The pros and cons of the digital age have thrown up a big question for public speakers: how polished should your performance be? On the one hand, since there’s always a chance a snippet of your talk will end up on YouTube, you want to avoid doing anything that may come back to haunt you. On the other hand, audiences are increasingly mistrustful of speakers who appear too slick and rehearsed.
In a culture of soundbites and media manipulation, authenticity has come to be a highly prized quality in public figures. Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity is respected by his supporters and detractors alike – and Donald Trump’s popularity is largely ascribed to his authenticity (though I’m less convinced of its accuracy in his case).
It was Mr Trump’s performance in the debate with Hillary Clinton on Monday that prompted me to write this post. For whatever reason, the Republican candidate had not prepared effectively for this event and found himself on uneven ground, often on the back foot. While some have criticised his quirky and difficult-to-pin-down public speaking style, Mr Trump and his supporters characterise it as ‘telling it like it is’, being authentic, speaking from the heart, and many applaud him for it. Yet on Monday evening his approach let him down. A debate, by its interactive nature, is different from simply making a speech but I would have imagined that, for someone who prefers to speak spontaneously, it would be easier rather than more difficult.
The big lesson we can all take from this is that, even if you don’t care about expressing yourself in a considered and coherent way, even if you believe it’s better not to choose your words carefully in advance but to wait and see what comes out in the moment, you still can’t afford not to plan the points you want to make. Under the heat of the spotlight, if you haven’t prepared what you want to say, let alone how you want to say it, however supremely confident you are, you’re going to struggle.
And if you’re not supremely confident, beware! Standing in front of even ten people waiting to hear what you’ve got to say, if you don’t know exactly what that is, don’t expect it to come to you as you stand there. The ideas you discuss so eloquently over the dinner table or in the pub desert you in your hour of need and your mind goes blank: an experience I would not wish on my most ardent political opponent.
While I agree that passion is more important than polish, public speakers don’t have to choose one or the other. Too polished and you risk becoming robotic or plasticated and you’ll lose your connection with the audience. But this doesn’t mean you should go to the other extreme. An improvised speech is never going to be as articulate and effective as a speech that has been well prepared.
What I always advocate is rehearsed spontaneity. Of course, you need to sound natural and sincere, but you can still do that if you’ve worked out what you want to say and practised it. Honing and rehearsing your talk doesn’t make it any less true or heartfelt. Authenticity lies in the content, not the delivery.