Donald Trump & The Fine Art of Authenticity

For any professional communicator, watching Donald Trump and his administration has been a living lab when it comes to lessons learned, failures and successes.

Yes, I said ‘successes’.

I’m not talking about policies. I’m not talking about politics. So, cool your jets.

I’m talking about communication.

And, the fact is if you get past the arrogance and volume, leaders in the corporate world can learn a thing or two from Donald Trump about communicating authority.

The reality is Trump is authentic. And, that resonates with people.

Everything he says and does feels like he’s being the real him – warts and all.

Arrogant. Loud. Boastful. Hot-headed. Unscripted. Unplugged. Exaggerator. You may not like it — but it comes off as authentic. You get the clear sense that when the cameras are off, this is who he truly is at heart. There’s no acting going on here.

And, in any kind of leadership (political, corporate, public sector), authenticity is crucial to success. At the end of the day, authenticity is a gateway to perceived credibility. And, in reputation and brand-building, credibility is everything. It’s what winning looks like.

I made this comment to someone on LinkedIn and added it to this post after initial posting it — but it’s worth repeating:

In reality, it is hard to see past Trump’s bullshit and bluster — which is why some may take issue with this blog. As a communications strategist, I always try to find the good in the bad. When someone like Trump wins the U.S. Presidency, you have to look at why and how that happened. And, it’s more complex than saying ‘people are stupid’.

Love him or hate him, he has qualities that many people see as refreshingly authentic (almost half of Americans who voted). He is confident in most of his abilities.

Oddly enough, the only times he appears vulnerable and weak are in areas where his manliness or ego are attacked (like the size of his hands or the realities/myth of his wealth). In those moments, you can see small fractures and glimmers of lacking authenticity. I’m surprised his opposition have not continued to put pressure on those clearly exposed nerves. However, on the whole, he sells his perception of authenticity very well.

And, then there’s the other kind of leader.

Scripted. Controlled. Uncomfortable in their own skin.

This subject came up recently with this painfully awkward viral video of Kellie Leitch — a Conservative leadership candidate in Canada (bonus points if you can get through the entire mind-numbing eight minutes).

There is nothing authentic about this performance.

As I said on CBC Radio’s Day 6, it’s deliciously awful in how horrible it is from both a production and a performance standpoint. It’s what someone looks like when they’re faking it — being something they’re not. That comes off as not trustworthy.

Even card-carrying Conservatives I know have told me this video clearly shows her as a puppet — over-scripted and looking like a ‘hostage’ as this satire piece opined.

There’s a key lesson here for anyone in leadership of any kind. Heck, it’s a good lesson even if you’re in a junior position.

Authenticity = credibility.

And, you can’t fake authenticity. You can work at it. But, you can’t fake it. People are smart. They know what they see. People have a natural ability to process things like eye contact, passion, body language and voice tonality. It all lends to authenticity.

Beyond politics, these are skills most needed in corporate leadership where authenticity affects everything from talent recruitment to strategic partnerships.

Female politician surrounded with journalistsSo, how do you come off as authentic?

The fact is it is extremely complex in its simplicity.

The easy answer: be yourself.

The reality? Being yourself can be difficult if you’re not prepared, which makes you nervous; you aren’t certain your message is the right one and you’re not fully aligned with the communications strategy that someone else is ramming down your throat.

I work with a lot of CEO’s and executive-level communicators — and, the first thing I tell them is we need to teach you to be yourself in an unnatural environment, whether that’s a boardroom, with the media or delivering a speech.

I can’t give you a secret formula here in a blog because every case is different.

I can tell you this — I support the idea of ‘unscripted’ — but that doesn’t mean unprepared. That doesn’t mean winging it during a speech or a news conference. What it means is having an orderly outline and practising over and over and over again until you internalize the message — and not memorize it.

When I work with clients on speeches, I actually ask them to send me an outline in bullet form….the heart of what they want to talk about and their key points. From there, we work together to massage the message. But, in the end, it’s their words and that comes through in selling their authenticity. The same can be said for getting ready for the media.

Another example is when we produce persuasive videos where the client will be on-camera. I’ve never used a teleprompter and I never will. I’ve had cabinet ministers ask for a teleprompter and I’ve outright refused. Instead, I personally interview then and pull out those authentic moments that are pure gold on camera — that you can’t script. That’s what winning looks like.

elonmuskIn the tech world, one of the most authentic people I’ve seen is Elon Musk.

Of course, it’s easy to be at ease and authentic when you’re a multi-billionaire — but from what I’ve seen he hasn’t changed much since his early days. And, the fact is there are a lot of tech billionaires out there who come off as assholes, so money doesn’t necessarily equate into positive authenticity.

Musk is passionate and engaged. For example, here’s a short clip of him being asked a question by a regular guy in the crowd — and then having a very real (and deep) conversation with this man.

It is extremely authentic and approachable in his own geeky way.

And, at the end of the day — some people simply don’t have “it”. Simon Cowell of American Idol would call it the X-Factor. You either have it or you don’t . And, if you don’t, it’s unlikely you will last long. Ask Kellie Leitch in a few months.

On the other hand, being authentic won’t save you from yourself and your bad decisions. On that front, let’s keep our eye on Donald Trump.

It’s the best communications living lab I’ve seen in a long time — and we’re just getting started. It’s easy to complain. Instead, watch for the learning moments.


**Cover photo credit to Cooper Neill for The New York Times**