As I watched the acceptance and concession speeches from across the nation following last night’s elections, I was reminded of a quote from one of my favorite writers and researchers, Dr. Brené Brown. In her book Rising Strong, she writes, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” Politicians are courageous. Leaders are courageous. And speakers are courageous because we have to show up and be seen. The nature of putting yourself out there as an expert, a leader, or an agent for change will always require both great vulnerability and great courage.
So why does vulnerability seem like a foreign concept when we talk about public speaking?
Brown’s research about the importance of vulnerability flies in the face of advice we’ve heard time and time again. Things like, Fake it ‘til you make it! Don’t let ‘em see you cry! Don’t show weakness! Advice like that tells speakers that perfection is the goal. And granted, when you get up in front of an audience, you should strive to be the best version of yourself. But that’s where we’ve gone wrong. The best version of yourself isn’t based on perfection; it’s based on vulnerability. Think about it, how well do you like and relate to people who seem perfect? How long do you want to listen to them talk? Ouch. On the other hand, how well do you relate to people who admit their mistakes and are open about their failures?
Speakers who are open and vulnerable are the ones we want to hear from because they are the ones we can learn from. As a speaker, you can work to be more vulnerable in two ways. First, you can write stories of your own vulnerability into your presentation. In this way, you show the audience that you have experienced and learned from mistakes and failure. This will help you connect with your audience, who will always be made up of imperfect people. Second, you can be vulnerable when you make mistakes in your presentation. Make a small joke about it and then move on. If you handle it smoothly, it will increase your connection with the audience because they’ll identify with you as someone who is like them, imperfect.
What if vulnerability, not perfection, is the key to making you a better speaker?
In an interview with Forbes, Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think . . . perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement.” Perhaps your fear of public speaking is tied to perfectionism. The pressure to be or to appear perfect can be paralyzing for a speaker. Any little mistake or slip up, and the façade crumbles. But what if there didn’t have to be a façade? What if you stepped up to speak with high expectations of yourself, but not unattainable ones?
When you don’t have to maintain an unrealistic mask of perfection, it frees you up to really concentrate on your message and your audience. It frees you up to connect. Arthur Aron, social psychologist and director of the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University, discovered the power of vulnerability and honesty in creating true connection. Aron and his team studied participants who asked each other sets of questions. Some of the sets had questions that were shallow. Other sets had questions that were deep and required vulnerability. The study found that for 30% of the participants who had the set of deeper questions, the vulnerable conversations created connections that were perceived as closer than many of their closest relationships. Writer for Harvard Business Review, Michael Simmons sums it up well. He says, “only presenting an idealized version of ourselves separates us from others.”
Vulnerability really serves two purposes. It allows you to better connect with your audience, and it frees you from the unattainable and unrealistic goals of perfection. Both of those can make you a better speaker.
Want to learn more? Unlock the door to proven formulas that will help you master the art of public speaking. Register for our online course today.