It’s a little like the advice you’d get as a kid before going to a big interview or asking someone out on a date: “Just be yourself.”
Yes! So easy. I will do THAT!
And then, you end of being this:
Or worse, you try too hard and come off like this:
(Yes, I know. I look like him.)
The truth is that being authentic is difficult. It requires a lot of practice, discipline and trust. Meryl Streep is one of my favorite actors because she makes every character she plays seem authentic. She is one of the most hardworking and talented actors I have seen, and I admire her because she never seems to take a movie off.
(Well, almost never)
The fact is that she didn’t get there just on talent alone. The hardest thing to do is to “act naturally” on cue. Some people are good at doing it in extreme situations, but few are able to do it with the consistency that she does.
The other person who I admire in this way is Ira Glass.
(Hi, I’m dorky and sexy.)
Ira is a radio personality who hosts the NPR radio show This American Life (maybe you’ve heard of it?). I recently saw him live and was struck by something that he shared with the audience as part of his discussion of radio and his career. He said that it took him ten years to be able to speak like a normal person on the radio. He played clips of himself from his early days, which had him speaking in that staccato, “important” “newsy” type of voice that we are used to hearing from our news casters and anchorpeople. What struck me about this was how unbelievably natural Ira sounds now when he speaks in front of an audience or on the radio. He just sounds like a normal person. It never really occurred to me that he would have to work so hard at it.
I’m not sure if that is comforting for some of you or if it depressing, but I like to think of it as a more realistic and hopeful perspective.
Here are some takeaways that I think of when it comes to authenticity and speaking:
1. No one is “natural” at acting natural in front of an audience
Even Marlon Brando worked at being so natural on stage and on screen. He just happened to also be really, really talented. The sooner that we realize that being authentic in front of other people is not a given, the easier it will be to begin to work at getting better at it.
Another way to think of this is that the more you understand yourself and your own body and voice, the easier it will be to be open, natural and authentic in front of any crowd.
2. You must understand the difference between being self-conscious and self-aware
When we are self-conscious, we become rigid and awkward. We basically try to watch our own movements and judge them while we are talking and moving. This usually creates a mini delay and stiffness in our motions which often become cartoonish.
(Pretty much how my first real dance went.)
The more self-aware we are, the more willing we are to look at ourselves and see the ugly parts and the awkward parts. The less likely we will be trying to hide those ugly parts (which basically highlights them) and instead focus on the parts of us that we love.
This may be the first time I have ever said this, but I think that Jim Morrison said it best:
And he should know, because he also did this:
3. Stop trying to be perfect
Just think about that for a second. Why is it that we have the expectation that we can be authentic and perfect? How is that even possible? The very nature of being authentic is that you are somehow showing your true self, warts and all, and that you are okay with them. Trying to be perfect, especially in your communication, is like setting yourself up for failure at being yourself.
The trouble with the intention of wanting to be perfect is that it also creates the experience of judging yourself in the moment. If you are looking for ways to be more genuine when you speak or when you lead a meeting, then you will need to trust that the people in the room are more concerned with what they are doing and how they are being perceived than they are with how you are doing. The more perfect you try to be, the less authentic you will be and the less persuasive you will sound as a whole.
The whole talk will come across like an actor from a bad 80s television show:
(This is what “suave” looked like circa 1988.)
4. Practice it as a conversation, not as a performance
Whenever we think of speaking as a performance, we get tied up in all the things that we assume that means. Even actors struggle with this tension. The key is not to focus on the performative part, but rather focus on what you want people to hear. Think of it as a normal conversation over crumpets and tea. The more that you can think of what you’re saying as part of a flow between you and the audience, the easier it will be for the audience to see and hear you as your genuine self. It is only when we try to perform that we end up feeling and seeming awkward or unnatural.
So, go ahead and be yourself and trust yourself, but also know that this is not an overnight thing. Authenticity takes time, practice and discipline. And with that, I leave you with another note from Ira Glass as he talks about the work and what it takes to do something well (summary: be willing to suck at it for awhile).