Qualities of a Great Speaker – Authenticity

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In my original blog post on this topic, the second quality I listed as being necessary in a great speaker is authenticity. Authenticity is difficult to quantify, but we know it when we see it. And when it comes to a speaker, it makes a huge difference in how we view what they say.

A speaker’s authenticity can come from any number of places: it can be rooted in the passion they feel for their subject matter, or it can be rooted in their expertise; it can be conveyed through confidence, or it can be conveyed through anxiety. More often than not, authenticity is the key to the third quality, which is whether or not a speaker is able to connect with an audience. It is probably just about impossible to think that you can connect with an audience without first being authentic (though, it is possible to be authentic without connecting with the audience), and so authenticity has an almost disproportionate impact on the over-all audience experience.

As with my assessment of the first quality, Educational Value, here are the list of the speakers I saw recently and how I’d rate them.

Charlene Li

Charlene Li

Speaker’s Authenticity: C

Details:Charlene Li is an interesting case when it comes to speaker’s authenticity, and it raises a point that most people may not consider: format and it’s effect on how comfortable a speaker is. I eagerly looked forward to the opportunity to see Charlene speak at SXSW. She was on the big stage, alone, in front of an audience of about 1300 people. Her content was solid as mentioned before, but I still walked away from that event completely disappointed. Why? Because she spoke to the audience like she was talking to a Board of Directors. She did not strike the right note with the audience, and it made her sound, well, like a consultant: overly polished, overly managed, overly trained and — ultimately — inauthentic. It took me several days before I could get past the ill-fitting style to retrace my memory and find much in the way of interesting nuggets in her content. Definitely not what you want if you are a speaker.

Conversely, when Charlene spoke at Web 2.0 Expo it was on a panel with her friends Peter Kim and Jeremiah Owyang. And instead of sounding stiff and removed from her audience the way she did at SXSW, she sounded engaged, sincere and authentic. She was much more human during her Expo speaking engagement, and my suspicion is that it was due to, in some combination, having a smaller, less formal setting, and sharing the stage (and thereby the dialogue) with other people — particularly with friends and former colleagues she knows well enough to relax and truly trust. In the end, it made all the difference, and I wished it had been the first time I’d seen her speak instead of SXSW, because it was much closer to the experience I’d been hoping for and expecting. So she gets a very low score for authenticity for the SXSW talk, and then gets it brought back up a bit thanks to a salvaging performance at Expo.

Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson

Speaker’s Authenticity: B

Details:Chris Anderson is another interesting example, because based on a distant view, he strikes me as an introvert who recognizes that public speaking is part of what he needs to do, both in his role as Editor of Wired and as an author of high-profile business books. But nothing in how he presents himself — either in person or online — particularly suggests that he’s so much of a ham that he truly loves that side of his work (see his very unassuming online presence, and you’ll understand what I mean). And while I could certainly be wrong, my suspicion is that the reason his engagement at SXSW was formatted the way it was (an onstage “interview” conducted by Guy Kawasaki) was precisely for that reason (and to take advantage of the fact that Guy most certainly is a ham who enjoys being onstage). Whatever the reason, Chris came across as extremely authentic, but a little bit shell shocked at times. Clearly Chris is a very bright person, but part of the reason I got the feeling he was nervous was because when he’d get ‘in a zone’ while he was talking about something he was clearly confident about, he’d relax and he could be spontaneous and exchange quips with Guy. But other times, it appeared as though he was so aware of the audience/lights/being on stage, that he would be out-of-step and miss easy opportunities to maintain his end of the repartee. It didn’t have a huge impact on his authenticity necessarily, but it was a little distracting at times. All in all, though, Chris gets a solid score for authenticity.

Chris Brogan

Chris Brogan

Speaker’s Authenticity: A

Details:Chris Brogan is a ham. Pure and simple. He is relaxed, entertaining, amusing and engaging when he speaks — when it comes to both the people with whom he is sharing the stage, as well as the audience. He goes to the opposite extreme of what we saw of Charlene Li at SXSW, in that he doesn’t come across as stiff or stiffled or repressed in any way. His emotion is genuine and spontaneous, and if he gets annoyed or disagrees with something someone says, his response is entirely from the gut. While this may not be the quality that a Fortune 500 looks for in a highly polished consultant, this makes Chris an absolute winner with audiences (and makes it easier for him to skate through events where educational content is a little bit thin).

Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk

Speaker’s Authenticity: A

Details:Gary Vaynerchuk is off-the-charts. Ham doesn’t even come close. And, because he operates at the perpetually high emotional pitch that he does, I doubt he could be inauthentic if his life depended on it (in fact, one of his stories was specifically about how, no matter how much he hated breaking his mother’s heart as a child, no amount of loving his mom could keep him from ‘being himself’ in school — which typically amounted to lousy grades and getting into constant trouble). He is like young kid who has yet to refine his social filters, and so he highly excitable. Fortunately, he also has an extremely positive and upbeat disposition, so his excitability is usually both optimistic and contagious. While Gary’s style is most definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, if what you crave most in a speaker is unvarnished authenticity, then I suggest making the effort to see Gary speak when you get the chance.

Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki

Speaker’s Authenticity: A

Details:Guy Kawasaki is an interesting individual to see in action. I saw him twice in less than a week, and the first time he was being interviewed (by Chris Brogan) and the second time he was the one conducting the interview (Chris Anderson). And both times it was clear that, if Guy ever did have stage fright, he’s long-since conquered it. It seems unlikely, though. Like Brogan and Vaynerchuk, my money is on the idea that Guy is just a bit of an entertainer at heart, and enjoys being on stage. As a result, he is relaxed, engaging and clearly able to help put someone who is less comfortable (like Chris Anderson) at ease a bit by being on stage with them, and difusing some of the spotlight glare. He also banters well with an audience, and plays to their leanings, which further enhances his authenticity, because it shows he’s listening. Guy also comes across as a bit on the cocky side, but that’s easy to understand given his background. He manages to avoid being so cocky that he ends up being truly off-putting.

Larry Lessig

Larry Lessig

Speaker’s Authenticity: A

Details:Larry Lessig is almost too authentic for his own good in some ways. Because he feels so passionately about the work he is doing, when he speaks about it he can get very emotional — sometimes disproportionately to those around him. Lessig is at a bit of a disadvantage in my comparison because he’s the only speaker I am evaluating whom I only saw as part of a panel with other people, but the lessons I saw from that were very telling: he clearly feels very strongly about his causes, but (like many activists) he is lives with his subject matter every day, and sometimes seems to forget that his audience may not be as well-versed in his topic as he is. And so he can end up looking a little bit emotional if he doesn’t make sure he is bringing his audience along with him. I’ll get to this more in the next post, but on the actual authenticity front, Lessig scores high.

Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts

Speaker’s Authenticity: A

Details:Matt Cutts is one of my favorite surprises from conference season. Matt is a well-known figure in the world of search and SEO/SEM. Not coming from that world, I had no idea who he was when he got on stage. And I was pleasantly surprised by everything I saw, not the least of which was that, as a man in a profession that is highly populated with extreme introverts, Matt was impressively relaxed in front of an audience. He had news he was excited to share, and he was very engaging, funny, charming and sincere in his interactions with the audience. His enthusiasm was contegeous and his demeanor was highly approachable. All in all, Matt gets high points for authenticity.

Tony Hsieh

Tony Hsieh

Speaker’s Authenticity: A

Details:Tony Hsieh is so authentic it almost hurts. And what is particularly interesting, is that Tony’s authenticity is for reasons that are almost the polar opposite of Brogan, Vaynerchuk or Kawasaki’s: it’s because he stands on-stage and looks like a man terrified of being there, nervous as hell, but yet so passionate about his message that he’s learned to beat back his anxiety over the years. It was a very interesting example to watch, because there were times when he looked tremendously nervous and uncomfortable, but was clearly pushing through to the other side. He rarely looked relaxed, and it makes me wonder if maybe a different format (a la the Brogan/Kawasaki or Kawasaki/Anderson “interviews”) may have helped keep him from feeling as ‘put on the spot,’ but he gets definite props for pushing through his own discomfort to share his story, specifically because it’s clear that not only is he very proud of what his people have accomplished, but that he is sincere in his hope that others can learn from what they’ve done and build organizations in a more humane and positive way.

I saw tons of people speak over the course of conference season to date, and each speaker’s authenticity was essential to the ultimate value of the time I dedicated to listening to them. By and large, authenticity was the one thing that most of them had working in their favor — and, if used properly, it does often help to compensate for a speaker’s other short-comings.

Have a different take on any of these speakers or on the role of authenticity when it comes to the public speaking experience?

3 thoughts on “Qualities of a Great Speaker – Authenticity

  1. And thank you for providing one of my favorite events of SXSW. Nothing I love seeing more than people with ambition be motivated. And, bad economy be damned, the 1300 people who saw you speak that day soared out of that auditorium on cloud nine ready to conquer the world because of the energy and motivation they got from you. It was an awesome sight to see, and an amazing talent that I wish more people had. Keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: Qualities of a Great Speaker - Connecting with the Audience | Life-in-Progress

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