I hear people talk about authenticity all the time. I hear it so often I wonder if it means anything.
Some years back the marketing world took up the term, and the “authenticity movement” became all the rage. The idea was that companies should be open and honest about who they are and what they stand for – not just because it’s a good thing to do, but because it’s the way to succeed.
Then authenticity spread to the world of leadership, and product design, and leisure travel, clothing, and food. Ever our dill pickles had to be authentic. The term became so vague and overused it meant nothing at all.
Then I heard a charming story.
In the chapter, he describes himself as a timid, lonely Jewish kid growing up in the mostly Baptist town of Beaufort, South Carolina. He was so anxious and fearful he would hide from the other kids in the oleander bushes behind the elementary school.
Mike went on to be successful in business. In fact, he became the youngest VP in the history of Avon Products. His job was to oversee all communications for the U.S. sales reps.
One of his first duties was to produce the company’s annual sales meeting, where he had to give a major speech that would motivate all the district sales managers.
But inside, part of him was still that frightened little kid hiding in the bushes, terrified to speak in public.
Down the hall from his office was a man Mike alternately admired and feared – a tall, supremely confident manager, an “extrovert’s extrovert,” and a masterful public speaker.
Mike secretly called him Big Guy.
As Mike began planning his speech for the upcoming conference, the old terror and paralysis crept in. He thought to himself, “What a timid little mouse I would surely seem like, in contrast to Big Guy. The more I realized that I could never be like Big Guy – that I would fail if I tried – the more miserable I became.”
The day of the speech arrived, and Mike stepped up to the stage. And he had an insight – that he should forget about trying to be Big Guy. That wasn’t going to happen. Instead, he would just concentrate on being himself – or rather, the “best version” of himself he could be.
Mike addressed the audience as he was. He talked about his first day in the field as a sales rep – what it was like to go cold calling, knocking on the doors of strangers, mustering enthusiasm for a cheery “Avon calling!”
It didn’t work. All he sold that day was a bottle of nail polish.
But as he told the audience, the next day he went out again. This time he went with one of Avon’s best regional sales reps, an Iowa housewife who through hard work had risen to become a top seller. From this woman, he learned how fulfilled she was by her work, how much her accomplishments meant to her and her family, and how much credit she gave to her manager for supporting her career.
On stage, Mike wasn’t anything like Big Guy. “I did not gallivant across the space trying to simulate the extroverted ‘showman’ I’ll never be,” he said. He was simply himself, humble, earnest and unembarrassed about his emotions.
As he talked about the Iowa housewife, Mike let the managers know how much power they had to positively affect the lives of their sales reps. As he spoke, he could feel something shift inside. “I was having a significant impact on my audience, simply by being ‘me’ . . , ” he recalls.
Afterward the applause was thunderous. People came up to grasp his hands and give him hugs, and Mike’s life was changed forever.
Nowadays when he writes speeches for corporate executives, and when he coaches them on their delivery, Mike encourages them to “Sound like you … only better.”
That doesn’t always come naturally. It may seem counterintuitive, but a lot of work – preparation, rehearsal, discipline – goes into being your best self on stage. But the point is, it’s you – and nobody else.
Mike’s story moved me too. Who among us has not at times wanted to hide in the bushes? Sometimes we discover our truest self through public speaking. Sometimes it is a transforming moment.
The title of Mike’s chapter is, “From ‘Stage Fright’ to the Power of Authenticity.”
It won me over. I still wish he hadn’t used that word.
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