How Authentic Leaders Communicate

More and more when we talk about our leaders and public figures, the discussion turns to whether those leaders are “authentic.” We’ve seen it in public commentary on politics and in our own work with executives across the country. Audiences are demanding authenticity from their leaders.

Realizing the growing importance of this trend, we set out to use our proprietary communication analytics platform to measure the communication skills of the CEOs at our nation’s largest companies and identify who among them was most authentic.

Once we had our results, we were able to dig deeper into the list to really understand the characteristics that contributed to these leaders’ authenticity. Compared to the average leader in our analysis, we found that the 20 most authentic CEOs stood out in several ways:

  • They were 50 percent more passionate.
  • Their visual delivery (body language, gestures, eye contact) was 34 percent more effective.
  • Their messages were 29 percent clearer.

You can read more about our findings here, but let’s take a step back first and look at what authenticity is, exactly.

At Quantified Communications, we define authenticity as the audience’s perception that a speaker’s words match his or her beliefs and actions. But we wanted to take it a step further, so we reached out to one of our collaborators, communication expert Matt Abrahams, who lectures at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, co-founded Bold Echo LLC, and wrote Speaking up without Freaking Out. Matt has plenty of insights on what authentic communication looks like and why it’s so important, and we’re thrilled to share his perspective:

Four Characteristics of Authentic Communicators

By Matt Abrahams

What Is an Authentic Leader?

What an intriguing question! Authenticity is very hard to define and even more elusive to enact, but we know it when we see and hear it—and we can usually tell right away when someone is being inauthentic. Authentic people seem genuine and sincere; they are confident in who they are and what they believe. In a word, they are perceived as real. Further, there exists a quiet certitude in an authentic person’s demeanor and communication style. That is, they are able to express their ideas and feelings in a connected, conversational way that not only relays their message but also conveys a sense that “this is the way it is from my perspective.”

Why Does Authenticity Matter?

There are many benefits to being authentic. First and foremost, research suggests authentic leaders are more trusted and believable. That trust builds up the leader’s credibility and breeds confidence in her capability and intentions, which motivates greater engagement and effort from her audience members, peers, and subordinates.

Next, while we might not support or agree with her ideas and actions, we are more likely to like an authentic leader than someone who is disingenuous, overly polished, or putting on airs. The goodwill that likeability inspires leads to cohesiveness in actions and attitudes and improves employee commitment and retention. Further, it lays a foundation for constructive dialogue when disagreements do arise.

Additionally, authentic leaders put their audiences at ease. When a leader appears authentic, listeners don’t need to waste cognitive capacity trying to suss out an ulterior motive or determine why she might be saying what she is saying. The result is that audiences are more likely to focus on and remember what an authentic leader says.

Finally, it is far easier to be yourself than it is to take on a persona you think others want to see. Authentic leaders can spend less time worrying about external perceptions and more time focused on their jobs and their communication goals.

How Do Authentic Leaders Communicate?

Authentic leaders’ communication is made up of at least four characteristics that differ from those who are less authentic.

  1. Audience-Centric Approach: Authentic leaders are genuinely interested in both their message and their audience. Authentic leaders always place themselves in service of their audience by asking, “What does my audience need to know and feel?” This audience-centric approach not only connects the speaker to her audience, but it enables her to meet the audience where they are at in terms of expectations and knowledge level. Finally, this approach affects the tone of the communication by ensuring the leader can speak to her audience as equals.
  2. Openness: Too many leaders deliver sterile, fact-filled presentations that they seem to be bestowing upon the audience. But an authentic leader approaches her audience more openly, sharing her ideas and information through personal experience and stories. When she uses data, she puts it in context and explains what the numbers mean for her and others. Additionally, an authentic person expresses and explains both success and failure as well as opportunities and challenges.
  3. Warmth: The warmth an authentic leader expresses in her communication serves to connect her to her audience in an honest and genuine way. Recent academic research has shown the value of communicating in a warm and connected manner. Warmth can be thought of as operationalized empathy. It is a combination of understanding an audience’s needs and displaying that understanding through words and actions. An authentic speaker acknowledges her audience’s needs by verbally echoing them. She also maintains an engaged posture, leaning forward and moving toward people who ask questions. Researchers, such as popular TED presenter and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy, have shown that warmth is a key foundational trait of successful leaders.
  4. Immediacy: Similar to warmth, immediacy refers to authentic leaders’ ability to be present with their audiences. Immediacy is a term coined in the late 1960’s by psychology professor Albert Meharabian to represent the many verbal and nonverbal behaviors people exhibit to build emotional connections. Nervous and novice leaders tend to retreat physically and emotionally when communicating. They may step back away from the audience while drawing their arms across their chests and hunching over or hiding behind a lectern. Their language is almost always more formal. Contrast this to leaders who communicate in an immediate fashion by holding an open, balanced posture and using conversational language. These leaders might stumble and stutter or let out an occasional “um,” but all of these convey an earnest honesty and presence in the moment. Research has shown that leaders and teachers who communicate in an immediate way are more effective and better liked.

Authenticity is a powerful tool for professional success. It boils down to being genuinely interested in and empathic with your audience while remaining emotionally and physically open and engaged. The bottom line is that like currency, authenticity allows for an open exchange—of ideas, feelings, and support—that buys leaders trust, engagement, and favor among their audiences.