Authentic communication – can you fake it ‘til you make it?

Recently I was running a communications learning and development session that was for a group of sustainability leaders.

At one point during the session someone said –

“What really helped me to become a more confident presenter was when someone said to me ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. Once I took on the gestures and approach of a confident presenter I found myself becoming more of a confident presenter.”

Well that one stumped me. I have heard this advice before. And I have seen it work for people. But there is something about this approach that doesn’t satisfy me.

When I come across a contradiction like this, I know there is something important for me to learn and that spending time unpicking the idea is going to be rewarding.

So I write this article to examine this question for myself as much as anything.

First of all; a qualifier. If something works for a person, if it helps them and they are entirely satisfied with the result, then I see no reason for them to change their approach. It is important that we are in charge of our own learning.

My investigation of this question is more about me understanding how I would like to help people gain confidence as ‘performers’ given that ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ doesn’t feel right for me.

That said – let’s examine my resistance. It’s the word fake.

When I help people with their communication skills, my first port of call is to look for the circumstances that this person needs to communicate in an authentic way. My belief is that without a clarity of purpose, a desire to present a clear story, most people will be stuck between running away from and running towards their audience.

This internal conflict reads very clearly in the words they choose the way they move and the tone/energy of their voice/breathing. Every single person is confronting a different series of internal questions and these questions may change according to the situation in which they are communicating.

When an individual identifies the underlying thoughts/beliefs that may be interfering with their ‘communication’ and replaces unhelpful beliefs with more helpful ones, the results are immediate and profound.

They are better able to construct and share their story with the people in front of them. Nothing fake there, just a genuine desire to communicate and a clarity around what needs to be communicated.

For example, one thing I have heard a nervous speaker say more than once is:

“I’m confident presenting to a group when I know that I am the expert in the room. But if there is someone else in the room who has similar or more knowledge then me – well I am a wreck.”

This belief is a pretty good example of how we trap ourselves into a game that is very difficult to win. For a start, how can we ever know that we are the most expert in the room? There must always be a margin for error, someone may be in the room who knows something about the topic we don’t. So this seed of doubt can creep in at any time.

It also is an extremely limiting belief. I am happy to present to people who are seriously more junior than me, but my peers – no way! How can we ever build on our knowledge if we are only presenting to people who know less than us? Sharing what we have learnt with colleagues, who have a similar or higher level of knowledge, is a pretty important way to strengthen what we know.

So in examining this belief I ask the question –

“Why is presenting to people who know something about the topic making you nervous?”

It seems pretty simple, but examining this belief can produce some revealing results.

“What if I’m wrong? What if I look stupid? I’ll be so embarrassed!”
“They may disagree with me, even challenge me, during the presentation.”
“They will be bored, because they already know it.”
“They might laugh at me, or judge me, or talk about me afterwards.”
“They might think I am being condescending.”

Now, these beliefs have come from somewhere. The good news is that in order to improve how someone is presenting, we don’t need to examine or understand the origins of these beliefs (you will need a therapist for that).

What we want to do is decide if we want these unhelpful beliefs (hopefully not) and, if not, what belief we want to have instead.

Because the belief we have about our audience sets up the way we communicate. An unhelpful belief will make us retreat from our audience. A helpful belief can help us connect with them.

So, why do you want to communicate this idea to this audience? If you can come up with a genuine answer to this question then you will start to organise yourself in a way that is easier to watch and much easier (for you) to experience.

Some answers may be…

“I would like to share my current thinking to find out what my peers think”
“I would like to update my peers on what I am thinking about so that they can learn from what I am learning.”
“My peers are only a small part of this audience, in this case I am speaking on behalf of our sector to the broader public about why what we do is important.”
“I would like to provoke my colleagues to think differently about an issue.”

The list is endless.

So, I’m hoping you can see why the concept of faking confidence is in direct contradiction with my approach which is to help the person speaking identify a genuine desire to communicate with their audience. When they have this desire, and focus on it as they present, they will generally feel more at ease and present with more confidence.

I have to admit “fake it ‘til you make it” works to a certain extent. What a lovely conundrum. How can this be?

In order to change our beliefs about how we present (“I’m a nervous presenter, I fall apart”), we need to have an experience that can lead to a new, more productive belief (“I want to present to this audience because they are important to the success of my project.”).

My approach builds these experiences by examining the internal narrative that is leading to the ‘nerves’ and replacing it with a more productive narrative. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ gets people to ‘pretend’ they are confident, giving them a chance to ‘experience’ confidence. Once experienced it’s easier to draw upon next time. And it works because our body and our mind are one thing. Just as what we think influences how we move, how we move influences what we think.

So if you take a physical stance that is strong, grounded and open, your thinking will start to reflect this stance. I really like this approach, but I don’t see what is fake about it. It will only work if the body really takes a confident stance. What can happen with ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ is that people develop over the top habits that lack authenticity. They gesture and emulate ‘confidence’ in ways that don’t connect with the audience (but certainly seem ‘bold’). This is the opposite of what I believe a performer of any sort is trying to create.

Performers are compelling when they are authentically communicating something that they understand and have a genuine desire to share.

The physicality of a confident speaker, the tone of their voice and the words they use can vary dramatically from still and softly spoken to outrageous and filling the stage. As long as it is authentic it doesn’t matter.  As each person’s ‘voice’ is different, we need to make sure we help them to find and grow that voice, not a picture they have of ‘someone else who might be confident giving this talk’.

That said, writing this article has helped me understand how ‘pretend you are confident’ instructions might help when coaching someone to speak publicly. It is one way to shake up the person’s habits around presenting, get them to explore different ways of moving and speaking, to experiment. As a step on the journey to authenticity developing agility to present in different ways is very useful.

But it would only be a step, something that would have to be left behind as the person started to cultivate their presentation style.

And ‘fake’ has to go. Perhaps ‘Be it so you can see it’ works better for me…


Check out more stories in the category: Knowledge Bank