We debate this question in my Impact workshops. Some people believe the most important element is being engaging, other say it’s being relevant. Or motivating, or enthusiastic. Then someone suggests an element that gets everyone’s agreement – but at the same, is the most difficult to teach: being authentic.
The other elements – engagement, relevancy, motivation, enthusiasm, among lots of others – are easier to define (and teach) because they are specific. Because of this, a good trainer can teach specific techniques or show a presenter hints to make them extrinsic to the audience.
Authenticity is different because it begins with something intrinsic – something inside the speaker. No matter how good the trainer, only the speaker can make this attribute come alive. Along with charisma – another unteachable attribute – the element of authenticity intrigues me because they’re the ultimate goals of the best speakers. They can sell their ideas with such ease. But to teach a person to be “real” or “genuine”? The Holy Grail perhaps.
To that point, here’s how I define “speaker authenticity” – whether it’s demonstrated across an auditorium, a conference call, a boardroom table, or a cup of coffee.
No. 1 You have to be you.
It begins with utterly knowing yourself. If you don’t know who you are, more so, what you stand for, how can you be authentic to the audience? There’s a truth to being you. It’s more than knowing your topic, or having credibility, or having age and/or wisdom – although they all help. It requires a lot of self-examination, but not to be egotistical. It’s done to get a crystal-clear perception. That’s why being filmed (giving the presentation, or in a training workshop) is so vital: you have to know how you come across before you can be authentic. As many people find it confronting to see themselves on camera as they find it comforting, but it’s part of understanding you.
No 2. You have to be you … every time.
Once you know yourself, it’s about repetition and consistency – about you, your personality, your beliefs and behaviours. It’s true what Grandma Eklund used to say: You have to know what you know. If you don’t, you can’t repeat it. And if you can’t repeat it, you can’t improve. The most authentic speakers I know have a clear sense of their strengths (to repeat them) and their weaknesses (to either neutralise them or find ways to make them strengths.)
It’s also a demonstration between what the speaker believes and how they behave. The audience sees the difference. It’s easiest to spot when the speaker talks in one way, sitting down among colleagues, but then changes slightly (or entirely!) when they stand to present. One person who saw it for themselves on their own video said, “It’s as if I’m stepping into Performance Mode.” I understand trying to rise to the occasion, but not so much that it becomes a Facade, something that doesn’t ring true. There must be seamless transition between pre-presentation and presentation – from backstage to front of house, from the hallway conversation to the across-the-table discussion. If it’s not, the audience will raise an eyebrow, wondering “Who’s this new person?” More so, they won’t know which person – the before or the after – is real. Or is either?
No. 3 You ‘know what you say,’ not ‘say everything you know.’
The most authentic business presenters are pro-active and concise. They state a definitive opinion, recommendation or hypothesis. Their rationale and evidence is clear, explicit and appropriate. They choose words which sound natural coming out of their mouth. As a whole, they’re believable.
The less authentic presenters give status reports or executive summaries – that is to say, a general review of the background or status quo without any analysis. Their presentation says to the audience: “Here’s everything I know. Draw your own conclusions.” They’re given by people who don’t know what to believe, can’t see the forest for the trees, and/or are scared to put themselves forward. They’re not only not authentic, they aren’t a leader.
To be authentic, you have to be unafraid to state an opinion that may not be popular. Leaders who communicate effectively know that not every conversation will be positive, but they speak transparently and with honesty. They believe and trust what they say. One of my current clients – the CEO – said he expects his people to tell him what they believe, to say what they think should happen if they were in his shoes.
No. 4 You have to be fearless.
“But most don’t,” he said. “They tell me what they think I want them to tell me. It’s not an opinion. It’s an assumption. And that’s not the leadership I expect.” To be authentic you have to be fearless. The most authentic I see/hear are those who get the crux of the information out in the open as quickly as possible, then spend the remainder of the meeting time debating the best course of action. You can tell they’ve thought through the complexity and made it simple to understand, they trust their command of the information, and they stand up for themselves.
On the other hand, I get a lot of extremely good presenters who object to this point in particular, primarily because they have a less-than-productive relationship with their supervisor or colleague. I hear everything from “My boss doesn’t want my opinion, even if they ask” to “They’ve already made their decision, I’m only justifying their POV” to “They’re setting me up to be wrong in public.”
In individual situations, these may be true. But the most authentic speakers are definitive and right. They’re never indecisive and vague. Even as a middle ground, wouldn’t it be more authentic to be fearless but wrong, rather than silent and indecisive? If nothing else, you look like you’re taking responsibility. You face complexity, trouble and tough decisions. Authentic speakers avoid nothing.
No. 5 You have to be passionate.
You’re the only person who will make your topic interesting. PowerPoint or Keynote might look attractive and dazzle the eye on the stage or page, but people aren’t persuaded to change their behaviour based on what they see. One of my favourite lines, from my favourite mentors: “If you need PowerPoint to give you a personality, we have a much bigger problem at hand.”
Your words – delivered by you, in ways which engage the audience through body technique, eye contact, voice and gestures – are what change people’s attitude, opinion and behaviour. Authentic people work at exciting their audiences, and the number one way to do this is to talk about what’s important to the audience – not to talk about themselves.
Lots of people think they’re ready to present their recommendations or POVs because they wrote their slides. More often than not, the speaker is ill-prepared, and when we can see the speaker reading their own slides – or they’re reading the words to us – their credibility is ruined. Their authenticity disappears.
Here’s the good news.
When you finally get to the point that you’re authentic, it’s easier. There’s less work. You don’t have to pretend to be someone else. You are you. You know what you’re going to say. You speak and act naturally. You’re clear and transparent. You impress because you demonstrate the highest level of public speaking: you show you can think on your feet. That’s not just being authentic – you actually achieve impact.
What other attributes do you think it means to be authentic?