Speaking with Authenticity: Why It Matters Now More Than Ever

women sitting on chairs inside a room

So you’re scheduled to give a big talk to a group of people you respect. You’ve got to come up with something good. You have an idea of what you want to say, and time to prepare. You get yourself a coffee, or a beer, or some water, and sit down to write. You visualize yourself at the podium, speaking confidently, winning the crowd. You look down at your fingers.

The words won’t come.

Suddenly, agreeing to give this talk seems like an awful idea—maybe the worst idea you’ve ever had. Writing has never been easy for you. As the minutes pass, you become more despondent. Maybe you even write a sentence or two that you quickly delete. Everything that comes to mind seems so inane. You admit, you have no ideawhat you’re going to say.

You suddenly have an epiphany: what if you looked online for some “inspiration” ?After all, a lot of really witty people have given speeches—maybe you could borrow from them?

I’m not going to tell you that plagiarism is an automatic career-ender; everyone from stand-up comics to Presidents of the United States have been caught red-handed lifting material from others, and have made it through to the other side. But there is something inauthentic about passing off someone else’s work as your own. Even if no one in the audience catches you in the act, you will know. And unless you’re an A-list actor, the audience will probably sense, maybe even subconsciously, that something is off.

You may have heard Steve Jobs quoting Pablo Picasso’s alleged dictum that “good artists borrow; great artists steal.” But is that really true? According to Quote Investigator, the remark began in W. H. Davenport’s musings on the difference between great and small poets. T.S. Eliot later wrote something close to what Jobs attributed to Picasso: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” 

Suggesting that knowing what to crib is as inventive as creating it in the first place, might seem to endorse stealing, but let’s read the rest of what Eilot wrote: “… bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”

In other words, the good poet steals but transforms into something that is new. Eliot is saying that mature poets can intentionally take elements from older works, molding them into something unified and different, while the immature poet only imitates what they see, without digesting or synthesizing it. They add nothing new.

So is looking for inspiration inauthentic? Not necessarily. The mistake is taking the soundbite of Steve Jobs’ (mis)attribution of Eliot’s quote at face value: that great artists steal, meaning that their shameless appropriation is somehow justified by their greatness. In my opinion, Eliot’s original intention is to say the opposite: that unskilled poets charmlessly plunder the work of others, thinking that they are being creative, while skilled ones are able to breathe their own life into what they have absorbed, to the point that its origins are completely obscured. More importantly, the mature poet is authentic in the way the immature poet is not. They have something new to say, that only they can. When they speak, listeners, even if they don’t agree with everything that’s said, will understand that this is something the speaker believes in. 

It’s the difference between a “cover version” of, say, “Cherokee,” and Charlie Parker’s reimagining of the song into “Ko-Ko.” One of them just rehashes the standard, the other takes it beyond the next level.

So looking elsewhere for creative help can be a trap. The latest place that creativity challenged students and even speakers turn for “inspiration” is artificial intelligence. Browsing Reddit or other places where folks congregate anonymously, one can read claims for a miracle helper that unclogs the creative process—or just delivers adequate blocks of text. In either case, as Robert Heinlein wrote, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Meaning, your barkeep might be giving you those salty pretzels for “free,” but you’ll end up paying for them by buying more drinks. Creative assistance from an AI can fall into the same category: besides ethical and privacy concerns (as they say, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product), your “free lunch” is going to cost something. That something is authenticity- the one thing the audience wants from you. 

I’ll let you judge for yourself. First, I’ll share three paragraphs on why I think authenticity is important in public speaking; then I will give AI its chance. 

  • Authenticity is important because it is the one thing that you can’t fake. It’s easy to pretend to be enthusiastic, but there is something in the eyes that gives it away. When someone speaks to me, before I can believe them, I have to believe that they believe themselves. Being authentic requires a measure of vulnerability that endears you to your listeners (or readers).
  • Speaking words written by someone (or something) else is a breach of trust that can never be fixed. Your audience gives you the courtesy of listening with an open mind; you pay for that currency by giving them something that no one else could have shared with them. I’m not going to tell you that claiming credit for something that you didn’t think or write is morally wrong. I’m not even going to say that the audience will be able to figure it out. But you will know. 
  • Finally, a lot of the AI writing I’ve seen appears to be passable, but is actually empty, with no real substance or message. So if you want to get up there and spout buzzwords that people will forget before they’re even out of your mouth, go ahead. Your conscience shouldn’t be bothered by the dishonesty, but by the theft of your audience’s time. 

And here’s what ChatGPT has to say:

  • Authenticity is a crucial aspect for public speakers for several reasons. Firstly, being authentic helps to build trust and credibility with the audience. The audience can quickly sense if a speaker is genuine or not, and if they perceive the speaker to be inauthentic, they may lose interest or become skeptical about the speaker’s message. By being authentic, speakers can create a deeper connection with the audience, which can make the audience more receptive to their message.
  • Authenticity allows speakers to communicate their message with clarity and conviction. When speakers are genuine and honest, they can speak from the heart and convey their message with passion and confidence. This can help to captivate the audience’s attention and keep them engaged throughout the presentation. Authentic speakers are also more likely to be memorable and leave a lasting impact on their audience.
  • Authenticity helps speakers stay true to themselves and their values. When speakers try to be someone they’re not, they can come across as insincere and lose sight of their message’s purpose. By staying true to themselves, speakers can deliver a message that aligns with their values, beliefs, and experiences. This can help them to establish a strong personal brand and build a loyal following of supporters who believe in their message.

Does bland begin to describe it? It’s not that the points are incorrect (although, as ChatGPT itself warns, that’s a real possibility), but that they sound…inauthentic. No real human being who wasn’t trying to sell you something would say things like “establish a strong personal brand and build a loyal following of supporters who believe in their message.” Listening to this is a one-way ticket to snoozeville.

If it’s that hard to come up with something to say, just talk about that. The audience might understand a bit better why the topic is so complex, and they might even identify with you. And, even if they stay on their hands at the end instead of applauding, you will know that you were authentic.

By David G. Schwartz, Ombuds at University of Nevada-Las Vegas

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