t try to turn your presentation into a stand up comedy routine. You don’t need to do that in order to engage your audience. There are many routes to audience engagement. They all begin with the presenter being genuine and highlighting their assets. I attended an awesome presentation during which the presenter actually sang. It was beautiful and inspiring. I cried a little. I promise that if I tried to sing any of this to you, you’d cry too, but for an entirely different reason. It would go very badly. You just have to do what works best for you. This is really where style and strengths come into play. Know your style and identify your strengths. Then use them. Are you a fantastic storyteller? Use several stories to illustrate your points. Do you excel at creating and leading hands-on activities? Build them into your presentation.
Set aside time for questions. My favorite part of presentations is often the time for questions at the end. I usually don’t have many questions of my own, because my mouth is full of snacks. However, I so appreciate hearing the speaker’s responses to others’ questions. This informal time often reveals much more about their perspectives, interest in the topic, and really shows their connectedness to the material. You often get to know much more about the speaker during Q&A sessions. Make sure to leave time for this important exchange between you and the audience.
As with any topic, we’ve been learning by doing and experimenting. We’d very much love to hear any advice you have about how to nurture authenticity. Please share your thoughts. I will take brief breaks from admiring my plates to check email.