What is an authentic voice and why does it matter? I’m asked this question a lot because my company has developed an exercise called “Your Authentic Voice.”
First, let’s look at the benefits of an authentic voice and the costs of not having one.
Shortly after the presidential election, I led a leadership workshop where all the attendees happened to have supported Hillary Clinton (common in Manhattan). I asked them to forget whether they agreed with or believed the candidates, but to identify which they thought spoke more authentically.
All agreed on Donald Trump.
By contrast, when I ask people why Clinton ran for office, no one has yet pointed to her stating a personal interest or desire. That absence translates to inauthenticity.
An authentic voice isn’t everything you need for people to follow and support you, but it’s important. In some cases, it can be enough. I believe that Americans are so starved for authentic communication from politicians that many made it a top voting criteria. The same follows for all leadership—in business, politics, nonprofits, sports, military, and so on.
What authenticity is
Authenticity is sharing your relevant motivations and vulnerabilities. It’s close to openness and far from protecting yourself or being closed. It’s based in self-awareness and confidence. I think of it as an emotional skill. As with any skill, it comes with practice and atrophies without it.
Inauthenticity is hiding your relevant motivations and vulnerabilities. It may come from protecting yourself intentionally, such as through deception, or unconsciously, such as through a lack of self-awareness or poor communication skills.
Why an authentic voice matters
People know you are doing things for reasons. If you share those reasons, people know where you’re coming from. They know what you will do, so they don’t worry about you acting unpredictably under stress. They may disagree with you, but at least they know what to expect, which limits their worrying.
If you don’t share those reasons, we can’t help fearing that your motivations are worse than our worst assumptions. If they were better, you would have told us.
So inauthenticity makes us worry about unknowns when we most want predictability. We want leadership most when times are stressful. Do you see how inauthenticity undermines leadership?
How to develop an authentic voice
Like any skill, this one comes with practice. Everyone I ask who speaks authentically describes a challenging development period when they had to overcome emotions such as anxiety. Like a child learning to walk or ride a bike, you’ll fall and get hurt. You’ll also learn a skill that will benefit you for life.
Two exercises produce results that change people’s lives and relationships:
The first exercise helps you communicate authentically with yourself. On my blog, I call it “The most effective self-awareness exercise I know.” You can find more details and examples there.
The exercise is to carry a pen and paper for a week and, three or four times a day, to write your inner monologue—that is, write word for word the voice in your head, a few lines each time. The challenge is to write candidly without judging yourself. Everyone finds themselves learning more about themselves than they expected and their inner authenticity increasing.
The second exercise comes after you’ve practiced the first and reflected on it. It sounds more challenging, but everyone who does it diligently loves the results: It leads them to speak more authentically and, even more, leads others to speak back authentically.
This exercise is to speak that inner voice, also several times a day for a week. Simple to describe but hard to do until you get the hang of it. Then it feels natural.
I call this exercise “Your Authentic Voice.” Many people start by speaking alone to a wall, then to a mirror, and eventually working up to speaking their inner monologue to others. The benefits to your self-awareness, relationships, and leadership are difficult to overstate. You and those you lead will thank you for it.
Develop the leadership skills you need to guide your team effectively and inspire others to achieve team goals.