I've been getting paid to speak in front of audiences since I was in my early twenties. I've read and heard just about every piece of advice there is about public speaking. Like many of us, I had the belief--or at least the hope--that there was some sort of secret sauce to being a great speaker, to overcoming fear, to wowing an audience, and to feeling comfortable and in control on stage.
After all this time I can tell you with absolutely certainty that there isn't any secret sauce.
What I have found is that there are people who have a natural stage charisma. They are wired in a manner that allows them to connect with an audience in profound ways. Trying to reduce their charisma to a replicable formula is foolish. Sure, I can tell you why certain people sound convincing or engaging, but, unless you're an A-list actor, trying to mimic them is never going to make you a better speaker. That's because the single most important thing you need to be when you're on stage is yourself.
Although there's no lack of books, speaking bootcamps, and personal speaking coaches who will promise to mold you into a top notch speaker, I can tell you from experience that they are not going to give you the one thing you need most in order to come across in the best possible way when you're on stage--being comfortable with your weaknesses.
You Be You
That's because you cannot change who you are. And who you are is a combination of personality traits, some endearing and some, well, not so endearing. The problem I've seen with pretty much every piece of advice on public speaking is that it focuses on how to eliminate the not so endearing qualities. As if you weren't uncomfortable enough about public speaking, now you have a laundry list of things to not do. So, as you're trying to keep it together up there, you also have to remember the twenty things you're doing wrong. Can you see the problem here?
The nearly insurmountable challenge is that willing bad habits away is hard enough, but it will never work when you're trying to do it in front of an audience. When we're stressed we naturally revert to behaviors that give us a sense of comfort and familiarity. All those quirky things about your personality are amplified ten-fold onstage.
But, what if I told you that you don't have to worry about all the things you're not supposed to be doing? What if all of the flaws you have that are so easy to point out are here to stay? Can you still be a great speaker? Absolutely! But rather than try to teach you how to stop doing all of the things that you are naturally inclined to do there is another way. Focus on those things that you do exceptionally well.
We change by emphasizing the positives.
Don't believe me? Try Googling a video of one of your favorite performers, comedians, or talk show hosts early in their career. What you'll notice is that they are pretty much the same person now as they were then. They will come across as more polished, but every gesture, intonation, and facial expression was cast in stone well before they achieved notoriety. None of the quirks have gone away. In fact, what they have done is doubled down on them and leveraged those same nuances to develop a persona that is utterly authentic.
That's the key: Accept who you are, be okay with it--all of it. Watch obsessively for the things that audiences respond to positively and leverage the daylights out of those aspects of your persona.
Having taught that same technique to hundreds of people, and having presented to hundreds of thousands, I can tell you with absolutely certainty that every one of us has some unique ability to connect with others when we are authentic and comfortable with ourselves.
Sounds easy, right? It can be. Being yourself is the easiest and most rewarding thing you'll ever do.