In an MBA class I teach for the University of North Carolina on business communication, I ask my students to identify the characteristics of strong executive presence. Every time, they identify something along the lines of “I don’t know, they seem authentic.” And I respond excitedly, “YES, exactly!”
But what exactly does that mean: authentic? What do people who exhibit strong executive presence actually DO (consciously or unconsciously) to appear authentic? It’s a good question.
The trait of authenticity in people falls in that category of things most of us are more comfortable saying “I know it when I see it” than we are actually defining it. So let’s get some help from Merriam-Webster. When you look up the word authentic in the dictionary, you’ll see definitions along the lines of:
- worthy of acceptance or belief
- not false or imitation; real, actual
- true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character with no pretensions
OK, somewhat helpful, but you still don’t know what you need to DO to appear worthy of belief, real, or true to one’s personality. Well, I break it down into a couple of categories:
A. Little behaviors that help you connect
B. The big thing you should strive for: congruence
Practice little things to better connect
Yes, you can practice a number of behaviors that’ll help you connect more with those you speak with. They’re not earth-shaking in nature, but if you get good at doing some of these, your audience—whether it’s made up of one or many—will experience you as more authentic.
Establish eye contact: Sounds simple, but if you’re not looking people in the eye, they’ll think you’re hiding something. In addition to making people feel that you’re eager to connect with them, eye contact also helps you gather information about how well your audience is receiving you and your message.
Smile: All things being equal, people like to do business with people they like. And a pleasant, friendly smile can go a long way toward establishing goodwill and making you appear likable.
Check for understanding: Include pauses when you speak to keep you from sounding like you’re delivering a monologue. Use some of those breaks to check in with your audience and make sure they’re tracking with you. Ask them things like: “When’s the last time you’ve experienced what I’m talking about?” or “How much is what I’m talking about a problem in your business?”
Look engaged but relaxed: Striking this balance can definitely be a little tricky, but it’s certainly worth practicing. You can help the “engaged” part by using eye contact and asking questions. To look relaxed, monitor your speech so that you’re speaking at a nice, comfortable pace and varying your vocal inflection to sound like you’re connecting with the natural enthusiasm you have about the subject matter.
Strive for congruence in all you do
The opposite of congruence, incongruence, is something we’ve all recognized at one time or another. You know when you see someone speak and something just doesn’t “add up” about them? Maybe the way they’re dressed doesn’t match the way they’re expressing themselves. Or maybe their facial expressions don’t match the words they’re speaking (think: someone says “I’m really, really happy” while they wear a pained look on their face.) Well, congruence is when everything about you is adding up.
As Merriam-Webster tells us, authenticity is about being worthy of being believed and trusted. And if you’re putting out mixed signals in any way, those signals will erode your authenticity. Work hard to make sure that the message in the words you use matches the message you’re sending with your physical presence and with the details of any materials you share with your audience.
In the MBA class I mentioned above, we look at a video from a CEO who’s speaking to a room full of people while dressed in a golf shirt and talking in a relaxed but animated way. The students in the class identify the CEO as “authentic” in large part because everything they’re experiencing about him in that video “adds up.” He looks very much like he’s being himself—so much so that some students observe that he looks and sounds like you’d imagine he’d look and sound at any time, with any audience. In other words: He’s not putting on an act for this particular audience. He’s allowing his personality to come through clearly and, as a result, exudes authenticity.
We all like “authentic” people because we can believe them and because they make us feel at ease. As you strive to achieve your own authenticity when you communicate, remember that, while you can practice some behaviors to enhance the appearance of authenticity, there’s not one single way to “be authentic.” Find your own way of being authentic to become the effective communicator you know you can be.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.