Leadership communications — four steps to authenticity

Authenticity is the most important quality in leadership communications today. With it, you can move people to action. Without it, you can’t even get a hearing. Where does it come from, and how can you achieve it?

Every communication is two conversations. The first conversation in every communication is the one you’re aware of: the content. The second conversation is the one that most humans are unconscious experts on: the nonverbal one.

Most people think that the second conversation is merely an accompaniment to the first. In fact, recent brain research shows that gesture comes first, and it conveys most of the emotion that a communication intends. In addition, relationships, spatial distances between people, physical motion and place in general, basic needs like food, shelter, sex, and so on, are all first unconscious gesture conversations, then only secondarily, and later, conscious content conversations.

Think of it as everything that a smart cave man and woman would need to get along on a typical busy day defending the hearth, slaying woolly mammoths, raising the kids, and creating cave paintings in the few minutes at the end of the day that a cave person can call his or her own.

It’s the nonverbal conversation that will make or break you as a communicator. It’s where authenticity iscreated or destroyed. It may confirm you as the top dog, sabotage your authority, blow your chances at getting a raise or get you the big sale, lose you the prize or win it — and on and on through most of the big moments in life.

Understanding and controlling this second conversation is key to leadership today, because it’s not something that you can leave to chance or the unconscious. There are simply too many decisions to be made, too many inputs to weigh, too many people to manage and lead. In the twenty-first century, the pace of leadership has accelerated, the flow of information has exploded, and the physical and intellectual demands on leaders have intensified.

You can’t rely on common sense or instinct or winging it today as you once might have done. With camcorders and YouTube everywhere, you have to assume that your life as a leader is almost entirely transparent. Leaders who rely on ad-libbing and improvisation risk looking unprepared and stilted. The irony of leadership in the media age is that winging it looks fake; only the prepared can look authentic. This paradox raises the stakes on our cave person communication skills. We can no longer leave the second conversation — the source of authenticity — to the unconscious.

What we all do, as unconscious experts of the nonverbal communication of emotions, is ascribe intent to what we see. We don’t think to ourselves, Oh, I see a slumped shoulder and a bowed head. I sense trouble. Instead, we jump immediately to intent, decoding what we see: Uh — oh, Jones is in trouble. This could be bad.

That’s precisely because this expertise developed over eons in order to keep us alive and functioning in the tribe. We had to learn to respond instantly to nonverbal cues because by the time they became conscious, it was too late.

That instant, unconscious response is less useful in the modern era, when we have to do civilized things like lead thousands of people to action, manage groups of employees, and have conversations with discouraged coworkers. Here, our natural tendencies to self-preservation can get in the way. Defensiveness, which makes perfect sense when you are about to have a confrontation with a saber-tooth tiger, creates a bad feeling when you are trying to lead a team of software engineers. Fight-or-flight reactions of hostility, rapid heart rates, and flared nostrils don’t serve us well when the boss says, “How are you going to accomplish X in time frame Y?” They would have been fine when fleeing a woolly mammoth, but it’s no longer the case.

Because our instincts can betray us, we have to learn how to manage them. We must be able to have the two conversations together in a controlled, useful, conscious way. That’s the essence of leadership communications, and it’s a tall order. How can we make the unconscious conscious without losing spontaneity, power, and the appearance of ease?

Here’s where the paradox of leadership comes in. Because we humans tend to interpret fumbling,hesitations, and sloppiness as evidence of lack of preparedness, inauthenticity, and amateurishness, the leaders who wing it instead of preparing always fail to impress. The ones who rehearse, role-play, and prepare with real passion are the ones who connect with their public, their audiences, and their followers — and appear authentic.

We want authentic people as leaders today, and what the world doesn’t realize is how hard it is to appear that way. It takes understanding of how communications works, and it takes practice. There’s nothing spontaneous about authenticity in this televised age.

But the good news is that there is a simple way to control and align the two conversations. I break the process down here into four steps in which you work on mastering the intent to communicate, rather than worrying about specific gestures themselves.

Step One: Becoming Open

Your first task is to approach an audience, a meeting, or an interview as if you were comfortably at home talking to a loved one or a friend with whom you’re very relaxed. The point is to imagine the encounter, practice it, note the nonverbal gestures that go with it, and then use this same body language when you’re in the less intimate setting. The overall idea is to relax and achieve an open stance so that you look comfortable.

Step Two: Becoming Connected

Now you focus on your audience, whether it’s one person or many. Your nonverbal posture orients toward them, and you zero in on their issues and problems. As with openness, this is at once a question of message and body language, content, and delivery. Continuing the role play from the first step, you might imagine you were trying to get the attention of your four year old, who is engaged with some TV show. What would you say? How would you act? Would you draw nearer to your child? Get down at her level? Grab her arm? How can you translate that strong connection into the cooler one you have with, say, your direct reports at work?

Step Three: Becoming Passionate

Here, you concentrate on your own feelings and emotions. How do you connect with the subject matter at hand? What do you want or feel toward it? What’s your underlying emotion during the encounter — not the irritation you might feel about a direct report who’s giving you excuses about why a project is going to be late, but rather your passion for the project itself?

Step Four: Listening

Finally, authentic and charismatic communication requires that you listen to your audience. What is the underlying emotion of the person in front of you? Do you know what it is? During the course of the meeting, the event, the conference, or the speech, what’s the journey you want to take that person or persons on? Where do they start, and where do you want them to end?

If you approach your communications with these 4 steps in mind, you can achieve a union of the two conversations, the content and the body language, and thus appear authentic as a leader — and even charismatic.

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