If there’s one trend prevailing in our work with Fortune 100 leaders, it’s that their audiences demand authenticity. Realizing the growing importance of this characteristic, we set out to objectively measure the communication effectiveness of the CEOs at the nation’s 100 largest companies, and we ranked them based on their authenticity.
The results? J.P. Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon is the most authentic CEO in the Fortune 100.
What is Authenticity, and Why Does it Matter?
Entrepreneur Seth Godin recently defined Authenticity as “consistent emotional labor.”
We call a brand or a person authentic when they’re consistent, when they act the same way whether or not someone is looking. Someone is authentic when their actions are in alignment with what they promise.
In terms of communication, authenticity is the audience’s impression that speakers’ remarks match their beliefs and actions—they appear natural and not overly choreographed or contrived. Audiences crave authenticity from speakers because it indicates that they truly believe in their message. In a landscape where transparency is more valued (and yet harder to come by) than ever before, audiences are wary of manipulation and spin from inauthentic speakers—and they can spot “phonies” from miles away.
What Makes a Leader Appear Authentic?
Natural, Appropriate Nonverbals
According QC’s VP of executive communication, Briar Goldberg, authenticity comes largely from repeated exposure to the spotlight. The more we speak in public, the more we learn what feels natural and good—in terms of the words themselves as well as the vocal inflections, facial expressions, and gestures that really drive the message home. In fact, Goldberg says the most experienced speakers’ remarks often feel the least prepared. And this developed sense of comfort was evident in our analytics:
The high authenticity scores of the top 20 CEOs corresponded with 34 percent more effective visual and 36 percent more effective vocal delivery scores than the averages in our analysis.
Of course, notes Goldberg, there are things you need to change when you’re speaking in public versus one-on-one: “You do have to project a little more and move your body a little bit differently to make your message resonate in a crowded auditorium, but as a whole, the trick is not to appear as though you’re performing.”
In this New York Times DealBook conference interview, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi comports herself exactly as you’d expect her to in a private, one-on-one conversation. Her tone is relaxed and natural—she’s using her own voice and not some contrived “stage” voice. Her gestures, too, feel appropriate to the points she is making. While less authentic speakers may appear stiff or overly grandiose in the way they gesture on stage, Nooyi uses her hands freely and organically to underscore her message—just as she might do in a casual conversation with a friend.
For speakers who don’t get up on stage as often as a Fortune 100 executive might, but who want to appear more authentic, Goldberg recommends giving yourself as much “fake exposure” as possible. That means rehearsing plenty of times, in different rooms and in front of test audiences who can provide practice distractions. By creating that kind of exposure for yourself, you can mimic a seasoned speaker’s experience and improve your authenticity by making yourself comfortable behind the podium.
The linguistic hallmark of authentic speakers is that, when you listen to them address a large audience, you get the impression that they’d speak the same way over coffee.
Consider this excerpt from Dimon’s now-infamous “rant” against Washington in J.P. Morgan’s July earnings call:
Since the Great Recession, which is now 8 years old, we’ve been growing at 1.5 to 2 percent in spite of stupidity and political gridlock. Because the American business sector is powerful and strong, and is going to grow regardless of—people wake up in the morning, they want to feed their kids, they want to buy a home, they want to do things, the same with American businesses—what I’m saying is it would be much stronger growth had we made intelligent decisions and were there not gridlock.
And thank you for pointing it out because I’m going to be a broken record until this gets done. We are unable to build bridges, we’re unable to build airports, our inner city school kids are not graduating.
Not only is he wearing his personal beliefs on his sleeve rather than spinning or tailoring them for the Wall Street audience, but he’s expressing them in a manner you might expect from a one-on-one conversation.
In an interview situation, this means being prepared and comfortable enough with the topic at hand to discuss it easily and confidently. For keynotes and other pre-written addresses, Goldberg recommends leaders work closely with their communications teams to make sure prepared remarks are written in their own, natural voices.
The Most Authentic CEOs Also Use Significantly Clearer and More Trustworthy Language than Average
Contributing to the authenticity we saw in Dimon and other leaders was clear language that was likely to inspire trust among listeners.
When we talk about clarity, the simplest way to think about it is the structure of the language: clear communication uses fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word, and it lays out an unmistakable path of cause and effect. We’ve lauded Dimon for his clarity before, and we continue to see those patterns across his communication and the communication of the most authentic leaders in our analysis.
In terms of trust, we measure the linguistic patterns of trustworthiness as identified by academic researchers like James Pennebaker at the University of Texas and David Larcker at Stanford, along with extensive audience and panel testing. The patterns we look at include both those associated with deception, like negative sentiment, and more positive traits, like first-person pronouns or a level of detail that is cognitively difficult to convey.
In his address on racial tension in American society following the 2016 Orlando shooting, Randall Stephenson uses plenty of “I” language to make it clear that he is taking ownership of and responsibility for his bold message. He’s not attributing his stance to some third party; he’s claiming it as his conviction.
If this is a dialogue that’s going to begin at AT&T I feel like it probably ought to start with me.
I want you to hear something, and this is really important, and I want to finish with this. I’m not asking you to be tolerant of each other. Tolerance is for cowards. Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and to not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgements without being challenged. Do not tolerate each other. Work hard. Move into uncomfortable territory, and understand each other.
But, perhaps even more importantly, Stephenson dives below the surface. Research shows that speakers are perceived to be more trustworthy when they can offer insights as to the hows and whys behind their messages, explaining not only what is or has happened, but what isn’t true as a result.
And Stephenson does that here, telling his audience about a very personal experience that profoundly altered the way he looks at race in America:
This is why I’m sharing Chris’s story with you tonight, because, candidly, I have always been somewhat confused by Chris’s views. And now I got to tell you I get his anger when somebody responds to a black lives protest by saying “all lives matter.” Honestly, I have to admit that Chris is a bigger man than me, because if I was in his shoes I would be a bitter and angry man, and Chris is not. I’ll tell you my confusion now with his reviews has been replaced with a really healthy dose of humility.
According to executive communication expert Dr. Maegan Stephens, Mr. Stephenson’s frank personal insights—and willingness to discuss his past shortcomings—contribute to his success in this address. “When leaders admit to being wrong and explain how their perspective has grown and evolved, they can build strong bonds with employees,” she says.
The clear, trust-building language we’re seeing from leading CEOs contributes to the audience’s sense that they’re not putting on some kind of performance, but delivering an authentic message they truly believe in.
Authenticity is a tricky demand, because the more we try to be authentic, the more we end up looking and sounding like we’re putting on an act.
But the most authentic leaders in our analysis are successful precisely because they don’t appear to be putting on a show. They’re approaching uncomfortable topics—from racism to politics to health considerations for soda—and controversial opinions in an easy manner that appears to mirror their off-stage presence and a tone that suggests they’d tell you the same story no matter the setting.
The key, then, may not be to learn authenticity but to practice delivery skills to get comfortable in front of a crowd, and then present to your audience as yourself and not some fabricated persona you think they want to see, every single time.