We usually take “authentic” to mean congruence of thought and deed, or acting in accord with one’s professed values.  It’s a valid definition; it just doesn’t go far enough.  Authenticity is more than the absence of hypocrisy.  I think that to be authentic as a speaker means, above all, to be fully present, for one’s audience and oneself. We have a number of ways to do that.
1.      Treat audiences as ends, not means. Audiences are not occasions for us to demonstrate our speaking ability and knowledge. They don’t assemble to validate us in our profession, flatter our vanity, or provide us with a livelihood. They present themselves to us for their own edification and delight. We have as our high calling the solemn obligation to meet that need. That’s what it means to serve. When we approach them with an agenda of our own, whether merely to manipulate their moods or, more ambitiously, to change their lives (how messianic!), we make a demand of them. Any such demand, even if only implicit, makes of the audience a means.
2.      Customizing is certainly an obvious way to honor the uniqueness of each group and be fully present. I love how different speakers find different ways to customize. Joel Weldon, for example, researches his clients’ victories and challenges so he can tailor his programs directly to those matters, reinforcing the victories, suggesting ways to meet the challenges. Naomi Rhode likes to have at least one new story for every audience. She has taken a page from the play book of Dizzy Dean, the superb St. Louis Cardinal pitcher, who used to give different, often conflicting stories to every reporter who interviewed him Since television wasn’t around in Dizzy’s days, it took a while before someone confronted him with his inconsistencies. “They ain’t exactly lies,” said Dizzy. “I just
try to give everbody somethin’ original.” To emulate Dizzy we needn’t dissimulate (Naomi certainly doesn’t), just find a new pearl for every group.
I like to customize both by getting to gigs early and learning the names of as many people as possible (often 25 or more) so I can call them by name in the course of the program. Another device I’ve found fun is to use fine art painting, my special skill, as a metaphor for the demands of the audience’s industry. While doing a painting demonstration — talk about an action rich visual aid! — I relate the standards of excellence in art to those in, say, speaking. If you have a special skill, especially one you can perform on the platform, think about ways to weave it into, maybe even make it central, to a talk.
3.      Presence implies attention. When we serve we listen. We listen to the planner or sponsor who conveys to us the audience’s purpose. We listen also to the audience — with our eyes — as we speak. That further attunes us to them and clues us to needs that arise, anything from clarification of an idea to an unplanned break. To be fully present we sometimes surrender control, as befits a servant.
4.      Another way to be fully present is to show up with all that we are and ready to be nowhere else, to borrow a phrase from Max Dixon. Only when we put our total focus on our task and those for whom we perform it do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We are more than power suits, super smiles, terrific techniques and colossal content. We’re also our souls — all those longings, terrors, aspirations, passions, and awakenings — that contribute to our quintessential selves. When we strive to appear invincible in our command of skills and material, we shirk from the truth.
I don’t suggest that we confess things that will embarrass our audience for the sake of personal catharsis. Rather let’s bring to our work the dragons we battle as well as the resources that, now and again, permit us to prevail. Let’s allow ourselves to be who we are, including fallible, vulnerable, and transient. As Ian Percy counsels, “Never fear to share your unfinished self.” The “I” who speaks is not a fixed thing, but a work in progress that unfolds even as it speaks.
5.      Authenticity also means taking responsibility for who and what we are — and accepting ourselves as we are. That’s why we are bidden to rely on our own experience for our stories. For one reason, a critical part of what we share with audiences is ourself. For another, to draw from our own experience is an act of self-acceptance. Furthermore, when we sift through our personal histories for precious anecdotes we obey a fundamental human dictum: Know thyself.
We also exercise responsibility when we assume custody of our own introduction. An unprepped second party may under or overstate the case for listening to us, confuse fact until it’s fiction, or accurately articulate the irrelevant. Part of our job is see that the audience gets introduced to the “us” we really are. That still leaves room for a creative introducer to have some fun, as he or she well deserves.
6.      Our most necessary act of responsibility is to forgive ourselves for having the identity we have, not some other, real or imagined, we may covet. Just as full presence demands that we sometimes forgive an audience for being less attentive, enthusiastic, or appreciative than we would like, responsibility requires that we accept ourselves as we are. I’d love to have the voice of James Earl Jones, the twinkly eyes of Michael Jordan, and that sock-your-knocks-off smile Sophia Loren beams at us. Alas, all of us just got what we got. And that’s good enough if we go all out with it. The debate about the relative importance of technique vs. authenticity is a red herring. To be fully present and serve with all our heart, mind and soul means using the best technique we can muster. After all, it too is part of us. Only when we mistake it for all of us do we lose touch with our authentic self, that unique, flawed, glorious, always evolving entity our audience wants to hang out with. All speakers, even the very best in the business, have limits to their skill, knowledge and energy. All of us, however, have an unlimited capacity for authenticity, the alpha and omega of effective communication.
Gary Michael teaches Fantastic First Impressions and Public Speaking Made Easy.  You’ll find them in the Communication classes section in our course offerings.