When you are faced with a speaking opportunity—a prepared speech, press conference, employee rally, media interview, or podcast—do you ever ask yourself if your heart is in it? Empathetic communication starts with a heart-centered approach to what you say and how you say it.
A client of mine, a CMO at a global fintech company, was struggling with an address he had to deliver to 2,000 + employees regarding the company’s flex schedule work policy. Although the news was good, his delivery during practice was flat and mechanical. He lacked energy and repeatedly stumbled on simple power phrases meant to incite excitement. He wanted to demonstrate empathetic communication skills but was coming across as scripted and tense.
“My heart isn’t in it,” he said. “I’m not feeling it, and this is too important to flub.”
Have you ever been in this situation? It happens because you may be speaking from your head and not from your heart. Let me explain.
The motivation, attitude, and feeling you bring to speaking can be more important than what’s in your head. The heart plays a central role in authentic and trustworthy communication. You can acquire the knowledge of the mechanics of effective public speaking, but if your heart is in the wrong place or absent, the speech will lack sincerity, vitality, and impact.
“You must possess an attitude or heart that communicates a positive message to the minds and hearts of your listeners,” writes Randy Fujishin, college professor and therapist in a textbook titled The Natural Speaker. The premise of this seminal work in public speaking education, now in its 9th edition, is that our natural talents can be harnessed to become an effective speaker for a lifetime. But it starts with developing the heart of a speaker.
That sounds easier said than done. Taking a page from Storytelling 101, we know that messages delivered as heart-warming stories are up to 22 times more memorable. The research on heart-brain communication shows that the heart communicates with the brain in ways that significantly affect how we perceive and react to the world.
Think of a speech you experienced that touched you with lasting impact. Perhaps it changed the course of your life, or it simply stayed with you for a long time. There are moments when great speakers create such powerful communication that it transcends the distance between them and the listener. The audience is captivated and becomes transformed. Take Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech at the 2018 Golden Globes where she addressed #metoo and the evolution of women’s equity. Watch the clip and read the transcript and see for yourself. Although there is no clear path to learning how to mine the heart when organizing and preparing your speeches, there are three main ingredients that work to bring you closer to the hearts (and minds) of the audience, according to Fujishin. Having at least one of these gives you a clear-cut advantage.
1. You need to love the topic.
In the context of business presentations, sales meetings, conference panels, and keynotes, you most likely speak on a topic that is in your wheelhouse. That topic is important to you, your work, and your company. It is something to which you feel committed. Anything less will not motivate you to speak with conviction or compel your audience to listen attentively.
If you don’t feel excited about the subject of your talk, ask yourself what is missing? Is it the way it is written and organized? Does it lack personal references and stories that put more of you into the talk? Would someone else in your team be better suited to deliver these messages?
It is well worth answering these questions before your next speech. Don’t speak unless you really care about the topic. But if your excitement and emotion are on display on the physical or virtual stage, your audience will be excited, too.
2. You need to love the audience.
Your role as a speaker is to serve your audience. After all, they are the ones who will act in response to your ideas, appeals, and arguments. Loving your audience means understanding their needs, wants, and points of view. By putting yourself in their shoes you are practicing the essence of empathetic communication, which is vital to persuading others.
Demonstrate respect for them in your delivery by making good eye contact, smiling periodically, and answering their questions graciously, patiently, and inclusively. Make references to YOU/THEM. Show humility by minimizing boastful, self-flattering talk. Touch their hearts with messages that resonate with their interest.
Serve your listeners by delivering information they want to hear. Expand their perspective on the topic by appealing to their passions and feelings. Your love for the topic, regardless of what it is, will be telegraphed to your audience beyond words and images and you will connect with them in meaningful and rewarding ways.
3. You need to love yourself.
This is not about self-centered, self-promoting puffery. Rather it is about an attitude of gentleness and acceptance of your weaknesses. It means being at ease in the spotlight and expressing your natural charisma and presence. Be human, not perfect. Do your very best, but if you stumble the audience will be on your side if you are comfortable in your own skin. You need not be the best speaker, just the speaker with an honest message to share with an audience you respect.
And this acceptance of your strengths and weaknesses will help you relax and dampen any fear or anxiety you may feel. Rather than tensing, hardening, and defending yourself against the signs of nervousness, you stay present and in control. Practice self-compassion. Be human. Your confidence, poise, and connection with the audience will outshine any glitches.
By the way, my CMO client did step up to own his topic and his moment. We tweaked the script to better reflect his speaking style and added some stories from his childhood to illustrate his points. We practiced eye contact, pausing, breathing, and facial expressions to draw his audience closer and keep them engaged. So, the next time you speak to an audience, any audience, online or in person, let them sense your love of the topic, your love for the audience, and your love for yourself. These may be the most important skills you need to acquire for a lifetime of public speaking excellence.