Rehearsed Is Not Authentic

I hear this objection time to time: “I don’t want to rehearse my presentation. Want to sound authentic.” Makes sense. Rehearsed is not authentic. Or is it?

Let’s look at this TED Talk by Susan Cain. You might have seen it already, it was a big hit. Her presenting style: Authentic. Wouldn’t you say? Maybe she just gave her talk off the cuff. After all, she had just written a book on the topic back then. Here’s what she wrote about her preparation:

“My year of preparation unfolded in three stages of accelerating dread. First, I joined Toastmasters, a worldwide organization whose members meet weekly in local chapters to practice public speaking.”

In an essay for New York Times

She was preparing. For a whole year. Besides visiting Toastmasters (cute of her to mention that), she got a 2-hour session with a TED coach and for the last week before her TED Talk, was preparing full time, working with a professional acting coach. Then, after all that: She was perfectly authentic.

Counter-intuitive, I know. It feels more authentic when we don’t prepare, doesn’t it. But public speaking is not about how the speakers feels. It is about what impression they make on the audience. And speaker’s and audience’s impressions can differ dramatically.

That goes beyond speaking. In his book “Talking to Strangers“, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment conducted by two German scientists, that tested how people can estimate their ability to convey their own emotion:

“Imagine the following scenario. You’re led down a long, narrow hallway into a dark room. There you sit and listen to a recording of a Franz Kafka short story, followed by a memory test on what you’ve just heard. You finish the test and step back into the corridor. But while you were listening to Kafka, a team has been hard at work. The corridor was actually made of temporary partitions. Now they’ve been moved to create a wide-open space. The room has bright green walls. A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling, illuminating a bright red chair. And sitting in the chair is your best friend, looking solemn. You come out, thinking you’re going to be heading down the same narrow hallway, and BOOM – a room where a room isn’t supposed to be. And your friend, staring at you like a character in a horror film.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers


In that scenario, you would be hardcore surprised, right? 60 individuals took part. On a scale of “being surprised” between 1 and 10, they rated their surprisedness on average at 8.4 (close to hardcore surprised). But when the scientists evaluated the facial expressions of the subjects for signs of surprise (wide eyes, shooting eyebrows and dropped jaws) – very few showed them. Only 5%.

If I’m feeling surprised, it does not mean it shows on my face. And maybe while I’m feeling the most authentic ever, to everyone else I look just confused.

Still in doubt? How about this: The next time you give an “authentic” unrehearsed presentation, record yourself. I know it’s uncomfortable. Insider information: People who don’t rehearse their presentations are uncomfortable recording them for similar reasons people who eat too much KFC are uncomfortable being photographed in their swimsuits (yes, I experienced both). But few things are as effective motivation as looking the truth in the eye.

If you’ll see room for improvement: Great! Good you made the recording. Try with some rehearsing the next time.

If you’ll be happy with what you’ll see – well, congratulations. I will say nothing more.


Photo by Mark Williams on Unsplash

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