Have you ever wondered what people mean when they say ‘be authentic?’
Lord knows I have. Authenticity is a pretty popular buzzword when it comes to speaking and content creation. It comes up over and over as a magic sauce of connection and persuasion (and sales). If you want your audience to like you, to trust you, the saying goes, you need to be authentic. If you want your prospective customers to buy from your online business, you need to be authentic. If you want to drive eyeballs to your blog or your vlog or your podcast, you absolutely must be authentic.
You’ve probably seen or heard this kind of advice as well. It’s one of those sound bites that’s easy to latch on to and repeat and repackage. It has the sense of depth, of profundity, of…well…authenticity.
Now here’s the million dollar question: what the heck is “authenticity”?
In terms of speaking and communication, the label ‘authentic’ seems to be attached to people who choose to make a great show of emotion on stage or in their messaging. Whether they speak with enthusiastic bombast or a quiet, quivering intensity, that emotional display acts as a key indicator of openness and sincerity. Authenticity also seems to have some tie to risk-taking. They are here to tell people what they think, and damn the consequences! They appear to act without guile, without trying to manipulate people through strategic word-picking. They’re spontaneous. They bare their souls and private lives for us to see so that we, their audience, can understand who they really are. They’re just a little rough around the edges – using antique or sepia filters to give their snapshots that grainy, slightly burned quality.
Piffle, I say. Those actions aren’t markers of authenticity – they’re specific strategies to give off the impression of it. And they can be as inauthentic as any other piece of advertising designed to get the audience to buy in to the speaker and/or their message. Granting someone the benediction of being authentic by readily buying in to shows of emotion or apparent openness can be dangerous business. It makes me think of Pride and Prejudice, and Elizabeth Bennet’s ready acceptance of Wickham’s phony tale of hardship. He was believable, because he was willing to tell all: “. . . names, facts, everything mentioned without ceremony. . . . Besides, there was truth in his looks.” (Vol 1. Chapter 17)
Then what is authenticity? Well, to me it’s a combination of truthfulness, sincerity, and consistency in the values and beliefs you express. It’s something that’s developed and proven over time and across different modes of communication. It can’t be manufactured (despite what many boho-chiq brands would love us to believe). And it certainly isn’t something that requires you to discard your natural tact, reserve, or style.
Authenticy doesn’t hinge on a great show of emotion or on a willingness to antagonize people for the sake of “being true to you.”
You can be authentic and still be strategic.
You can be authentic while still being careful about what you reveal and what you keep private.
You can be authentic without getting overly emotional or sappy about what it is you do.
You can be authentic even when carefully massaging your presentation so that your expression jives with the audience’s worldview.
You can be authentic while presenting something that has been immaculately polished.
You can be all of these things and be authentic, provided they are truly consistent with your values and beliefs.
Authenticity hinges on a willingness to act according to your values and say what you mean in a way that allows you to connect with those you need to reach, over and over and over again. And figuring out how to communicate both your intention commitment to being authentic is part of that effort.