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Media and Crisis Management

Presentation Authenticity: Sister Wendy

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Presentations: Presentation Authenticity: Sister Wendy Speaking

Once upon a time, one of television’s most unlikely and compelling examples of authentic communicating was Sister Wendy. To my mind, she was the essence of what you should strive for in presentations, and I hope you got to see her or get a chance via DVDs.

The British art historian presented unpretentious, fascinating reviews of great works. Instead of a polished, attractive on-camera professional or sleek supermodel host, there was Sister Wendy – and I say this with respect and affection – a diminutive elderly nun with little makeup, protruding teeth, receding chin, a lisp, and thick glasses.

In a world of the beautiful and glib, she violated every TV star rule. Articulately passionate, she used antique art as a window into the soul or an emblem of a pivotal moment in history.

She was the antithesis of what clients sometimes believe is compulsory to become a better presenter. For example, clients going on television ask, “What should I wear, where do I look, and how should I sit?” For presentations, “Do I use a laptop, an overhead, a flip chart, or slides?” They are concerned with technology, movement, gestures, body language, loudness, softness, and pauses. All are legitimate, but of secondary importance. Such concerns focus on the externals of presentations that often matter more to the speaker than to the audience. Internals count more: audience-centered content as well as your knowledge and enthusiasm for it. Internals get people where they live, and this was where Sister Wendy dwelled.

Sister Wendy Beckett once told Bill Moyers that she lived a prayerful monastic life without television. She looked to friends for entertainment in the form of art books and museum postcards of masterpieces. She amassed a library of thousands of volumes. She not only read them, she lived them, and became a self-taught art expert. A BBC producer discovered her, and, against all odds, gave her the forum to become a TV hit.

In case you did not see her on television, she walked into a museum with black habit flowing and stopped before a particular piece of art. She studied it, paused, turned to the audience, and talked. No script. With endearing directness she described what she saw and what she believed it means (“His work communicates such serenity, such joy.” “(Is he a) great artist or con artist?”). Drawing on her lifetime of art study, she related the artist’s biography, his work and its significance. “(It’s about to) turn the world of painting virtually upside down.” Sister Wendy pointed out detail that would escape most of us. Although a nun, her love of subject approached rapture. She told Moyers she did not rehearse, and usually delivered her critiques in one take. She was not a performer, but the real deal. This was a personal conversation that began in her mind and heart, and flowed directly to us. There is a great lesson here for all of us who want to connect with our audiences: Great communication is inside-out 

The best communicators bond emotionally and intellectually with their audiences through messages of conviction and personal intensity. That force infuses them with genuine vocal energy and natural movement. Internal conviction becomes external dynamism. The presenter sincerely believes and so do you. The speaker says, “This information matters. I believe it. I want you to believe it as well. Come let me show you why!” This sincerity anchors the presenter, and those listening. It is riveting. There is no substitute.

Presentation technique and technology are important to be sure. Failure to consider what you wear and how you sit on television can distract from your message. Strategic pauses add drama to words, impact. Visual aids can improve an otherwise ordinary speech by making the complicated easier to comprehend. Learn such techniques by all means so that they can elevate your technique.

However, I suggest you concentrate most of all on developing content that you understand fully and care about deeply; words that your audience wants to hear, and a delivery that conveys passion. Let the message flow from you, inside out.

That’s why I adored Sister Wendy Beckett. She exemplifies how mastery of subject and excitement for it create a compelling performance that transcends.

You can sell what you know and enthusiastically believe. Anything else is a pose, and audiences can tell.

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