One of the most powerful ways a speaker can connect with their audience is to show a little vulnerability. Letting your guard down can assure your audience that they’re seeing the real you. It may help them relate to you and your story, and it builds a bridge of trust between you.
Of course, vulnerability doesn’t guarantee connection — especially if your audience senses you’re using it to manipulate them.
There’s an important difference between showing vulnerability and imposing intimacy. Brené Brown, one of the leading writers on vulnerability, warns in her book Daring Greatly against performative or insincere displays of vulnerability that “attempt to hotwire a connection.”
And not just any self-revelation is going to help you connect more deeply with your audience, or connect in the way you want. You’ll need to consider what makes sense for this presentation.
You’ll also want to have a clear-eyed grasp of your audience’s preconceived ideas and prejudices about you. Do you want to reinforce them? Challenge them? Redirect them?
For me, there are four watchwords that keep me honest around vulnerability: authenticity, context, relevance and magnitude.
Authenticity: Is this really how you feel and what you experienced? Or have you inflated the emotional stakes for the sake of impact? Stay real, and you’ll stay believable; force it, and your audience will know.
Context: Does what you’re sharing arise organically from the context of your message? Or have you shifted gears abruptly and shoe-horned this into a place it doesn’t really belong? Make sure whatever you’re sharing fits snugly into your overall narrative.
Relevance: Is what you’re sharing meaningful to this audience, at this time? Or will it come at them out of left field? Your presentation is first and foremost in service to your audience, and the same goes for any vulnerability you show.
Magnitude: Is the emotional magnitude of what you’re sharing on an appropriate scale? Or are you burdening them with an enormous emotional revelation they aren’t prepared for? It’s okay if your self-disclosure will cause some discomfort in the audience — but are they more likely to remember the discomfort than your message?
When you think about it, this is very similar to the way you’d approach vulnerability in a one-on-one conversation with a new acquaintance. You’d want to keep things authentic; you wouldn’t abruptly change the topic; you’d make sure it’s relevant to them; and you probably wouldn’t lay a huge emotional disclosure on someone you’ve just met.
And just like in that one-on-one conversation, letting your guard down a little will be the key to building the beginnings of trust — the kind of trust that can lead, in the long run, to a valuable relationship.