The truth is the ultimate expression of intimacy. That may be one reason we seem to get so little of the un-varnished variety. Why is it so hard to tell someone new that you love them? Someone not so new that you don’t? Why is it so hard to tell someone, “Things are worse than we thought,” or “I don’t have the money”? The truth is hard because it is so close to us. Think of all the time you spend figuring out how to tell someone something, and you begin to see what I mean. Don’t get me wrong—there is a place for tact and empathy. Therapists and pastoral counselors are taught how to cushion the blow: “I have some tough news to tell you.” (Pause). “It’s about your father/brother/wife/etc.” (Pause.) “There has been an accident.” (Pause.) You get the idea. There is a process for telling the truth, and the people who are taught this are in the business of intimacy. We trust our priests and therapists.
But, in the business of business, we start with the “spin” that cushions the truth itself, not the impact of the truth. We don’t usually tell lies, but the more cushioned the truth becomes, the less impact it has, the less intimacy it creates, and ultimately the less others believe it. And the less others believe, the less leaders have influence.
Interestingly, truth and intimacy reinforce each other. The more we tell the truth, the more comfortable we and others become with intimacy. The more intimate we are with someone, the more willing we are to tell and hear the truth…and the cycle continues. Of course, the opposite is also true: lies destroy intimacy.
Truth and intimacy are close to the bone. They both live under our ego defenses. Both make us vulnerable and most of us don’t like feeling vulnerable. But, comfort with vulnerability is where our real power is. Folks with nothing to hide make others comfortable. Folks who make themselves big targets on purpose don’t seem to need to defend themselves. There is power in being comfortably open and accessible to whatever gets thrown at us.
So, business communications need to start with the truth. Learn to tell the truth—with empathy and sensitivity to others—and you begin to expose yourself. Get comfortable exposing yourself (figuratively, please), and the perception of your power grows.
The more we own the truth in ourselves, the more we expose others to the power of our own truth, and the more our authentic power comes through. The more authentic power we have, not position or hierarchical power, the more influence we have. People follow real power—and real power comes from the truth.
Clients often ask me, “What is the most important attribute of a great ‘public speaker?’”
I usually say, “Why would you want to be a great public speaker? Why not just talk to people and make things happen?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they say. “I know, I know, but really, what is the key to having impact in scary presentations?”
The answer is one of those slightly spiritual, riddle-secret-enigma deals because the answer is simply this: being 100% who you are. What’s so tough about that? You just stand up and let it rip…right? Well, not quite. At least not for most of us. There may be an ashram somewhere where everyone is completely authentic and completely present all the time, but I haven’t seen many managed organizations that have that kind of batting average. In fact, most of us mortals are constantly adjusting our own sense of who we are, which is one reason why very few of us are ever really completely comfortable in our own skin.
I mean, I know I’m supposed to be a businessman. My clients are deans of business schools, principals of international architectural firms, managing partners in venture capital and private equity firms, etc., but I love surfing and playing in my band almost as much as I like helping people win in important meetings. Heck, I used to have a “ soul patch” on my lower lip. So, who am I? Soul-surfer/musician, or thought leader/consultant/coach? Of course, the answer is “all of the above.” What that means is that how I am with people had better be informed by all of those parts of me, or folks aren’t getting all of me. And, all of me is what my clients are paying for. All of you is what your clients are paying for, too. It’s also what your employees want to follow, your investors believe in, and your family relies on. Giving less than 100% of who you are is shortchanging all of your relationships, and, maybe more importantly, it’s shortchanging yourself.
By the way, bringing all of yourself to any of these relationships is what being present means. Often, being present as a communicator means listening more than talking. It always means that you are radically aware of the impact you are having on those around you. It kind of puts the “Co” back in “Co-mmunication.” Being present means you’re not simply trying to “remember what comes next.” It means that you are so “in-the-moment” that your ideas are coming from your heart as well as your head. It means that everything about you is working hard to make a connection and make something important happen for the people you are talking to. It is hard work. It won’t come easily to many of us. It takes practice, but it can be learned—and it really matters.
The good news is that being 100% you and present is the only real differentiation you have. In the days of complete access to information, we have lots of choices for just about every decision we will ever make. Even the most rarefied professional services compete. This means that the products and services we offer have all pretty much become commoditized. So, marketing budgets not withstanding, the only real differentiation any of us have is who we really are. Which is great news to me because I also happen to think it’s why we are here on the planet.
Choosing to bring the very best of you to every communication means being fully present. Being present means being fully alive. Fully alive is where the fun is and busts down all the walls. It’s worth the fight.
There is a dangerous myth in the business world that says it’s our products, services, expertise, and capability that differentiate us and our companies from our competitors. But, here’s the rub: we all believe our “stuff” is great. With the exception of the clearly-branded leaders in any business category, how does one law firm, for instance, declare that it’s better than another? Win/loss record? Depends on the type of case and client. How does one design firm objectively declare its designs are superior to their competition’s? Awards won, time-lines met, budgets honored, number of clients satisfied? Every major firm makes those claims. How does one venture capital/private equity investor demonstrate its superiority to investors when the return numbers are all in the same ballpark? As far as I know, Avis is the only major brand that ever described itself as “#2.” And even then, they didn’t say “second best.” They said, “We’re # 2, we try harder!”
I’m not talking about advertising slogans here. I’m interested in how people talk to other people. When you are in a room with another living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being, how do you leverage that moment as an opportunity to move the relationship forward? There, I said it. “Relationship.” Well, it may come as a big surprise to some of you, but the answer is that building a relationship probably has very little to do with what you say. Yes, you can blow it with bad idea selection and an overuse of data-heavy PowerPoint slides, but for most of the meetings you have, it really boils down to who connects the best. So, differentiation–in the moment, at the chalk-face–comes from being completely who you are. The only real differentiation we can truly lay claim to is our incredible individual diversity. Not to mention, sophisticated purchasers of your service, product, etc. have incredibly sensitive “BS” meters.
I’m not suggesting that you be lazy or unprepared. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Being who you are when you are unprepared, nervous, or feeling out of your depth isn’t the “real you” that helps you get the job. In fact, I often have to physically manipulate some people to get them to show the sides of themselves that “look real” even to themselves on videotape. But, if you can change a golf slice into a draw (and even if you can’t), you can get used to using yourself in a way that allows you to express “the best of who you are.” And, if you’re not willing or able to do that in every important business communication, you are leaving money on the table. And, you don’t want to leave money on the table. You want the money in your bank account.
Who you are differentiates you. The best of who you are helps build your brand. And, what you are comfortable with now may do neither. So, what is “real,” what is “natural,” and what works? Comfort is a product of repetition. Period. We are hardwired to respond to people who seem comfortable in their own skin, who seem genuinely engaged in what they are talking about, and who are making a genuine effort to be available for real connection. There are a handful of choices you can make with your body and voice that help you express those qualities on a regular basis. But, you may have to work from the outside in for a while. Once you uncover what choices help you to express your own real power, your own real energy, and your real willingness to connect, you have to get enough reps under your belt to make them feel natural and real to you.
One way or the other, you are what differentiates (or fails to differentiate) your organization, cause, etc., from competing interests. Not your offering. So, make sure you put the best “you” out there every time you talk.