A week ago today, I was standing at the head of the table in the conference room at the National Fair Housing Alliance in D.C. doing a 3 hour public speaking training for their staff. Straightaway I told them that out of everything I could share with them about communicating effectively the most important thing was to be themselves–to be authentic. Authenticity is the foundation for everything else.
When I first started teaching high school English, I wanted to be just like my dad. He was that kind of teacher who could command an entire classroom with just his presence. The kind of teacher who had kids standing on their desks reciting poetry long before they made the movie The Dead Poet’s Society. Dad was the kind of teacher who changed lives. He was bigger than life, and I wanted to be bigger than life too.
So I tried to do what he did and act the way he acted. But I wasn’t my dad. I was me. Over time, whether teaching, speaking, or performing, I have learned that I had to find my own voice, to embrace my own gifts, and to let go of my own inner critic. I had to be ME first and build from there.
There’s a wonderful story Shonda Rhimes shares about authenticity in her hi-larious and inspirational book, Year of Yes. She had agreed to give the commencement address at her alma mater, Dartmouth. On the plane ride to Hanover, she’s reading over her speech, and it suddenly hits her that it’s the same kind of speech she’s always written. It’s fine, but as she laments, “There is nothing of ME in here. I speak from behind a a curtain. I open my mouth but you never actually hear ME.” She rewrites it then and there; it’s edgier, less formal, more real. Standing at the podium the next day, she waits for the fear to overtake her, but it never comes. So she begins. “From that moment,” she says, “I am someone new. Someone comfortable. Someone unafraid. I speak to the audience as myself.”
When we find OUR voice, we are authentic. Mother Theresa said, “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.” Let go of that voice in your head telling you you’re not good enough, not qualified, not worthy, or that you’re not ready. Let go of thinking that you don’t have enough to offer. Be authentic and speak your truth, whatever that truth may be.