Wrestling With Authenticity
When I interview speakers for my podcast This Moved Me, I often ask them about the idea of authenticity. It's a big one. I've been studying it for 15 years, wrestling with it as a speaker myself, and encouraging it as a coach. And if we as speakers are engaged in the process of creating the kind of art that moves our audience, this is not an unfamiliar topic.
But it's also not conclusive - or easy - or defined well - or agreed on - or done. Though we might (finally!) all agree that authenticity is important (and it is!), this topic is not done. We are still wrestling with authenticity.
Take, for example, several things that bumped around in my life in the last week. It started with this:
My (almost) daily reflection book - The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo - prompted this quote:
When was the last time you told your story?
-Question put to the sick by a Native American Medicine Man
Mark went on to challenge us to tell our stories by saying this:
"Stories are like little time capsules.They carry pieces of truth and meaning over time. Whether it is a myth from 4,000 years ago or your own untold story from childhood, the meaning waits like a dry ration; only by the next telling does it enlarge and soften to become edible. It is the sweat and tears of the telling that bring the meaning out of its sleep as if no time has passed. It is the telling that heals. We keep sharing the story that presses on our heart until we understand it all."
Yes, stories can heal. And perhaps the not telling them is making us sick.
But as a speaker - is our purpose to heal ourselves, or our audience?
Both. And neither. And, it depends. (See what I mean?)
Take, for example -
Dr. Nick Morgan, guest on This Moved Me, respected coach and author, expert on helping people tell their stories, and a go-to resource on body language. As a coach, Nick has been challenging people to bring their authentic selves into their talks for years. And in our conversation, we talked about how the concept is "accepted" now more than it was, but in many arenas - especially business, academics and politics - it's still not in practice.
And then, a few weeks after our conversation, Nick's father passed away. He was scheduled to give a talk shortly thereafter and was faced with the very challenge that he helps speakers grapple with: Do I bring this part of my self - this real and struggling part - into this talk? How authentic should I be in this moment?
Or when I watched Glennon Doyle Melton's TED talk. I love Glennon and Momastery (her blog) with a slightly obsessive fervor. I find myself repeatedly sharing what she writes because it is so brave and beautiful and inspiring.
Watching her TED talk, I was struck because it seemed to me that the story she shared was still moving its way through her own understanding of it. This was a story she hadn't shared before, so the telling of it was for her - and the healing for her. We as the audience were there to witness some of that healing - a beautiful thing, for sure. A moment of authenticity.
And finally I had a conversation with a new friend and prolific speaker who, nearly a decade after marrying her best friend - who happens to be a woman - still struggles with sharing that reality with her audience. Fear stops her.
I cautiously suggested that perhaps her fear was telling her that it needed to be shared - that it is important enough to be shared, if she was ready. (She is.)
Here's the thing:
Sometimes it's right and healing to NOT tell the story. Nick's Dad's passing was not ready to be shared - with that audience, at that time. Instead, he wrote about it and processed the challenge of it. He wasn't running from it. He was intentional and deliberate, and it was the right choice for him. I call that authentic.
Sometimes we tell it to heal ourselves. Glennon shared her story, and we got to witness her healing right in front of us on stage. That can be a privilege.
And sometimes, our fear is telling us that it's time to tell the story. Like my friend, who knows that she needs to be more open about who she is. There are times when - to bridge that divide between speaker and audience - we risk ourselves and share the thing that is waiting to be shared.
If the telling does the healing - we tell it. Whether that healing is for us - or for our audience.