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Authenticity and humility – the keys to an audience’s attention (and wallet)

I recently had the terrifying pleasure of MC-ing a charity fundraising ball for Home Start (Wandsworth) – a brilliant organisation which gives families a helping hand when they’re going through a rough patch. https://www.home-start.org.uk/about-us

I’ve worked on corporate events for two decades so I’m ok in front of a crowd. In fact, it’s a role I relish because you can genuinely contribute to the success of a conference by making the audience feel included; by facilitating interesting conversations; by setting an appropriate tone for the occasion.

At the average corporate gig, the objective of the host is to extract, solicit and explore interesting content. Generally speaking, the audience is attentive and curious and engaged.

They’re not usually three sheets to the wind, having necked half a bottle of bubbles in 20 minutes.

The attendees at the ball were there to have a good time. Post covid, there was a tangible frisson of excitement at being out and wearing glad rags. Mind you, the novelty of high heeled strappy sandals soon wore off.

Of course, success wasn’t just down to me. There was an amazing film which tugged the heart strings, fabulous auction items, good speakers, a beautiful setting and delicious food and drink.

My role was to help create an atmosphere in which people wanted to give, while enjoying themselves. And I had to do so in a manner which wasn’t aggressive or pushy. I had to avoid being too intrusive or annoying. Humour with care. I was acutely aware of the challenge, and felt rather out of my comfort zone.

And so the tone I went for was honesty, authenticity and humility. I asked simply and clearly for their help. I asked them to give more than they’d imagined they might. I revealed our hopes for the evening, and the fact that our hearts were pounding as we watched the total. No embarrassment or shame. I even sacrificed a bit of my own dignity along the way. All in a good cause.

In short, I created an emotional connection with them and demonstrated vulnerability.

And I’m happy to say that we raised a very good amount for the charity.

The same rules apply to communication in the corporate world (with audiences who are sober and engaged and not wearing evening dress).

Research tells us that authenticity is recognised and valued by audiences. And making an emotional connection with them has always worked. Aristotle: persuasion may come when the speech stirs the emotions.

There’s even a place for vulnerability on a corporate stage, if used with care.

Someone asked me in a training session the other day if it’s ok to tell an audience that we are nervous. I hesitated to give a definite answer. Why did I hesitate? Surely that’s the very definition of authenticity?

My concern is that if we lead with a reference to nerves, the audience might focus on that rather than the content (especially if, as is so often the case, they had no clue that you were nervous until you told them). I also worry that it might sound like an excuse for a poor presentation. So, if we’re not well prepped, and we’re nervous (one leads to the other, as we all know), will we leave behind the impression of an unconfident speaker who hadn’t prepared?

Of course, if the presentation is well prepared, (structured, relevant, rehearsed, impactful, with a strong open and close, the right length), reference to nerves would be less of an issue. Audience attention will be diverted to our excellent content. The mention of nerves merely a moment of rapport/human to human connection.

So, perhaps the best option is to more subtly reference that we care about this event/content/the audience; that we’re honoured/excited to be there; that it’s a nerve-wracking situation. This is actually what I did as I ‘landed’ on the TED red carpet dot. I was extremely nervous but what I said was – “I’m on the red dot – how exciting is that.” Thereby demonstrating humility and respect for the event and drawing attention away from my shaking legs!!!

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