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It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparison when it comes to our public speaking. We see a compelling speaker and wonder if we can ever rise to those standards. Dave’s story about the pony and the runaway unicycle always brings down the house - we just can’t compete with that. But we miss something when we compare ourselves to others: the unique qualities we bring to our own speaking. The most important thing we can bring (unless we have a pony and a unicycle) is our authenticity.
One Trick Pony
Let’s look at the great speeches of history, just to make ourselves feel worse for a minute. Choose any: Churchill fighting them on the beaches, King’s dreaming, Obama telling us that yes, actually, we can. Powerful orators delivering powerful words, but the formula is far simpler: the right words, with the right delivery, at the right time and place. And guess what? Those are all things within our reach as speakers.
Our only job in any encounter is to deliver the right words in the right way. We’re not expected to change the world with the 3rd Quarter reports, just deliver them with clarity. Have a look at the Almeida Theatre’s Figures of Speech project. They got their grittiest actors to deliver the great speeches of history. Castro’s epic ‘History Will Absolve Me’. Sir Ian McKellan doing Harvey Milk’s ‘Hope’ speech, which you already know is amazing because if he was good in CATS there’s nothing he can’t do.
There’s a few things you’ll notice. One is that the speeches are great. Magnificent diatribes, searing confessionals, lovely fodder for an actor to roll around the mouth. But there’s ultimately something missing: context. These speeches weren’t written for actors to perform, and no matter how intensely they stare into the camera they’ll never recreate the real power of the original. Because these speeches came from a place of absolute authenticity that can’t be replicated, only imitated.
This isn’t the actors’ fault. No one’s coming for Sir Ian. When you prepare your own speech or presentation, it develops in a way natural to your own ways of thinking, in your vocabulary, following the lines of your understanding. When you present, it’s in your own voice, with (hopefully) a clear sense of the job you’re there to do. If someone else has done that work and you just have to present it, you’re automatically out of your authenticity zone.
Speak for Yourself
The point is: to be convincing, persuasive, effective speakers, we don’t have to emulate anyone else or write the greatest speech in history – or even be any kind of performer. Quite the contrary, as Sir Ian might say. We just have to learn to value our own authenticity, and deliver the right words, in the right way, at the right time and place. No unicycles required.
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