I remember having a complete identity crisis in 7th grade when a motivational speaker came to speak to our junior high class. Their key message was to “be yourself” and if you followed that mantra, everything else would magically fall into place. All I could think was, “I have no idea who I am so how can I “be myself” and in addition to that, where do I find said self?”
So I tried on different personalities. I was louder. I tried to be funny. I set out to be mysterious and introverted. And guess what? None of these felt like me, and I never felt comfortable wearing any of these manufactured personality traits. So how do we find (and be) our authentic selves in the moment when we are public speaking?
Take the focus off you
One of the best ways to find your authentic self is by observing how you respond to others. Take the focus off yourself and hone in on your audience. What is it that they want to hear? What is the tone of the room and how can you emulate it?
For example, if it’s the first meeting of the day, keep in mind that everyone is likely tired. Observe your audience. If everyone appears to be lethargic and slow to move, they probably won’t appreciate an overly energetic: “Hey everybody! I’m so excited to be here and kick off the week!” If the group looks sluggish, try matching the tone of the room by being more laid-back in your delivery.
Another way to take the focus off of you is to zero in on the information you are presenting. Too often we put a lot of emphasis on how we will deliver information as opposed to what the information is in itself. It’s important to share your ideas and put them out into the world. After all, someone thought your message was important enough to share with a large group. That’s why you’re presenting your ideas to others in the first place, right? This is why even introverts can make great public speakers—if they have a well-crafted message, it becomes more about what they are delivering, and places less emphasis on how they are delivering it.
Be flexible and spontaneous
The idea of finding yourself through others requires that you remain flexible and are able to be spontaneous in the moment.
Let’s say you are presenting some very dry information and as you look around the room, you notice everyone looks bored. Rather than pressing on and making everyone suffer, you decide to tell a quick story about why the information is important. Now you’ve regained their attention. You had not planned on telling this story, but you read the room and allowed yourself to be flexible. Not only have you brought back attention and energy, but you found your authentic self in that moment.
Observing others and adapting your reaction is a great place to begin to understand how you will act, how you want to proceed, and most importantly, how you feel. This is where finding your authentic voice truly begins.
You cannot be authentic if you are not relaxed. If you are overly stressed, you become hyper and rigid. It becomes very difficult for the audience to actually hear any message when the speaker is in this heightened state. They will only focus on how nervous the speaker appears or how the presenter lacks the confidence to deliver their message.
Leadership presence starts with authenticity, and you cannot have leadership presence if you’re not relaxed. If there is too much tension, you will have a difficult time gauging your audience’s reaction and being spontaneous.
While there are many techniques available to help you relax, such as breathing through your diaphragm, it is also important to make friends with the unknown. You can prepare your presentation in your living room and it will likely go very well. However, when you get to the actual presentation, all that preparation will go out the window if you’re not relaxed. Perhaps someone asked a question you didn’t anticipate. Rather than getting thrown off, invite the question. Allow yourself to be in the unknown, find that relaxation and realize this is where authenticity finally gets to have the floor.
You can try humor. You can try being louder. You can try being serious. But if all of these are pre-planned, they won’t be authentic.
The best way to find your authentic self is to pay attention to how you respond to others and listen to your inner self as you do that. And if you’re relaxed, being authentic will happen naturally.
This article originally published on Fast Company Magazine.