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Speaking in front of Audiences: The Hidden Role of Self-Esteem and Authenticity

An old classmate of mine, whom I refer to as Gerard for convenience, runs a very successful company. Although his role as founder and leader often requires him to speak in front of both small and large groups, he gets buckling knees at the mere thought. It seems paradoxical, as Gerard is an expert in his field, and in one-on-one conversations, he is very talkative. Unfortunately, this is something I encounter more often - and not only with leaders - and is definitely remediable.

Why do people not dare to speak in front of an audience?

In my opinion, EVERYONE can learn to speak in front of an audience. This can be done by learning tricks like storytelling, but more effective is often to discover what is holding you back. What belief lies behind your fear and when and how did you learn that belief? In addition, there is almost always a lack of self-esteem. 

Gerard himself spoke of too little self-confidence, but fortunately, I was soon able to talk that idea out of his head. Let me explain.

The difference between self-esteem and self-confidence

Although the terms self-confidence and self-esteem are often used interchangeably, they represent two fundamentally different concepts:

Self-confidence revolves around the belief in your abilities to perform certain tasks or face challenges. It depends on the situation and can vary from circumstance to circumstance. For example, a person may be confident as a musician but feel less confident in sporting matters.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, reflects the value you place on yourself. It is about a deep sense of respect and love for yourself, independent of your achievements or outside recognition. People with strong self-esteem believe in their fundamental values as individuals, regardless of their skills or successes.

When someone says he or she has low self-esteem, it is often actually about self-worth. For example, this person does have the confidence to wash dishes, drive a car, clean the house, or get dressed. These are basic examples that show there is intrinsic enough confidence to perform numerous tasks. Of course, no one can be confident about everything. For example, I can fly, but don't let me pilot a fighter jet - that would end disastrously.

Individuals with high self-esteem tend to be bolder. They would not impulsively board a jet plane but would dare to stand on a stage without shame, regardless of whether they are skilled at speaking or not.

How does self-esteem help with public speaking?

Self-esteem focuses on self-love, regardless of your abilities. Here, there is no room for value judgments. When we judge actions from the perspective of self-esteem, we tend to evaluate them; we regard something as good, bad, or somewhere in between.

This perspective certainly has its advantages, as it can deter us from taking actions we are not competent in or that may even be dangerous. Again, think of impulsively piloting a fighter jet.

However, when we look through the lens of self-worth - and assume it is ample - we are not prone to judgment. We live in the moment, enjoying the activity, without fretting about achievements. It's about 'being' and allowing yourself to live in that moment.

Self-worth implies that you are allowed to be there, fully and completely, regardless of what others think of you.

Take the example of a mother and her child. Imagine a child singing a song enthusiastically, but quite out of tune, meanwhile indulging in a colorful drawing. When the child proudly asks, "Beautiful, isn't it, mummy?", the mother does not judge the quality of the singing or the drawing. She looks at her child with love and sees his or her beauty and joy, regardless of performance.

Self-esteem, authenticity, and speaking in front of an audience

While there are countless techniques and tricks you can - and perhaps should - learn to speak effectively and empathetically in front of an audience, it is authenticity that often makes the difference. After all, tricks in themselves do not make you authentic.

Authenticity is deeply rooted in self-esteem; daring to be yourself fully and uninhibitedly.

It is often more pleasant to listen to someone who may stutter a little and occasionally forget their lines, than to someone who purely and simply recites a series of techniques and tricks. Being authentic means showing your humanity, which often resonates much more with an audience than perfection.

Especially if you have low self-esteem, it is easy to lose your self-worth by asking yourself questions like:

  1. Am I interesting enough?

  2. Am I doing it right?

  3. Am I saying the right things?

  4. Does the audience understand me?

  5. Am I coming across well?

  6. Do they like me?

  7. What if I make a crucial mistake?

  8. What do they think of my appearance or choice of clothes?

  9. Will they respect my opinion?

  10. Do I have enough knowledge on the subject?

  11. What if they disagree with what I say?

  12. Am I really the right person to talk about this?

  13. Aren't others much better at this?

  14. Will my message stick with the audience?

  15. etc

Asking such questions can lead to uncertainty, and therefore it is important to remember that every speaker is unique and has his or her own value. By focusing on your own authenticity and therefore sincerity, you can really connect with your audience.

The point is not so much to stop asking these questions. What it is really about is strengthening your self-esteem. When you have strong self-esteem, these questions lose their relevance and importance.

The power of vulnerability when speaking in front of an audience

One aspect that is often overlooked when speaking in public is the power of vulnerability. When we think of effective speakers, we often imagine individuals who speak with self-assurance and authority. But in reality, it is often the moments of genuine vulnerability that resonate most with an audience.

By showing yourself, with your fears, insecurities, and true emotions, you create a bond of trust with your audience. They don't see an infallible expert, but a real human being. That human element can strengthen the content of your message. That's because people are more likely to feel connected to others who share similar experiences and feelings.

Gerard, for example, might use his fear of public speaking as a strength. By openly sharing that he is nervous or by telling a personal story about a previous speaking experience, he could elicit empathy from his audience. That honesty can make him more authentic and approachable, making his message more powerful.

Ultimately, the key to effective public speaking is not avoiding our weaknesses, but embracing them. Combined with strong self-esteem and an authentic presentation, showing vulnerability can be a powerful tool in every speaker's toolbox.

The Power of Preparation in Public Speaking

Besides self-esteem, nothing beats the importance of preparation when public speaking. Let me share a personal experience to illustrate this.

An entrepreneur friend of mine, for whom I invariably wrote speeches and whom I coached in public speaking, was once unable to attend an award ceremony to which he had been invited. Since, as a strategist and marketer, I had also taken care of his campaigns, he asked me to act on his behalf. Without any preparation, but with an abundance of skills and self-esteem, I agreed.

There I stood, in a room filled with more than 100 fellow professionals. Award after award was presented. To my dismay, our company was passed over. Nevertheless, I was expected to give a ten-minute speech. In the 15 minutes left to me, I wondered what I could say while we had fallen out of the prizes. If only I had prepared better!

I decided to lean on the techniques I knew and my extensive knowledge of the business. This turned out to be a mistake. With an excess of bravado, I took the floor, but my speech was incoherent and did not resonate with the audience at all.

The discomfort was palpable. Both for me and those in the audience. Within minutes, my knees started buckling and my voice was shaking. After five minutes, I decided to throw in the towel and leave the stage. A humiliating moment in front of many peers. But going further would only do more damage.

The lesson? Even the best fall down sometimes and that's part of the game, but more important; Never underestimate the importance of preparation, even if you think you know all the tricks and have plenty of self-esteem.

How Do You Build More Self-Esteem?

This article would be too long to go into it in great detail. This is because self-esteem is a complex concept that affects many facets of our lives. While books like "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" by Nathaniel Branden and articles like this one can offer valuable insights, they often fall short of providing a personalized approach. This is where coaching can play a crucial role.

As children, many of us possessed an uninhibited form of self-esteem. There was a time when we saw ourselves without judgment, without the ballast of negative self-talk. Over the years, however, many of us have come to believe in limiting beliefs about ourselves. An effective coaching technique is to relive those moments and unravel the stories we tell ourselves.

A fundamental shift in perspective is also important. Many people focus mainly on self-confidence, which is therefore focused on our abilities and achievements. But self-esteem goes deeper. It is about the intrinsic value we place on ourselves, regardless of our achievements. Shifting the focus from self-confidence to self-esteem and self-love can be powerfully transformative.

Finally, a coach can offer a range of exercises and insights specific to the individual. These can help strengthen self-esteem and develop a healthier relationship with ourselves. Strengthening self-esteem is a journey, but with the right guidance and commitment, it is a journey that leads to a more fulfilling and authentic life and easier public speaking.

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