Authentic Communication is NOT About 'Being Yourself'

August 2021
Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

While 'authenticity' seems to have become a buzzword in recent years, few people truly understand what it means in the context of executive communication, be it during a media interview or a dialogue with stakeholders.

Many reach for superficial definitions such as 'being yourself', but what does 'being yourself' really mean?

To showcase their authenticity, some have resorted to stunts such as not wearing make-up during virtual meetings or in social media videos, but this isn't necessarily a reflection of 'being yourself'. Let's face it. Most people would want to look their best when appearing before others and most of us would agree there's nothing inauthentic about wanting to look your best. Considering this, acting as if you don't care whether you look presentable isn't necessarily authentic, is it?

Superficial stunts just aren't enough proof of authenticity.

BE YOURSELF?

What does 'being yourself' really mean in the context of communicating with your target audience? Is it about saying whatever comes to mind, no matter the consequences and even if your message goes against corporate guidelines? Certainly not. When told this, some feel pressure to migrate to the other end of the spectrum to simply robotically deliver prescribed corporate responses. However, for communication to be effective, we know this approach doesn't work either.

At its core, authentic communication, just like all effective communication, is about being attuned to your audience's state of mind, listening attentively and responding in a way that satisfies them even if the message is somewhat unpleasant. All through this, can you really keep your core personality intact while being honest, building a connection and cultivating mutual understanding? Pretending to feel something or be someone you're not will tire you out and most importantly, won't fool your audience. We've also established that entirely 'being yourself' may not work in certain scenarios.

This is why I like to take a more nuanced approach by defining authentic communication as being honest while consciously presenting particular facets of your authentic personality — the facets that are likely to help you connect with your audience and move them towards your communication objectives.

SWITCH REGISTERS

In other words, you'll have to be willing to switch registers for each audience in order to identify with them and make your desired impact. This doesn't mean you'll have to take on different personalities for different audiences. It simply means you'll have to be selective about which traits you bring to the fore while staying true to who you are.

Effective communicators learn which personality traits they should reveal to whom and when. They recognise the importance of understanding the expectations and concerns of the people they want to influence. Most of all, they can do all of this without losing their identities.

Many of us already do this in everyday interactions. For instance, even though how we communicate with our children differs from how we communicate with our parents, we're not likely to classify either interaction as inauthentic.

Unfortunately, in professional settings, I've noticed people tend to process this concept differently.

CEOs have told me things such as, "I've been motivating employees by saying A, B and C. People know this is my style. If I say anything other than A, B or C, people will notice and think I'm being inauthentic, so I really shouldn't try."

However, we've established that in order to achieve your communication objectives and related business goals, you'll need to understand your audience and know what will influence them in that moment. If, instead of A, B or C, your employees now need D in order to be motivated, you must shape and deliver your message accordingly.

If you're concerned that using a different approach will inevitably result in a lack of authenticity that your audience will immediately detect, the advice in the following paragraphs will ensure that your message, while customised to your audience, is congruent with who you are and comes across as genuine.

USE YOUR OWN WORDS AND SOUND LIKE A HUMAN BEING

A key characteristic of authentic communication is that spokespeople use their own words, not those of a corporate spin doctor. Sure, PR specialists can finesse the message, but the key words should come directly from the speaker. Even in cases where the words have to be substituted to boost the efficacy of the message, the spokesperson should be deeply involved in the process.

Being able to express the message in his or her own words will help the speaker bring it to life. The more easily the message rolls off the spokesperson's tongue, the more believable it is.

Obliterate formulaic 'corporate speak'. This tends to alienate people as it makes the speaker come across as impersonal or wanting to sound smarter than everyone else in the room. The use of too much jargon also makes it look like you want to deliberately confuse your audience in order to hide something. To be an authentic spokesperson, you need to sound like you're having a conversation with a friend, not making one highfalutin statement after another, unleashing a blizzard of 'corporate speak' or spouting trite clichés.

TELL PERSONAL STORIES

When providing examples to illustrate a point, people often reach for those that have been widely written about or talked about in their field. However, the most impactful examples are usually personal to the speaker. Personal stories tend to be expressed more naturally and powerfully. These have the potential to transport audiences.

Personal stories and anecdotes about defining moments humanise, not just the speaker, but the message as a whole.

They make you and your organisation more relatable, help you build a connection and cultivate mutual understanding. As time goes by, you're likely to experience new defining moments. Remember to update your stories accordingly.

BE HONEST

I've mentioned honesty several times already. This should be a no-brainer. Being honest, transparent and being open to having difficult conversations will encourage your audience to respond in kind. This leads to better outcomes for all. If you don't have an answer, say so and explain why.

Generally, refrain from using phrases such as 'to be honest'. In doing so, you end up inadvertently undermining your honesty. It suggests everything you've said up till that point has been a lie.

LISTEN LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT

Sheryl Sandberg famously said, "The ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak. Miscommunication is always a two-way street." This applies to all forms of communication including executive communication.

You might think being a leader accords you the privilege of speaking as much as you want and interrupting or not listening when others are speaking. However, achieving your communication objectives will be impossible if you refuse to listen to your stakeholders. In order to get them on your side and move them to action, you need to connect with them and come to a mutual understanding. Not knowing where they're coming from will hinder your progress.

Just like you, your audience wants to be heard and respected. Put yourself in their shoes. Once you do this, listening attentively and responding honestly and appropriately should come naturally.

DIG DEEP

In a crisis situation, spokespeople often need to project sympathy and empathy in order to connect with their audience. But what if you're just not feeling it?

Most people possess the capacity to feel sympathy and a sense of compassion. It's simply a matter of becoming comfortable enough to make these emotions visible to a specific audience.

With my clients, digging deep usually helps. I ask adamant clients to put themselves in the position of their audience and soon enough, they become more open to showing compassion or any other emotion that could help them connect more powerfully. Empathy works. Of course, reminding people why showing a certain emotion will increase the efficacy of their message and help them achieve their communication objectives is equally vital. There's no need to cry in front of your audience. Simply admitting a mistake could help.

During a crisis that affects your entire organisation, openly discussing your own vulnerabilities can be an effective method of fostering intimacy and engendering trust as it shows your audience that you're human too. When you discuss your challenges and how you've overcome them or how you're coping with them, it shows others that they're not alone and could inspire them to constructively deal with their own challenges. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many leaders strengthened solidarity among their team members by exposing this facet of their personalities.

However, overt vulnerability may not always help. Again, it comes down to what your audience needs in that moment. If your team is counting on a confident leader to take charge, exposing your vulnerabilities without an encouraging account of how you're dealing with your challenges, could work against you.

RESOLVE VALUES CONFLICTS

Corporate spokespeople often struggle when delivering messages with which they don't agree.

Those who have spin doctors behind them become skilled at spinning and may end up delivering such messages credibly. Others focus on rationalising it just enough to deliver it well.

However, if your corporate overlords constantly require you to deliver messages that conflict with your values and belief system, you should consider quitting. Wouldn't it be better to work for a company with values that are more congruent with yours?

For more information, check out these programmes or send your queries to bharati@bharatijagdishcomms.com.

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