The role of truth in powerful public speaking
When it comes to public speaking, many of us want to get it over and done with as soon as possible. We might recognise the power of public speaking as a way of increasing our profile, sharing our message or helping us win new business, but we don’t necessarily relish the act itself.
However, the speakers who move us are very often those who immerse themselves in the experience.
We can’t say for sure that they’re ‘relishing’ it, but perhaps one of the things that makes them compelling is their surrender to the moment, being fully present in their story and their message. I believe it’s this presence that makes them believable, that captivates us and makes us want to follow them.
I’m a public speaking coach and I also trained as an actor—and I believe that TRUTH is an essential ingredient of both activities. One of the exercises we did at drama school was on the topic of being believable or truthful. Two of us had to recite a short scene, surrounded by the rest of the class. When one of us said a line that didn’t ring true, someone in the group would quietly say, “No,” and we’d have to repeat the line. We had to dig deep into finding the truth of the line if we were to convince each of the 15 people around us that we were being genuine. We had to repeat some of the lines over and over — to the point of embarrassment — so it really focused the mind and inspired us to be creative about the way we connected to the text. We found the only way to find the truth of the line was to be 100% present. We had to let go of what we thought would sound believable and concentrate on being completely in the moment with our truth.
TRUTH in acting is almost always about stripping things away: about letting go of self-consciousness, fear of being judged, striving to be good… and simply being present to what the character is going through in that moment — neither thinking about nor feeling anything else. This sounds simple, but it’s not at all easy.
I think the same rules apply when we’re public speaking: reciting our own lines, speaking from the heart about our own story or sharing our message. I think we need to strip away our concerns about being good enough and immerse ourselves in the truth of the moment. If we’re telling a story, we must tell it as if we’re living it right now. We must feel the emotions. We must allow time for our own words to land within us. We must lead the audience on our journey, experiencing each moment as if it’s the first time. Remembering that for the audience, this IS the first time they’ve been on this journey, had these thoughts, felt these emotions or experienced these insights. As the speaker, when we’re present, we lead the audience to be present with us.
So, how do we do that when our minds are potentially anywhere BUT the present moment — worrying about what we’re going to say next and what the audience is thinking, fearing that we’re boring them or they’re judging us..? These worries can make it too tempting to recite the right words and get off stage as soon as possible. It’s like we have a mental checklist:
- Did I remember what to say?
- Did I avoid bumping into any furniture?
- Did I cover the three points and build my evidence as planned?
Instead, perhaps our checklist should be:
- Was I present?
- Did I feel the truth of what I was saying as I said it?
- Did I leave thinking space for new insights to surface, so I could ‘dance in the moment’ with my audience?
There are lots of ways to minimise distractions and worries when we’re speaking in public (including good planning and rehearsal). But I believe the ‘being in the moment’ things starts earlier with a daily practice of meditation and mindfulness. If ‘meditative and mindful’ is who we are in our lives, it’ll be who we are when we take to the stage to speak publicly.
Instead of getting it ‘over and done with’, we’ll be more likely to savour the experience. It’ll make us more present, more responsive to the audience and the situation, and ultimately make us more powerful… as people and as speakers.
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The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).