You may have heard the terms “being naked in front of your audience” or “exposing yourself” to your audience. I personally dislike these terms because they make it sound like you’re an exotic dancer, not a speaker or presenter. But looking at it figuratively, there are some benefits to giving your audience a glimpse of your inner self and letting your guard down, but it’s not necessarily appropriate for all occasions.
Relating to your audience is important and developing that two way rapport can really hit your message home. Peeling away that outer layer is one of many ways to accomplish this, but it needs to be done with discretion. So we’ll take a look at some things to consider to help determine when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t.
The focus of your speech:
If your speech is about you or your experiences, it’s good to peel away that layer and give the audience a glimpse of your inner self. If you’re giving a speech where you’re honoring someone else (such as a wedding toast), then it’s not appropriate for you to open up your darkest secrets to the audience. Many speakers forget that our speeches are for our audiences and not a group therapy session to get things off our own chests.
Is what you’re sharing appropriate for your audience:
You obviously don’t want to share something about yourself that might turn the audience against you. However, this isn’t as black and white as one might think. For example, a man sharing his story of infidelity to an audience comprised of working mothers may sound like a bad idea. But it all depends on the context it’s used and the way he delivers it. If he’s talking about forgiveness and describes the incident as something he deeply regrets and struggles with on a day to day basis, it may actually help his speech.
In this day and age, behaviors such as drug use, alcoholism and infidelity don’t carry the stigma they used to. I once saw a woman share stories about her troubled past that included these types of things during a Toastmasters District Speech Contest and because she overcame them, they helped her win the contest. That being said, there are things that people will not tolerate (and of course, that all depends on where you live and your culture). In the United States, rape, child abuse and certain forms of discrimination (the latter varies by region) are not tolerated and sharing stories where you’re guilty of these taboos will harm your rapport with the audience. In other cultures things such as murder, infidelity or breaking social and religious norms will hurt your reputation with your audience.
So how do you tell if something is not appropriate? My general rule is that if you have to ask, then you probably should leave it out.
Does it benefit the audience:
When I teach my courses on public speaking, I share my own embarrassing moments from public speaking to show my students that it’s possible to move beyond these moments. This benefits the audience because they learn that their instructor isn’t someone who was always good at public speaking, but instead, someone who, just like them, was scared to death of getting up in front of an audience (and survived the humiliation that they fear so much). Now if I was sharing this story for the sole purpose of getting the audience to sympathize with me and feel bad for me, it wouldn’t help my cause. The audience can see through that.
Like most aspects of public speaking, you have to look at your particular situation and determine when sharing an intimate detail of your life is appropriate. Consider the goal and focus of your speech and if it’s right to share something personal about yourself. Make sure that what you’re sharing won’t turn off or distract the audience. And finally, make sure that sharing the intimate detail has some benefit for your audience.