The Importance of Authenticity

Jul 05

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen!”

A common challenge for speakers as they get more experienced—and I’ve struggled with this myself—is to avoid the temptation to talk as we think orators “should” speak, bombastically thrusting our pronouncements upon the audience. Talking at people, not talking with them.

It’s hard to connect with people on a personal level, to establish trust, to keep their interest and be memorable, if you approach them in an impersonal way. As we often advise in Toastmasters, a speech should be made conversationally, looking an audience member directly in the eyes.

Authenticity is more about a tone of voice and word choice, however. To truly connect with people, you have to open up to them. And sometimes you have to be vulnerable.

I once attended a demo meeting for a corporate club. An executive of the company gave a speech where he talked about some of the deep personal struggles and challenges he overcame in his life… challenges that not everyone had to face, challenges that some would think might reflect a character weakness. Many managers and leaders would feel it improper to expose such problems they had experienced, feeling they would lose respect from their audience. I felt quite the opposite and told him so in his speech, complimenting him on being strong enough to be vulnerable. By expressing what he had gone through, that he had moments of weakness like anyone else, I could identify with him more readily and respect his honesty and openness. By teaching us how he had changed his life and overcame that, I could be inspired by his example.

I had an issue of authenticity at work once. I had made a mistake that embarrassed the company in front of a client. When speaking with my manager, I explained what had happened and made my recommendations for a process to ensure it would not happen again, regardless of what developer was working on what project in the future, but my manager was unsatisfied—until I apologized for the mistake. “I really needed to hear that, Chad,” he said. “I just needed you to admit you made a mistake, to acknowledge it was your fault.” My focus had been on correcting the issue, but what helped him the most and shaped his impression of me was on my authenticity, my openly admitting my vulnerability and my mistakes.

Authenticity doesn’t apply only when speaking as an individual, however. It applies when speaking as a company. I don’t know about you, but I know that I have been irritated many times when a company would refuse to accept responsibility or blame for their actions. Vice versa, I have respected companies at times when they would publicly acknowledge a mistake had been made, and take the steps to correct it.

Recently I saw a communication from a company that made out their situation to be far better than it was. I knew the true situation was not quite so pretty. I would have liked for them to honestly state their situation, to apologize for the mistakes that led to that situation, and to state how they would avoid it from happening again. In my opinion, that would have resulted in a more favorable response!

Authenticity is for everyone, whether individuals or organizations.

  • Be honest
  • Be open
  • Take responsibility
  • Acknowledge mistakes
  • Treat the audience as friends, not impersonal targets

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