“Just be yourself!”
I often hear these words of encouragement from well-intentioned people suggesting how others could improve their public speaking. “Just be yourself.”
I always wondered what these words meant. “Just be myself.”
Who else would I be? I can’t be you. I can try to be you, or your neighbour, but I would eventually return to being me. I have no choice but to be me. It isn’t something I can vote on, but how does my being me relate to speaking in public? What if I was shy and usually spoke in quiet, whispery tones and rarely met eyes with others. What does being myself mean and is it helpful in public speaking?
Instead of depending on only my opinion for this answer, I asked the opinions of other speakers and speech coaches. The question was, “What does, ‘Be yourself,’ mean to you? To be or not be oneself, what would one do?”
Here are their answers.
Click on their names to link to their Web sites (the least I could do for their kindness in sharing their time and thoughts).
The exhortation to “just be yourself” or “be authentic” reminds me of the old joke about a fellow who asks the drug store clerk where he might find the talcum powder. “Walk this way,” says the clerk, to which the man replies “If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need talcum powder.”
Well, if I could “just be myself” with groups, I wouldn’t need your @!*$# advice!
My primary coaching is “be relational,” no matter how it feels. When you are absolutely relational, your natural self ultimately comes through authentically in a scintillating way that cannot be willed nor calculated.
To be relational with a group is to truly be with one of them at a time, no matter how large the group. This isn’t just surface “eye contact,” and there is no effort to connect or penetrate or otherwise grab attention.
Deep connection already lives among humans and is merely revealed when you neutrally allow communion one person at a time. Most will respond as iron filings to a magnet, and why a few do not respond is not your concern, so leave them be.
When you practice this muscle of Relational Presence to where you feel pleasure in their company before you even say a word, and while you are speaking, they will sit in pleasure and rapt attention, and your most sweetly outrageous self will show up in spades.
Want a taste of it right now? Look at your face in a mirror. If you try to “be yourself” you’ll notice that any smiles, nods, or winks feel and look awkward. Now be relational. Soft neutral gaze with a sense of positive regard. Just breathe deeply with yourself for a minute, doing nothing.
This is a huge challenge for most people initially, but if you keep at it, you’ll access that serene place where the stillness of Relational Presence with yourself is pleasurable and nurturing. When you get there, see if you can allow words to arise to yourself without leaving that still place.
When you stop retreating to your mind to figure it out, or averting your eyes, or making social signals to yourself, you’ll get a breathtaking glimpse of . . . yourself.
When I use the phrase [just be yourself], I mean that the speech you deliver needs to come from who you are and what you are about and it needs to use the events and experiences that taught you your philosophy and core values. If you are not speaking from those three elements, YOU are not speaking, someone else is. You are just the communication device. People want genuine not a cheap knock off of someone who is genuine and you are trying to emulate.
To be yourself you need to know three things?
1) Who you are?
2) What you are about?
3) And, recall where you learned the first two.
[From voice mail]
Many people, when they are presenting, give the impression that they are acting lie a motivational speaker should act. The secret is, they don’t sound conversational. So often, when I’m coaching people, I say, “Well, sit down and say what you just said. Okay fine. Now, stand up and say it again and you will notice it is much more conversational.
Another thing, when I am coaching engineers, so often I’ll say, ‘A woman fell in love with you. Show your audience your personality; show them why that woman fell in love you.
For me, “Just be yourself” means not copying someone else’s style, to avoid behaving the way you think a speaker “should behave.” Being yourself is loving yourself enough to accept your imperfections as a perfect projection of your incomparable personality. Originality is a gem praised by most audiences.My mother always said, “Why would you try to be like everybody else when you have the chance to be unique in the world?”You are one-of-a-kind. Be the same wonderful person you are, off stage or on stage. Just be yourself.
From Years of Minutes, Copyright 2003 by PublicAffairs, page 357, Used with permission.
“A speech shouldn’t sound like a speech.”
Cindy Goldberg, Accredited in Public Relations (APR)
“It means don’t worry about what others think. Just let go. Because you know what? Nobody cares [whether we make mistakes or act silly].”
Craig Senior, Speech Coach and Lifelong Student
Perhaps “just be yourself” isn’t as much encouragement to be myself as it is encouragement to not try to be someone else.
Since 1994, when I began to focus intensely on public speaking, I heard perhaps over one thousand speeches from hundreds of speakers. In coaching hundreds, I found myself sometimes suggesting that the person just be himself or herself. I found that I could do that only after I invested some time with the person, hearing them in conversation. They were most authentically expressive and engaging when they were not conscious of themselves speaking.
I had the joy of watching my now great friend Susan Dalati, begin the Toastmasters program and unintentionally she might say, move up through the leadership stream to District Governor in 2006. As her Treasurer (what are friends for?), I had the delightful opportunity to experience her speak one-on-one, in small groups, and in front of audiences of hundreds. Sue is very engaging, expressive, whacky, and playful, but in front of audiences of hundreds in 2006, she seemed and sounded like she was trying to give a speech. I felt a disassociation between me and her normally connected self.
After speaking, she sometimes asked me how I felt about it and how she might improve. I stay away from the word “improve,” preferring more supportive words. I tried to share ideas that might be helpful. I tried to describe how it felt to experience her speaking one-on-one and encouraged her to be that way on stage, to bring her playful, expressive self with her.
One day, we sat at Timothy’s in the Byward Market in Ottawa working on some financial papers. As usual, Sue slipped out of finance and administration into relating. She shared personal goings on or adventures with mutual friends [I prefer our conversations over paper, but shhh! don't tell my daffy accountant friends!]. All of a sudden, I threw up a one-hand stop sign, “Stop! That’s it!”
“How you are speaking right now!” I smiled as she placed one hand over her mouth to cover an imagined error.
“How you are speaking right now, right here with me, flowing, expressive, kooky, making faces.” She started to laugh. “Be this way when you speak in front of the District [audiences of about 300]. When you speak on stage, just be yourself. Just be the YOU who you are!”
A couple of months later, I heard Sue speak again and the difference was incredible. This time, I smiled as she blossomed like a beautiful Daisy.
I like to imagine that my words contributed to that transformation, but I won’t know until Sue reads this article and gives me feedback. Perhaps she just became more comfortable through stage time. Perhaps she just became less aware of herself on stage and more congruent with the message (as we become able to focus more on the message, our self-conscious self fades in favour of our authentic self). Perhaps she just felt great that day. I do not (yet) know. I do know that when her conversational, kooky self went on-stage, we were there too.
For some, at their stage of speaking experience, I cannot suggest that they just be themselves… yet. Perhaps they are reserved, quiet, barely able to muster a mousy whisper and they are probably very aware of that. To suggest that they be themselves will immediately conjure that image. They are not yet able to be their potential self, their authentic self, because the might be a lot of junk obscuring their view. Who they are now is not who they really are. However, if that quiet mousy person went on stage and described a difficult, abusive childhood, then what would be a mouse for any other subject suddenly became a quietly roaring lion.
For them, the journey to becoming themselves on stage can be a winding, bumpy road to discovering or creating themselves off stage.
Several years ago, my best friend Sylvain and I worked with a youth group called Leave Out ViolencE, or LOVE. About 125 teenagers travelled to Camp White Pine to learn to manage anger, prevent violence, and speak in public. Sylvain and I went there to teach them as much public speaking as we could in one hour. In one hour, we taught a few techniques and then they were to prepare and the next day deliver a short speech on a topic of their choosing. Some spoke about LOVE’s programs, but many of them related personal experiences. As they spoke, their solemn, scratchy voices shared their stories of violence and abuse from people who should have loved them. Tears washed away the ink on their notepaper. This was 20% speaking; 80% healing. Much of what I thought I knew about public speaking got shelved that day.
These great young people were entirely themselves, perhaps more than they knew and more than I was ready for. As a listener and as a human being, I was transfixed.
What caused these mice to become lions?
Randy might have said, “They related experiences that touched their core, about which they held high emotional attachment.”
Andy might have quipped, “Their speeches did not sound like speeches.”
Cindy might have agreed, “While nobody cares whether we make ‘mistakes’ while speaking in public, because we all cared, these great youths could make no mistakes.”
Lee might have smiled gently, “They were fully present, relating fully with their experiences and with you and in that moment you got a breathtaking glimpse of them.”
Patricia might have suggested, “Because they were not trying to act out any expectation of performance, they were their conversational selves.”
J.A. might have seen it as, “Their imperfect pasts created incomparably perfect gems.”
Craig might say, “Maybe they all have it right. Maybe when we speak about experiences that touch us to the core of our values, we can become more conversational as we yield our self-conscious selves to the moment of conscious communication through our uniquely authentic selves. Maybe we can just be ourselves when we care enough to allow ourselves the freedom to just be.”