Presentations: When Communicating – To Thine Own Self Be True: From the archives
Al Gore, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and even Diane Sawyer. All were on my mind several years ago as I wondered, “Just how much can you improve your communications skills?”
If you are mild-mannered, can you become dynamic? If you are timid, can you become bold? If you are reserved, can you become expressive? Can an introvert become an extrovert? In my opinion, no. Attempting such sweeping change is risky for trainers, consultants, executives, professionals, and politicians. It is like seeking a personality transplant. You can’t do it.
This is serious. Trying to become something you are not while pursuing a more powerful communication style can be embarrassing at best, and disastrous at worst. Based on my experience personally and as a consultant and coach, attempts to change your “presentation personality” insert artificiality and a lack of authenticity. And once the communicator rings false, the message suffers. A terrific idea conveyed in a manner inconsistent with who you really are sets off alarms with the audience and makes them wary of what is said.
When Vice Pesident Al Gore was running for the top office, attempts to soften his “stiffness” seemed perilously close to trying to change the man. Making him more comfortable was one thing, but if he is naturally wooden, then I say let it be. Likewise, that apparent smirk of Governor Bush’s may be inherent too. Make Bush comfortable if you can, but there too, I say let it alone. Efforts to modify long-standing personal habits run the risk of making the presenter more preoccupied with style than substance.
A cautionary case study comes from a 1980’s presidential campaign debate in which Ronald Reagan performed badly. The great communicator could hardly have been more awkward. Afterward, his advisors realized they had mistakenly tried to make Reagan an expert on details, requiring him to memorize facts and complex policy rationales. It conflicted with Reagan’s tendencies to be a broad-strokes, big-picture guy of inherent friendliness if not superior intellect. Following the debate debacle, the advisors reversed field. Message preparation was consistent with his usual manner. Instead of reinventing the candidate, writers prepared witty debate repartee, which he rehearsed into memorable “ad-libs.” The great communicator re-emerged to recover his campaign momentum. Reagan was again Reagan.
Television news anchors also provide lessons on the dangers of altering your presentation personality. A rapidly rising anchor at one of the cable news networks, whom I shall not name, burst onto the scene about eight months ago with a presence that was smart, verbal, perceptive, quick, and – most importantly – completely lacking in self-consciousness. Seeing this onscreen diamond in the rough, my wife Linda asked me to write her and warn her not to let anchor coaches corrupt her instinctive gifts. I did not. Since then the consultants have clearly gotten to her. Instead of her original uncalculated cool, she is now a dervish of gestures and mannerisms (to make her more dynamic?) While still better than most, her naturalness is now eclipsed by someone’s idea of what she should be.
I have come to believe I saw the same thing happen years ago to a then-ascending news star named Diane Sawyer. When she first appeared on CBS as a novice reporter with strong political background, she too was smart, verbal, perceptive, quick, and lacking in affectation. Somewhere along the line, a presentation consultant got to her and she too, in my opinion, lost much of her wonderful uniqueness. To this day, I still see the coach’s hand in Sawyer’s occasionally self-conscious delivery. Sure, she is far better than most on-air newscasters, attracts viewers, and deservedly makes millions of dollars as a first magnitude news celebrity, but I still miss her initial purity.
Finally, I too was a victim of consultants bent on “improving” my TV news anchoring. They made me perpetually self-conscious about whether I was energetic and lively enough. The only times I stopped worrying about “how am I doing?” came during crises like hurricanes, major disasters, or breaking news where I was absorbed with conveying critical information, not performance. “Am I sufficiently animated?” never occurred to me.
I strongly believe that it is better to be stiff and genuine, than to be dynamic and fake. If your nature prevents you from being a raconteur, then so be it.
All of this means, I believe, that if you want to become a better communicator in business, concentrate on skills you can improve – listening, message content, focus, strategy, tactics, doing and saying the right thing, preparation, rehearsal, collaboration, motivation, team-building. Accept personal characteristics you cannot change. Acquire skills, but always be yourself. That is what you do best of all. Don’t let anyone make you change.