My dad died a week ago. He had a long and honorable life, and had suffered a year’s illness before his passing at age 89, so his death was not unmerciful. Still, I was close to him and I’m grieving.

This week I had to give a speech to a group of Harvard students. Of course the speech had been arranged long before, and of course the show had to go on. But I knew it was going to be hard.

Now, the advice I give to public speakers is that successful speeches and speakers these days need to be authentic. That means sharing – appropriately – from your life experiences with your audiences. You don’t have to share everything – that would be too much information – but you do have to share something and it has to be real.

Somewhere between the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, the general public became tired of hype and decided that it wanted authenticity instead. It’s the most important quality in communications today. With it, you can move people to action. Without it, you can’t even get a hearing. You’re in Dilbertland. That’s what I argue.

So what do I do in this case? Do I share this grief? That would be authentic – but it might derail the conversation, which was supposed to be about prepping body language for job interviews, networking, and so on. Would authentic grief be too much for this occasion?

I also write in this blog (and in Power Cues, my recent book) about the importance of managing your mood before a presentation. I talk about how focusing your emotion is a great way to increase your charisma. How does it work?

I offer that charisma is not what you think it is.  It’s not a God-given gift that you either have or you don’t.  It’s rather something you can learn, something you can turn on or off at will once you understand how it works.

Charisma is, in fact, focused emotion.  Most of us go through our days unfocused and distracted, thinking about all sorts of things, a little upset, or perhaps in a good mood, chuckling at something that happens, or a funny cartoon that someone sends us, worrying about an upcoming meeting, trying to remember something on the to-do list, trying to figure out what to have for dinner, and on and on.  Whatever. That mix of attitude is deeply uncharismatic.

Here’s why.  We humans have evolved to read each other’s emotions quickly and unconsciously, for basic questions like safe or unsafe, friend or foe, fighting or fleeing.  When we see the average mixed-emotion medium-temperature human walk by, we get a quick read and move on, because there’s nothing exciting there.

On the other hand, when someone comes in the room with focused emotion – excitement, passion, energy, anger, joy – you name it – we instantly start paying attention.  The emotion draws us, unconsciously at first, and then consciously as we try to figure out what’s going on.  It’s a survival thing.

The way to turn on your charisma is to focus your emotion, before you go into a meeting, or get up to give a speech, or even have an important conversation.  Make it a real emotion relevant to the situation.  Focusing takes some practice; you begin by remembering a time when you naturally felt that way, and recalling that experience as completely, using all 5 senses, as you can.  With that practice you’ll get better and better at turning it on and off.  And with that will come charisma.

So what do I focus on in this instance? My grief? Or do I try to mask my grief with something else – excitement, passion, confidence – what? And if I do that, what will I end up with – excitement masking grief underneath?

I didn’t know what to do.

In the end, I decided not to share the sorrow I was feeling. It seemed like too much emotion for the occasion and for that audience. And when I worked on focusing, I focused on my passion for the topic of body language. So I probably walked in with passion-and-underlying-grief.

I don’t know if that was the right approach. Maybe I should have trusted the students and leveled with them about how I was feeling. Authentic? Charismatic? Maybe. Maybe not. What do you think? What should I have done?

21 Comments

  1. you talk about emotions and feelings, nick…and being authentic. so this is what you felt was the right thing to do in this particular situation at this particular time; to do otherwise would not have been authentic.
    my condolences…whatever the circumstances of your father’s passing, losing such a connection with your past is certainly something to grieve.

  2. Dear Nick,
    I’m sorry for your loss and really appreciate you sharing your recent experience with us on your blog.
    And I think sharing your grief this way was more appropriate and useful than it would have been in your presentation at Harvard. As an actor and acting coach, my experience has been that unprocessed emotion like yours must have been – and perhaps still is – can actually cause more harm to your “instrument” and process if brought up in performance than advisedly keeping that emotion latent until your life can accommodate it. I’m sorry if that’s a bad way of putting grief for you at his point, so forgive my clumsiness. I just want to lend support to you for following your instincts, keeping the conversation at Harvard focused and honoring your father’s memory in your work which includes your conversation here.
    Your experience with your father’s death will no doubt add to many future presentations once it becomes more a part of you. You did the right thing. And again my condolences.
    Andy

  3. Thanks, Mike and Andy, for your helpful comments. What you say makes sense, and I agree with the idea of “unprocessed” emotion. I am indeed still processing. These things take time, and go at their own mysterious pace — but the rhythms of the 21st century don’t always easily accommodate them.

  4. My sincere condolence on the passing of your father Nick.

    I believe you did the right thing at Harvard. You focused on the audience. At that time, in that place you behaved professionally. You channelled your emotions into giving to them.

    Our audience need to experience our authentic voice in the context of their world. It is not all about us. I’m sure your father would have understood.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Halina

  5. If you felt that you wouldn’t be overcome with emotion, I think that working a connection in to your speech would have been incredibly powerful, just as you did in this article.

  6. So sorry for your loss Nick.
    It is hard to “suck up our emotions” and go on with the show, as you did. But you did what you felt was right at the moment and that is all any of us can do.
    You could have worked this experience of loss and grief in to your presentation and made it a teachable moment for your audience, but that is challenging after you already have a speech written. It certainly would have been authentic and powerful. The audience probably sensed something anyway, because our bodies can not lie. Grief will come out.
    But, you know your emotions more than I do and if you thought it was too risky and possibly would have hindered your the effectiveness of your speech than have helped, than you did the right thing.
    Thank you for sharing your pain, your heart and this article.

  7. I think you did just the right thing. You checked in with yourself and put your emotions and state of mind within the context of what you were committed to with the Harvard students. If your grieving could have been woven into the message, appropriate. If not , it would have distracted for no positive purpose.
    There have been many times when my own personal life was weighing heavily on me as I approached challenges in work and career. I have found that when I focus on the needs of others regardless of my own inner state, it always lifts me to rise above my own gravity.
    Appreciate your sharing and opening this to discussion and big hug for the loss of a man who held so much sway over and meaning in your wonderful life.
    Betty

  8. Hi Nick,

    I applaud your desire to do what’s right for your audience. But in this extreme circumstance, maybe you owed it to yourself and to the memory of your father to do what was right for you.

    It might have been right (for you) to swallow your emotions and go on with the show. Or to share what you were feeling, no matter what ruckus it might have caused. Or to skip the damn speech and hunker down to grieve in private.

    If we accept wages in the service of others, we owe it to them to provide what they want and need. But we owe it to ourselves to do what makes us a better person. And you’re the best judge of that.

    When you lose a parent, you become an orphan, regardless of your age. I lost my dad when I was 15. Now I’m 64 and I’m still getting over it. My heartfelt condolences.

    Jack

  9. Dear Nick, I think you did the right thing. There is a right time and place for a speaker (or a grocery clerk for that matter) to share one’s deepest emotions, especially when those feelings are right there at the surface. Authenticity takes confidence and courage. But speaking as someone who survived a decade of loss during the HIV epidemic, grief can leave you feeling like a ship without an anchor. And when you are speaking to a room of people, you are the anchor. More importantly, given what you have shared about your father in other publications, you just don’t know what another person just HAS to say, and maybe this isn’t the best time for you to hear it if isn’t kind. I’m very sorry for your loss, Nick.
    Yes, authenticity is important. And I’m happy to hear, when it comes to such a deep loss, that you decided to give yourself space.

  10. Nick, first of all – I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your grief and this struggle with us.
    Secondly, I so appreciate this conversation. It’s so important – but not nearly as important as your sorrow and doing what you need to do to honor your Dad and take care of yourself. Whether it’s an overwhelming emotion like grief or another less overwhelming emotion, one of the rules by which we as speakers should decide to share or not to share is about distraction from your message. You were afraid it would distract; and perhaps more pointedly, that it would overwhelm you – which ironically could have created a disconnect from your message, and so from you. It wasn’t fear of being real that held you back (which is when we need to push ourselves to share); it was a realization that we have to have a handle on our stories – to have lived them and to have reflected on them – to share them well (artfully!) and with purpose. It sounds to me like it wasn’t ready to be shared. You made the right choice, for you.
    And let me note – you sharing here on the blog also connects you to us on a deeper level. You found the right moment, the right audience, the right way, to share.
    Thank you for all you do!
    Sally

    1. Thanks, Sally — I think there’s a different set of possibilities with blogging, because it’s a longer-term relationship. A speech is the relationship of a moment in time. It can, of course, lead to other things, but primarily it is a moment.

  11. There is something in the culture — we feel that we have been so frequently lied to and manipulated by the media and journalists and politicians with “polished” hype that we seek “authenticity”. Everyone who likes Donald Trump — likes him because they feel he is authentic, he “say what he feels” in an uncensored way.
    Objectively he is totally insincere but as an audience, we seem to conflate the authenticity of his delivery with the authenticity of his content.
    And this is a problem with our new infatuation with authenticity. Folks like Kim Kardashian, Howard Stern, Tim Ferriss or Donald Trump–they excel at creating a simulacrum of authenticity (a “reality”) that we know isn’t really true but that we enjoy accepting as authentic. They play a character of themselves, and weirdly, now we all are learning to do that on social media.
    Pro wrestling is a good example–it used to be a fake sport that pretended it was real. Now there is a fake “reality” which is the story of the wrestlers and the corporate show, behind the fake show which is pretending to be real. A new layer.
    As audiences, we crave connections; we want to feel like we are allowed to see behind the curtain, and be close with people who are really strangers. You might well have connected more personally with your Harvard audience if you had mentioned your Dad.

    Once you take your father’s death and work it into your story — then it becomes your “reality” instead of your reality. This could be therapeutic — one reason that we tell elegies at funerals is to heal; they help convert our reality into “reality” — into a story.
    But once you go down that road of “authenticity” — where you decide what is real and what is “real” for the show–well I think it can risk making anything in the “real” bucket less dear.

  12. It would have been tough to weave together the authenticity of your grief with the subject–not that body language and grief don’t go together, but finding how to put them together well when you’re under the stress and distraction of grief would be, I think, difficult. You made the right choice (IMO).

    In 2006, I was about to teach my first presentation skills class at a HUGE tech client that we’d worked months and months to “land.” Three days before the scheduled class, my mother died (after a very long period of slowly declining health). Needless to say, tech presentation skills and grief don’t go together at all, so there was no question about whether to bring it up. The question was whether to go at all. In the end, I did, and the class was in the city where my mom lived for 35 years. It worked out well in many ways.

    I send you good wishes during this time. And always.

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