Speaking Authentically Makes All the Difference for Leaders...and Everyone Else Too

06/10/2015 03:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

The post below is an article that I co-wrote with my friend, mentor, and fellow author Jeremey Donovan.

Picture this...Yet another executive parades across the stage at your all company meeting to wax on about the state of the business. If you are anything like us, you clap politely at the end of your boss's boss's boss's overly scripted presentation and then turn your attention to thoughts of a free lunch as the smell of catered food and Sterno catches your nose.

We were at one such event recently, when something happened that we have never experienced before. When the fourth speaker left the stage, one brave soul stood up and started clapping. Moments later, a few more people rose. As the entire audience erupted in a standing ovation, the speaker, blushing with embarrassment and pride, came back on the stage to take a humble bow. Unlike the other speakers that day, she was real. What did she do differently to connect with the audience? In other words...

What did she do to be an authentic speaker?

This question is an intriguing one. Authenticity is very hard to define and even more elusive to enact, but you know it when we see it. More importantly, you experience its power as an audience member. To better understand how to become a more authentic speaker, we are going to use two different perspectives - business and academic - to identify and demonstrate specific actions and approaches speakers can take to be more authentic.

The Business Perspective
The first difference between our authentic speaker and the other presenters was that she wore genuine interest for her message and for her audience on her sleeve. As people climb the executive ranks, they often follow one of two paths as speakers. The vast majority adopt a stiff, conservative persona devoid of emotion. Their style is almost too polished. The remaining minority amp themselves up to unbridled passion. Both have forgotten that you should be the same person onstage as you are offstage. The executive that day showed true charisma by expressing her controlled passion for her team's work. She spoke to her audience as equals traveling the same road.

The second difference was that she allowed herself to be vulnerable. That day, every executive who preceded her stood authoritatively behind a lectern as they and stepped through sterile, fact-filled presentations. The speaker who connected used no slides and left the lectern behind. Instead, she came out to the edge of the stage and shared a story about the journey her team was on. It was a journey of both success and failure with many opportunities and challenges ahead.

The Academic Perspective
Unlike the speakers presenting before her, our authentic speaker projected warmth and immediacy - behaviors that not only differentiated her from her presenting peers, but also connected her to her audience in an honest and genuine way. Recent academic research has shown value of communicating in a warm and embracing manner. Warmth can be thought of as operationalized empathy. It is a combination of understanding your audience's needs and displaying that understanding through your actions. As our authentic speaker demonstrated, warm presenters acknowledge their audience's needs by verbally echoing them. She also maintained an engaged posture, leaning forward and moving towards people who asked questions. Researchers, such as popular TED presenter and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy, have shown that warmth is a key trait of successful leaders.

Similar to warmth, immediacy is a term coined in the late 1960's by psychology professor Albert Meharabian to represent the many verbal and nonverbal behaviors people express to build emotional connection. Nervous and novice leaders, such as the three we saw present before our authentic speaker, tend to retreat physically and emotionally when presenting. They step back away from the audience while drawing their arms across their chests and hunching over. They hide behind a lectern. Their language is more formal. Contrast this to leaders who communicate in an immediate fashion by holding an open, balanced posture and using language that is conversational. Research has shown that leaders and teachers who communicate in an immediate way are more effective and better liked.

Putting it together
Both the business and academic perspectives show us that authenticity is a powerful tool for helping you succeed at work. It boils down to being genuinely interested in and empathic with your audience while remaining emotionally and physically open and engaged. You do not need to learn how to be an authentic speaker. Rather, you simply need to shed the armor of supposed "executive presence" that many put on before they take the stage. Authenticity in business presentations is about getting out of your head and doing what comes naturally. Jock Elliott had it right at the end of his 2011 World Championship speech, "Reach out now in your minds and hearts and touch them. Feel their warmth. Feel their friendship." Executives who speak eye-to-eye with their audiences, who show their genuine interest and their vulnerability, earn to right to lead. And, if the stars align just right, they will also earn your standing ovation.