It’s hard to speak powerfully when we’re not being truthful with ourselves.
Let’s say that you have to give a speech about the wonderful features of a great new program that your company has started; but the truth is, you think the new program sucks.
Why me? you may ask. Well,
- There’s no one else to do it.
- Your job depends on doing it, and
- Your family depends on your job.
There’s no possibility of dodging this assignment. So what do you do?
Public Speakers, Don’t Turn Off Your B.S. Meter
You might think that the solution to this all-too-common dilemma is to drink the Kool-Aid: To psych yourself up, pretend like crazy that you think the program is good, and take the stage in your best cheerleader mode.
Some people can pull this off. But for many of us, trying to pretend we don’t feel what we feel will induce what social psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — an uncomfortable state in which holding two opposing views at the same time (“this program is great” | “this program sucks”) makes us anxious, angry, embarrassed, even tongue-tied.
So rather than trying to brainwash yourself, I recommend:
- Admitting what you really think to yourself, if not to your boss; and then
- Examining what you can honestly say.
And speaking of honesty…
If You Can’t Name the Elephant in the Room, At Least Name the Elephant in Your Mind
There’s a lot of talk in business circles about “naming the elephant in the room.” This means that everyone should verbalize the things that we all know, but won’t admit out loud.
For obvious reasons, this rarely happens. Among the elephants you won’t hear named in a business setting are:
- “Our employees have lost all faith in us”
- “Our CEO is a clown,” and
- “Everyone in this room is secretly looking for a new job.”
But while you don’t have to name the elephant in the room, it really is best to name the elephant in your mind — to be clear and frank with yourself about your true opinion.
The reason for naming the elephant in your mind is practical:
If you don’t acknowledge your real thoughts, at least to yourself, they’re much more likely to slip out in ways that are unplanned, and could hurt your career.
Look for the Public Speaking Compromise
OK, back to your speech about that “great” new program.
You probably know what your boss wants you to say (and if you don’t know, be sure to ask). And there’s usually some room for compromise, once you know what your options are.
So, using your true thoughts as a guide, see if you can find a way to satisfy your company without dishonoring yourself.
- “This program will make your job easier” could become “We hope that this program will make your job easier.”
- “This is state-of-the-art technology” could become “It uses new technology.”
- Rather than “Transitioning won’t be a problem,” you can say, “We expect the transition to be smooth; but in case it’s not, we’ve set up a help desk.”
- And “None of our competitors have anything remotely like this program” can be stated as, “None of our competitors have this program.”
If your substitute comments are true, you’ve done your job without waving a flag for this program, by just stating the facts.
Public Speaking is Not About “The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth”
In Act 1, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius tells his son Laertes,
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Of course, that doesn’t always follow. You can be truthful to yourself and lie through your teeth to others; but for most of us, that’s surprisingly difficult, even when the motivation (keeping your job!) is strong.
So don’t take the path of least resistance and lie.
Most of the time you’ll feel lousy, and you’ll squander the most important coin of public speaking — your audience’s trust and respect.
Instead, think about your options in advance.
Then go out on stage and hold your head high, knowing that you’ve told as much of the truth as you possibly can.