by Nick Morgan
At a companywide sales meeting, Carol, a vice president of sales, strides energetically to the podium, pauses for a few seconds to look at the audience, and then tells a story from her days as a field rep. She deftly segues from her anecdote to a positive assessment of the company’s sales outlook for the year, supplementing her speech with colorful slides showing strong growth and exciting new products in the pipeline. While describing those products, she accents her words with animated gestures.
Having rehearsed carefully in front of a small audience of trusted colleagues, all of whom liked her message and her energy, she now confidently delivers the closer: Walking to the edge of the stage, she scans the room and challenges her listeners to commit to a stretch sales goal that will put many of them in the annual winners’ circle.
But Carol senses that something’s amiss. The audience isn’t exhibiting the kind of enthusiasm needed to get the year off to a great start. She begins to panic: What’s happening? Is there anything she can do to salvage the situation?
We all know a Carol. (You may be one yourself.) We’ve all heard speeches like hers, presentations in which the speaker is apparently doing all the right things, yet something—something we can’t quite identify—is wrong.
If asked about these speeches, we might describe them as “calculated,” “insincere,” “not real,” or “phoned in.” We probably wouldn’t be able to say exactly why the performance wasn’t compelling. The speaker just didn’t seem authentic.
In today’s difficult economy, and especially in the aftermath of numerous scandals involving individual executives, employees and shareholders are more skeptical than ever. Authenticity—including the ability to communicate authentically with others—has become an important leadership attribute. When leaders have it, they can inspire their followers to make extraordinary efforts on behalf of their organizations. When they don’t, cynicism prevails and few employees do more than the minimum necessary to get by.
In my 22 years of working as a communications coach, I have seen again and again how hard it is for managers to come across in public communications as authentic—even when they passionately believe their message. Why is this kind of communication so difficult? Why can’t people just stand up and tell the truth?
What Science Teaches Us
The answer lies in recent research into the ways our brains perceive and process communication. We all know by now the power of nonverbal communication—what I call the “second conversation.” If your spoken message and your body language are mismatched, audiences will respond to the nonverbal message every time. Gestures speak louder than words. And that means you can’t just stand up and tell the truth. You’ll often hear someone say in advance of a speech, “I don’t want to look over-rehearsed, so I’m going to wing it.” But during the presentation his body language will undermine his credibility. Because he’s in a stressful situation with no preparation, he’ll appear off-kilter. Whatever the message of his words, he’ll seem to be learning as he goes—not likely to engender confidence in a leader.
So preparation is important. But the traditional approach—careful rehearsal like Carol’s—often doesn’t work either. That’s because it usually involves specific coaching on nonverbal elements—“maintain eye contact,” “spread your arms,” “walk out from behind the podium”—that can ultimately make the speaker seem artificial. The audience can see the wheels turning in her head as she goes through the motions.
Why does this calculated body language come off as inauthentic? Here’s where the brain research comes in. We’re learning that in human beings the second, nonverbal conversation actually starts first, in the instant after an emotion or an impulse fires deep within the brain but before it has been articulated. Indeed, research shows that people’s natural and unstudied gestures are often indicators of what they will think and say next.
People’s natural and unstudied gestures are often indicators of what they will think and say next.
You might say that words are after-the-fact explanations of why we just gestured as we did. Think of something as simple as a hug: The impulse to embrace someone begins before the thought that you’re glad to see him or her has fully formed, much less been expressed aloud. Or think about a typical conversation: Reinforcement, contradiction, and commentary arise first in gesture. We nod vigorously, shake our heads, roll our eyes, all of which express our reactions more immediately—and more powerfully—than words can.
If gesture precedes conscious thought and thought precedes words—even if by no more than a tiny fraction of a second—that changes our thinking about speech preparation. When coached in the traditional way, rehearsing specific gestures one by one, speakers end up employing those gestures at the same time that—or even slightly after—they speak the associated words. Although audiences are not consciously aware of this unnatural sequence, their innate ability to read body language leads them to feel that something’s wrong—that the speaker is inauthentic.
So if neither casual spontaneity nor traditional rehearsal leads to compelling communication, how can you prepare for an important presentation? You have to tap into the basic impulses underlying your speech. These should include four powerful aims: to be open, to connect, to be passionate, and to listen. Each of these aims informs nearly all successful presentations.
Rehearse your speech with them in mind. Try practicing it four ways, adopting the mind-set of each aim in turn, feeling it more than thinking about it. Forget about rehearsing specific gestures. If you are able to sincerely realize these feelings, your body language will take care of itself, emerging naturally and at the right moment. (The approach described here may also lead you to refine some of your verbal message, to make it accord with your nonverbal one.) When you actually deliver the speech, continue to focus on the four underlying aims.
Note the paradox here. This method is designed to achieve authenticity through the mastery of a calculated process. But authenticity arises from the four aims, or what I call “intents,” that I have mentioned. If you can physically and emotionally embody all four, you’ll achieve the perceived and real authenticity that creates a powerful bond with listeners.
What Underlies an Authentic Speech
Creating that bond isn’t easy. Let me offer some advice for tapping into each of the four intents.
The intent to be open with your audience.
This is the first and in some ways the most important thing to focus on in rehearsing a speech, because if you come across as closed, your listeners will perceive you as defensive—as if they somehow represent a threat. Not much chance for communication there.
How can you become more open? Try to imagine giving your presentation to someone with whom you’re completely relaxed—your spouse, a close friend, your child. Notice what that mental picture looks like but particularly what it feels like. This is the state you need to be in if you are to have an authentic rapport with your audience.
If it’s hard to create this mental image, try the real thing. Find a patient friend and push yourself to be open with him or her. Notice what that scene looks like and, again, how you feel. Don’t overintellectualize: This is a bit like practicing a golf swing or a tennis serve. Although you might make tiny mental notes about what you’re doing, they shouldn’t get in the way of recognizing a feeling that you can try to replicate later.
Don’t overintellectualize: Working to be open is a bit like practicing a golf swing or a tennis serve.
Openness immediately feels risky to many people. I worked with a CEO who was passionate about his work, but his audiences didn’t respond. He realized that he’d learned as a boy not to show emotion precisely about the things that meant the most to him. We had to replace this felt experience with one of talking to a close friend he was excited to see.
Let’s go back to Carol (a composite of several clients). As she works on feeling more open in her presentations, her face begins to light up with a big smile when she speaks, and her shoulders relax. She realizes that without meaning to, she has come across as so serious that she has alienated her audiences.
A change in nonverbal behavior can affect the spoken message. Over and over, I’ve seen clients begin speaking more comfortably—and more authentically—as the intent to be more open physically led to a more candid expression of their thoughts.
The intent to connect with your audience.
Once you begin to feel open, and you’ve stored away the memory of what it looks and feels like, you’re ready to practice the speech again, this time focusing on the audience. Think about wanting—needing—to engage your listeners. Imagine that a young child you know well isn’t heeding you. You want to capture that child’s attention however you can. You don’t strategize—you simply do what feels natural and appropriate. You increase the intensity or volume of your voice or move closer.
You also want to keep your audience’s attention. Don’t let listeners slide away into their thoughts instead of following yours. Here, you might transform your young child into a teenager and imagine yearning to keep this easily distractible listener focused on your words.
If openness is the ante that lets you into the game, connection is what keeps the audience playing. Now that Carol is intent on being connected with her listeners, she realizes that she typically waits too long—in fact, until the very end of her speech—to make contact with them. She begins her next presentation by reaching out to audience members who have contributed significantly to the company’s sales success, establishing a connection that continues throughout her speech.
The intent to be passionate about your topic.
Ask yourself what it is that you feel deeply about. What’s at stake? What results do you want your presentation to produce? Are you excited about the prospects of your company? Worried that they look bleak? Determined to improve them?
Focus not on what you want to say but on why you’re giving the speech and how you feel about that. Let the underlying emotion come out (once you’ve identified it, you won’t need to force it) in every word you deliver during this round of rehearsal. Then raise the stakes for yourself: Imagine that somebody in the audience has the power to take everything away from you unless you win him or her over with your passionate argument.
I worked with a senior partner at a consulting firm who was planning to talk to her colleagues about the things at the firm she valued and wanted to pass on to the next generation as she got ready to retire. Her speech, when she began practicing it, was a crystal-clear but dull commentary on the importance of commitment and hard work. As she began focusing on the emotion beneath the speech, she recalled how her mother, a dancer, had instilled in her the value of persisting no matter what the obstacles. She decided to acknowledge her mother in her talk. She said that her mother, then 92, had never let the pain and difficulties she had experienced during her career obscure her joy in performing. Although the speaker shed most of her tears during rehearsal, her passion transformed the talk into something memorable.
Somewhat more prosaically, Carol begins to think about what she’s passionate about—her determination to beat a close competitor—and how that might inform her presentations. She realizes that this passion fuels her energy and excitement about her job. She infuses her next speech with some of that passion and immediately comes across as more human and engaging.
The intent to “listen” to your audience.
Now begin thinking about what your listeners are likely to be feeling when you step up to begin your presentation. Are they excited about the future? Worried about bad sales news? Hopeful they can keep their jobs after the merger? As you practice, imagine yourself watching them very closely, looking for signs of their response to you.
Of course, your intent to discover the audience’s emotional state will be most important during the actual presentation. Usually your listeners won’t actually be talking to you, but they will be sending you nonverbal messages that you’ll need to pick up and respond to.
This isn’t as hard as it may sound. As a fellow member of the human race, you are as expert as your audience in reading body language—if you have an intent to do so. As you read the messages your listeners are sending with their bodies, you may want to pick up the pace, vary your language, even change or eliminate parts of your talk. If this leads you to involve the audience in a real dialogue—say, by asking an impromptu question—so much the better.
If time has been set aside for questions at the end of your presentation, you’ll want to listen to the audience with your whole body, keeping yourself physically and psychologically still in the way you might when someone is telling you something so important that you dare not miss a word. Without thinking about it, you’ll find yourself leaning forward or nodding your head—gestures that would appear unnatural if you were doing them because you’d been told to.
Of course, listening to and responding to an audience in the middle of your speech requires that you have your material down cold. But you can also take what your listeners tell you and use it to improve future presentations. I worked with a sales executive who had been so successful that she began touring the world in order to share her secrets with others. In listening to audiences, paying attention to their bodies as well as their words, she began to realize that they didn’t just want to receive what she had to say; they wanted to give her something in return. The executive’s speeches were inspiring, and her listeners wanted to thank her. So we designed a brief but meaningful ceremony near the end of her speech that allowed the audience members to get up, interact with one another, and give back to the speaker some of the inspiration she was giving them.
Consider Carol once again. Because of her intent to pick up on her listeners’ emotions, Carol begins to realize over the course of several speeches that she has been wrongly assuming that her salespeople share her sense of urgency about their major competitor. She resolves to spend more time at the beginning of her next presentation explaining why stretch goals are important. This response to her listeners’ state of mind, when combined with her own desire to be open, connected, and passionate, strengthens her growing ability to come across as—and be—an authentic speaker.