To Connect With Your Audience—Be Yourself
It was 2004, and the former Vice President, Al Gore, had flown into St. Joseph, Missouri to rally the troops on behalf of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry.
At the time, I was Kerry’s Communications Director in the Show Me State and had prepared a speech for him. While I had never met Gore before, he was incredibly gracious as we went over the speech. He asked questions about local facts and statistics, underlined passages and expressed enthusiasm and gratitude.
As Gore jumped up on stage, cheers erupted from the audience. Then the Veep started talking—more like riffing. He wasn’t just off the page; he was full on extemporaneous. Fifteen minutes into the speech, I hadn’t heard a single word I’d written. Apparently, he did this all the time.
And it worked. Gore was awesome. The crowd was going crazy. One minute they were cracking up and the next minute they were shouting rally cries in unison. For 45 minutes, Gore improvised. And as they say in the world of stand-up: He killed.
Listening to Gore, I was reminded of Senate and House candidates I had worked for who had totally mangled speeches I’d written for them. It’s a painful thing to watch.
And Gore had the same problem when he was a national candidate. As soon as the red camera light flickered, he seemed scripted and wooden. But when you met him in person, or even watched him on a talk show or presenting during his Oscar-winning documentary, he was a different guy.
The reason, of course, is because when you don’t feel scripted, you communicate more naturally. Gore didn’t need my speech. He had it covered all by himself—because he was fully at ease in that particular venue. Not a candidate. Just Al Gore.
Like anything else, effective public speaking takes practice. And many people aren’t just born with an innate talent for communicating. No matter how nervous or downright scared you might get before speaking to a live audience, authenticity is the key. A polished and error-free presentation is great, but it’s not essential to connecting with your audience.
Here are some tips for connecting with your audience and increasing the power of your message:
- Just breathe. Relaxation leads to expressing yourself in an authentic fashion.
- Be genuine. Smile. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at your mistakes, in real time. You’re only human.
- Be present. Make eye contact – with more than one person.
- Gesture with purpose – avoid being stiff. A powerful stance will help you stay grounded and confident.
- Be like Al: allow yourself to go off script.
- And prepare for questions – you’re the expert, show it.
Remember, those eyes and ears out there are attached to actual people, just like you. When they see some of themselves in the “expert” or “authority” speaking to them, it’s comfortable. It’s relatable. And that’s the real connection.