Make your own mark

Why speak like somebody else when you can speak like you?

A participant in a recent workshop I ran, a thoughtful young man with a clear mind and gentle, sincere speaking style, asked me how he could become more “forceful and persuasive” in his presentations – “like the politicians”. He’d been studying Barack Obama’s speeches and wanted to develop a style like his. Another woman asked me recently if I could coach her to be like Olivia Pope in Scandal (I had to look that up).

I’m guessing what’s behind this type of request is the desire to be bullet-proof. The people most often cited as good public speakers tend to be alpha-males from a dominant culture – from Cicero to Steve Jobs. The basic style is to ooze strength and self-confidence, displaying razor-sharp wit and no signs of vulnerability. Harriet Lerner’s talks about this in her book The Dance of Fear:

“…the podium has historically served as a place for an elite group of men to reflect themselves at twice their natural size. It has never been a place to admit ignorance, confusion, or even complexity. To stand at a podium is to elevate oneself – literally – above other humans. To pretend to have all the answers and to never fuck up.”

In fact, public speaking just amps up a tendency most of us have anyway to present ourselves as stronger, better, more intelligent and on top of things than we actually are. We don’t like feeling vulnerable and admitting weakness. There may be a good evolutionary reason for this, but it can be a terrible pressure to live with.

It’s not surprising that Brene Brown was so very successful with her TED talk on vulnerability.

After a lifetime of pretense and pressure to be good at stuff, a bit of sincere permission to be more like who you actually are, i.e. not bullet-proof, is deeply relieving. Paradoxically, people admired her bravery for speaking up about it – hers is one of the most successful TED talks of all time, and is a perfect example of how a speaker’s vulnerability can actually support their power and impact.

In any case, many people assume that the way to get good at public speaking is to copy famous people. Most conventional speaker training at some point includes studying a few famous political speeches and trying to emulate that style. The approach is very much like rehearsing for a performance.

But the problem is that learning to perform like somebody else is never going to make you the best speaker you can be. It will make you, at best, a good performer. At worst, you’ll come across as artificial and fake.

It’s not that we can’t learn from others, but I do think we put too much emphasis on our role-models and not enough on discovering our own strengths. We shouldn’t forget that good speakers have a journey behind them. They are good because they’ve followed their own path, learnt from their mistakes, and found their own voice. That’s what enables them to step forwards authentically and speak about what’s important.

It doesn’t matter whether you are extrovert and forcefully strong, or perhaps more introverted and gently powerful. You might be quirky in a clever kind of way, or sweet and sensitive. There are a million ways to be a good speaker. What matters is your level of self-acceptance – the degree to which you are behind yourself and your message. Regardless of what you have to say, we are longing for you to have that self-conviction.

If you’re interested in finding strong ground from which to speak, don’t look first to people out there. Take an interest in yourself. Begin by noticing and appreciating the kind of speaker you are – the things you do well, the things people like about you. You might also want to identify the one most important thing for you to improve. And once you have a stable foundation built on a firm understanding of your own personal style, then it might be interesting to see how others do things.

I hope that thoughtful young man with the clear mind and gentle, sincere speaking style will learn that he is already well-equipped to give a good presentation – the only thing he’s got wrong is to imagine his strength lies outside of himself.