Shared emotion and vulnerability

The presentations I have delivered with the most significant impact have been those in which I have shared emotion and vulnerability. Garr Reynolds in his book, “The Naked Presenter” draws the analogy that audiences truly value such a connection but for many presenters this feels like being naked. It is essential to proactively manage this for the presenter and the audience.

Stories connect. Personal stories connect more deeply. Shared emotion and vulnerability deepen that connection even further. Choosing to take those steps, as a presenter, makes one vulnerable: this is valued by the audience. The risk and benefit of such a decision to both presenter and to the audience must be carefully considered in preparation. Active steps should be made for support of both, considering as many eventualities as possible.

The presenter who offers emotional vulnerability to an audience is perversely more in control than the audience. The timing and impact of the emotional content should have been considered, practised and rehearsed. Save the actuality of this, the presenter should be aware of the personal challenges and emotions that will be raised. It is good practice to ensure that a pre-advised ally is available immediately after the piece both to support the presenter and to manage the potential audience responses.

There is some evidence that explicit signalling to the audience of potential emotional or challenging content helps in preparation of the audience and better acceptance of the issue, psychological safety. This can be done by the chairman/introducer and include advice regarding the potential issues raised as well as opportunities of immediate support, points of contact and even the possibility of leaving prior to or during the presentation. It is not possible to avoid problems in every presentation; a teaching session on Hirschsprung enterocolitis may raise issues in a colleague whose child suffered with that condition.

Shared emotion and vulnerability within the presentation is under the control of the presenter. The choice to extend that to the audience afterwards should be expressly considered and managed. Sharing about one’s own challenges is not the same as being available to hear and or support multiple audience members similar experiences after the presentation. Prior planning to mange this issue be considered. Alternatively, organisation of a sheltered or protected exit from the room may be invaluable. 

Shared emotion and vulnerability within a presentation can be very valuable. This should be planned carefully by the presenter, the audience should have reasonable psychological safety and the presenter should actively manage the potential outcome of the presentation that makes such an impact.


  1. Andy Tagg

    Thanks Ross, for your insight on something I have spent a lot of time considering.

    I’ve moved towards giving an explicit warning before any talk I give that has a high probability of triggering someone. At first, I was concerned that I might detract from the impact but now say,

    “I’m going to talk about a sensitive subject that might be difficult for some of you. If you feel you need to leave then please do so without fear of judgement”

    I’ve been to a conference all about wellbeing/doctors health and there was no such warning and I found that quite challenging personally.

    Being vulnerable and giving yourself over to the audience is physically and emotionally draining. I have always felt more exhausted after giving one of these talks than any other. Understanding that you will feel like this and giving yourself permission to go and sit on your own and not mingle is important.

    As always, thanks for your wisdom

  2. ffolliet (Post author)

    Thanks for your input Andy, I hope others appreciate these posts are principally a distillation of wisdom I have gained from experience and discussion with peers. Particularly our discussion in Melbourne is the foundation of this piece. And yes, making space for yourself after such openness I would say is compulsory.


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