“Be Authentic” is Bad Advice

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I’m not sure when the word authentic became the ubiquitous adjective it is today. I somehow suspect Oprah had something to do with it. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to read anything or listen to anyone speak about communication, leadership, presentation skills, interview skills, branding, or even relationships without the word authentic being spouted – repeatedly.

When social psychologist Amy Cuddy spoke about her new book Presence with author Susan Cain, they must have used the “a”-word a dozen times. Hearing the two of them use authentic with no clarification (though she does in her book) surprised me.

I’ve been feeling for some time that someone needs to start a conversation about the difference between being “your authentic self” and being “your effective self.” So here goes!

Let’s start with the Webster definition of authentic:

  1. worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact 
  2. conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features
  3. made or done the same way as an original
  4. not false or imitation:  real, actual
  5. true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

Most people, when they use or hear the phrase “be your authentic self,” think of definition #5.

However, there’s a tendency for people to take this too literally. Some people feel that it’s out of “character” for them to dress a certain way or wear their hair a certain way so they don’t. They can assert that it’s their “personality” to use a certain language or tone of voice, to not smile, to keep to themselves, or to push the envelope, regardless of whether it’s effective or not. This gives rise to thoughts and statements like – “I’m being authentic, it’s their problem if they don’t like it.”  But is it really their problem? When you don’t get the job you want, the promotion you may deserve, the work environment you cherish,  the client you need or the second date you crave, who suffers?

Let’s be honest, there are times when being yourself is not being your best.

The fact is, there are certain visual, vocal and verbal habits that are more positive, receptive, and engaging to the average human brain. To not recognize and take these norms into account is a gamble. Sometimes gamblers win but the odds are against them.

Thought leaders, branding experts, coaches, and the like do a disservice when we tell people just be “authentic,” without explaining what we mean by authentic.

First of all, I think of the word genuine. It IS VERY important for people and brands to be genuine. But if we must use the word authentic, I believe the more accurate definition is definition # 2.

This definition of authentic can mean “reproducing the essential features” of the “original” YOU but turning those features into a You 2.0. This way you can still feel authentic AND be more effective.

I was an incredibly shy child.  Even after pushing through my shyness to be an actress and to teach communication skills like I do now, a huge part of my personality is to not speak up and to avoid the spotlight.  But as a business owner I had to eventually ask myself. “How’s that working for you?” It wasn’t.

When you think of your authentic self, is it working for you? If not, identify the “essential features” that make up YOU, and highlight, polish, and reproduce those features. Then lose or mitigate any features that get in the way of your being effective to create You 2.0.  It doesn’t make you any less authentic. According to Webster’s definition #2, you are still conforming to the original.

An important caveat:  I was sharing my thoughts about this with a colleague. She told me she had a co-worker that she just couldn’t win over with her warm and friendly style which is very authentic to her. It’s important to realize that creating a You 2.0 doesn’t mean everybody will find your presentation or communication style effective. When you find people who don’t respond positively to You 2.0 you have two choices–accept that everyone is not going to like you OR if the relationship is an important one, learn the art of subtly adapting to match their style. Just like you wear different styles in different weather, you need slightly different styles with different people. But that’s a topic for another post. Stay tuned!

Please feel free to share your opinions; I know you have some. And if you want help on how to go from YOU to YOU 2.0, please contact me.

Author: Robyn Hatcher

Robyn Hatcher, owner and CEO of SpeakEtc. is a dynamic keynote speaker, communication expert author. She has cultivated a winning formula to transform mediocre communication skills into potent business gold. Robyn has transformed the careers of thousands of business leaders through corporate programs, private coaching, and interactive presentations. Using her 15 plus years in the entertainment industry and her experience as a certified Neural Linguistic Programming practitioner, she inspires. She invigorates. She leaves you with tangible skills you can apply the very next day.

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