A few years ago I was coaching a telecom company’s new president, who wanted to project a more personal, caring demeanor. I watched him speak at one of his company’s town hall meetings, where a woman asked him a question. Before responding, the president asked her for her name. “Bonnie,” she said. Then he addressed Bonnie by name while answering her question–so far so good.
But two minutes later, the president referred back to the question Bonnie had raised–only this time he referred to her as “that lady.” Not exactly the intimate approach he was aiming for. Instead, it made him look inauthentic, undercutting the note of personal connection he’d just established moments earlier. It’s easier than you might think to project inauthenticity, especially if you’re nervous. Staying vigilant about these four bad habits can help you prevent that.
Bad Habit #1: Smiling Too Often
You may think you’re exuding warmth and optimism by flashing a smile periodically while speaking, but it’s possible to overdo it. Did you catch Donna Karan’s boycott-inducing red-carpet interview a couple of weeks ago, commenting on the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal? The content of her remarks notwithstanding, notice how frequently she smiles while talking to a reporter–sometimes flashing a wide grin multiple times within the same sentence. The effect is unnerving.
If you smile too often, people will see it as intentional, not a spontaneous reaction to feeling genuine warmth. Spontaneity and authenticity are close cousins; it’s a lot harder to appear sincere when you’re not fully present in the moment. So resist the urge to smile for the sake of smiling–do it only when the thing you’re talking about genuinely makes you feel good or happy.
Bad Habit #2: Poorly Timed Gestures
Another sign you might be coming across as inauthentic is that your gestures are timed incorrectly. When your timing is off-beat, your audience feels it, sensing the disconnect between what you’re saying and what you’re doing. When we gesture naturally, our gestures slightly precede the words because they’re connected to our thoughts–and we think much faster than we speak. But if they arrive even a moment too early, they look deliberate and forced. By the same token, if your gestures lag behind your words, they’ll look unnatural and tacked on. So if you’re not sure what do to with your hands and struggle to get into a natural flow, these are a few basic principles you may want to keep in mind.
Bad Habit #3: Erratic Pauses
Pausing too frequently can be just as detrimental as smiling too often. If you pause as part of the natural flow of your talk, that’s no problem. But if you take too long to land on the right word, your audience starts to wonder why. What’s your agenda? Why can’t you just say what you’re thinking? These aren’t questions you want running through the heads of your listeners.
If you . . . pause to think about what you . . . want to say in the middle of . . . phrases, you’ll come across sounding not just stilted but inauthentic, like you’ve got something to hide. Pauses should come naturally . . . separating your phrases . . . not breaking them up unevenly.
Bad Habit #4: Facial Expressions That Don’t Match Your Words
Unfortunately, it’s not just overactive smiling that you need to be on the lookout for. There are other facial expressions that might send mixed messages to your audience and undercut your authenticity. But it’s not that certain expressions themselves are off-limits–it’s all a question of fit.
This isn’t rocket science. If you’re delivering a positive message, your face should read as being positive as well. If you’re giving a message that isn’t so positive, your face should look serious. Sounds simple, right? Well, I’ve worked with many speakers who seem unaware of this fact–and to be fair, it’s easy to end up with a mismatch between your facial expressions and your message while you’re under pressure.
Indeed, I’ve also worked with leaders whose facial expressions never change at all. If your face looks the same regardless of what you’re saying, your audience wonders who you are and why you’re wearing a “mask.” They won’t really buy in to what you’re saying, which hurts your credibility. So just make sure your facial expressions connect with your messages and your feelings.
Last but not least, keep in mind that these bad speaking habits really are just habits. If you succumb to them, it doesn’t mean that you’re an inauthentic person–only that your listeners may be at risk of perceiving you that way. Being conscious of these common errors can help you avoid that trap and come across as sincere and authentic as you really are.