Public Speaking: The Power of Vulnerability

Compare your relationship with your audience to any individual relationship in your life.

Your strongest relationships are those with the fewest barriers. You’re comfortable to be yourself and share openly. The relationship is, therefore, authentic and intimate.

In the 1950s, US psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham developed a model called the ‘Johari’ window. It’s used to develop better self-awareness by understanding what you know about yourself and what’s known by others.

Applying Johari’s window to your strongest relationships, there are fewer blind spots as you’re open to feedback from that individual. You have fewer hidden or “façade” areas as you’re comfortable to disclose things. The more about yourselves that you have in the open/free area, or “arena”, the stronger the relationship.

Watching two people interact in this kind of intimate relationship is to watch two people in flow. There’s no holding back. Both individuals are comfortable with vulnerability and the relationship is stronger for it. There’s such a high level of trust between them.

So what’s the difference when you come to speak to an audience?

Most people would admit that they want to build lots of trust with their audiences.

If we acknowledge that the strongest relationships are those where there is the greatest level of intimacy, openness, and comfort with vulnerability, is this the same when you come to present to an audience?

I say yes. Think less, doing a presentation and more building a relationship. And the fundamentals to any strong, authentic relationship are outlined above.

From our experience coaching executives in presentation skills (we hate the term presentation skills) there’s a discomfort with the word vulnerability. People associate it with weakness. I feel vulnerable=I feel weak. This is the last thing that you want to feel in a high-pressure situation where you’re the centre of attention. Right? Not quite.

The temptation is to learn tips and tricks to avoid feeling vulnerable, making it through without any disasters. These defence mechanisms may work, to a degree. They may help you to avoid messing up entirely and deliver a solid, polished presentation. If that’s what you want. Cool.

But why set the bar so low?

A presentation is a massive opportunity. Why not live on the edge a little? Be brave. Be dangerous. Dare to be brilliant, truly connect and inspire.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.” The words of Brene Brown. Couldn’t have said it better myself!

A comfort with vulnerability is absolutely essential to being somewhat more than satisfactory. All of the very best public speakers have it. The vulnerability manifests itself in very different ways but they all have this sense of ease in being open and themselves before an audience.

Watch a great stand-up comedian. It’s a masterclass in what we call “vulnerable intimacy.” I will allow myself to be utterly vulnerable, removing all barriers and mechanisms for protection, in order to build an intimate relationship.

This authenticity is incredibly appealing. It’s only by being authentic and yourself that you can build a genuine, strong relationship with an audience. This foundation allows you to truly influence and inspire as they’re able to connect with you in a human way. You become relatable. This vulnerability gives you tremendous power.

Vulnerability before an audience is a fundamental trust in yourself. It’s a faith that you’re enough. Any need to create an effect or play any roles is to say that you don’t trust yourself, your expertise and your ability to relate to an audience. Trust yourself.

Vulnerability is the confidence that you know your material so well you can stand before an audience without the need to grasp for the script, or the crutch of an over-busy slide deck.

Vulnerability is a respect for your audience, being prepared to be fully present, listening and responding to their needs. 

Vulnerability is embracing the uncertainty that goes along with such an approach and mindset. 

Vulnerability is an acceptance that being human and imperfect is real, truthful and has the power to make an impact much more than a perfectly delivered presentation with no mistakes, whilst you feel safe and comfortable.

Vulnerability is getting comfortable in going to uncomfortable places.

Any great relationship needs all of these things. In order to be a truly inspirational public speaker you must acknowledge the need to build a genuine relationship with your audience. The work that you need to put in, in order to be comfortable with this state of “vulnerable intimacy,” is massive. The old adage, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is absolutely right.

Only the very best can step before an audience and be prepared to do nothing- trusting their homework. Mark Twain said “it takes me 3 weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Yeah, it comes across all improvised, authentic and off the cuff- it is- but to have the confidence to do that in the room takes a huge level of preparation.

It’s knowing your material so well that when you’re there you can focus on the really interesting stuff- the relationship with your audience. It’s a lot of work but the rewards are massive. Dare to be dangerous. Dare to be vulnerable. Dare to be great.


  1. TRUST YOUSELF & “DO YOU”: No role-playing; you’re enough
  2. KNOW YOUR STUFF: So well that you don’t need to “remember” it
  3. EMBRACE THE UNCERTAINTY: Anything can happen. It’s a good thing
  4. LISTEN & RESPOND: After all, you’re there for them
  5. FORGET PERFECTION: Perfection isn’t very human

By Chris Wickenden, 30th April, 2019

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