Defining the Undefinable –
What is Authentic Communication?

Erik Wirsing - Chief Content Officer, Sappington

As we shared in an earlier post, communication is being viewed by many as the new critical business imperative. The idea is that the burden is on IT in enterprise to come across the aisle and be a part of the overall digital business strategy. What does that look like?

It means a CIO spending more time in front of the board or with other C-level stakeholders. It’s investing in third-party sources to develop clear IT messaging campaigns and a strong internal brand. It’s about building bridges and establishing touch points within the company to allow IT to become an integral part of the customer experience.

But the reality is that all of these behaviors will soon become table stakes, especially as sources like MIT continue to emphasize the role of communication within businesses. For organizations to thrive, communication has to go beyond this. It has to be more than canned email messages littered with acronyms, more than standard presentations at an internal meeting. It has to be more than simply disseminating information.

Effective versus Authentic
When we discussed the right terminology for our communications approach here at Sappington, there was a word that kept cropping up: “effective.” We want our clients’ communication to be effective, which is another way of saying that we want it to work, to resonate, and to succeed in conveying ideas. Nothing wrong with that, right?

But this term started to annoy some of us a little. It didn’t feel adequate. It lacked emotion. It came off as sterile, and made me think of terms like “efficient,” “productive,” or “functional.” And these terms really don’t mesh with our brand, nor should this be the bar for any brand’s communication style. On the other hand, the word we kept coming back to was “authentic.”

People interpret this word in a lot of ways. For some, it conveys integrity. For others, it’s about what’s real or genuine. Still for others, it means trustworthy. There is actually an ongoing hunt for the meaning of this term “authentic” as it relates to the enterprise. The business world seems to be rife with opinions on the subject.

Opinions aside, let’s look at some of the various dictionary entries:

Authentic, adj.

  1. Not false or copied; genuine; real
  2. Having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence; authenticated; verified
  3. Entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy

The Importance of Being Honest
The thread that seems to run through all of these definitions is honesty. In fact, in a recent study by The Public Relations Strategist, 94% of American consumers cited “honest communications about products and services” as important or very important in how they define authenticity. This figure was still high—91%—when extrapolated across 12 global markets.

So what this means is that people hope to expect honesty from their leaders, whether they’re politicians, judges, or CEOs. And, apparently, even whether they’re naughty or nice. For instance, Steve Jobs may have been as caustic when he experienced an on-stage technical glitch as he was eloquent when delivering a graduation speech, but his employees and advocates generally saw him as real, and honest, and therefore authentic.

But what if authenticity in communication is more than just being real or honest, and subconsciously drifts into the realm of other ideas like empathy? Maybe this is a sort of ulterior virtue linked with authenticity that escapes the entries etched into Webster. At Sappington, we think it extends well beyond mere honesty.

Empathy, Transparency, and Consistency: The Three Elements of Authenticity
We do an exercise in many of our off-sites called “Walk in their Shoes.” It’s a simple printout with a formal shoe on the left to represent business stakeholders and a sneaker on the right to represent technology stakeholders. We ask participants to break into teams and put themselves in the shoes of their co-workers, colleagues, or customers and then communicate their concerns on paper as well as verbally. The results are always revealing. Groups in both business and technology report that this activity helps them to not just be effective in stating their points, but to be authentic in stating their points in ways that involve the emotions of the audience they’re trying to court. Once you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes—and experienced empathy—it’s easier to be authentic in your communications with that person and others like them.

Another opportunity to grow beyond honesty is in the notion of transparency. And there is definitely a nuance there. If I were to hand off an assignment to a peer and tell her the client name, project type, and due date without giving her the proper background information—client temperament, special circumstances, etc.—that’s technically being honest and telling a truth. She didn’t ask about the conditions, right? But it’s not transparent to withhold information or fail to give the whole story. It’s why there are nutrition labels printed on almost every food item in the country. It’s why courts use the phrase “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Finally, being consistent matters when it comes to authenticity. For example, it’s best when written communications match verbal communications. Does anyone think a boss or co-worker is authentic when being respectful in person, but passive aggressive in emails? Showcasing the same personality—whether in person or via the written word—establishes consistency. Consistency leads to trust, and trust is a part of authenticity. After all, it is possible to be warm and cordial without being perceived as weak or soft, particularly if you’re reliably warm and cordial.

At the end of the day, we think that while just being honest or real might make you effective, it doesn’t make you authentic. Authenticity probably isn’t any one thing—it’s more like a formula. It’s about going beyond honesty to being empathetic, transparent, and consistent. It opens the door for respectful criticism, yet doesn’t provide a platform for imperiousness. Be true to yourself, and to others (and never at their expense), and then you will have begun your journey toward true authenticity.


Erik Wirsing
Chief Content Officer
Storytelling Master

I have one of the best jobs a guy could ask for. I get to use my passion for writing and storytelling to help clients communicate their sometimes complex value propositions to their customers in human ways. Every day I get the opportunity to collaborate with our very talented internal creative team to deliver materials with soul and staying power, whether decks, sales tools, thought leadership or other collateral.

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