From the Lab: To Thine Own Self Be True

In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly emphasize that it’s important to make your speech relevant to your audience. While this is still a good piece of advice, new research suggests an important caveat.

In a recent study, Francesca Gino, Ovul Sezer, Alison Wood Brooks, and Laura Huang tested two different approaches to pitching. Participants were assigned to give an entrepreneurial pitch or a job interview, and told either to behave authentically or to cater to their audience’s expectations and interests.

In a pre-test survey, 66% of participants said that they regularly used the catering approach, and 71% believed that it would be more successful. As it turns out, however, this popular belief was wrong: participants who behaved authentically were actually more likely to receive funding for their ideas and more likely to be hired than participants who catered to their audience’s expectations.

Why might this be? As Gino explains, there are several things things to consider here:

When people engage in catering to others, they try to predict what they want to hear and act accordingly. But making such predictions is difficult and commonly leads to errors. Therefore, when individuals use a catering strategy … they can fail in at least two ways. First, they may inaccurately predict what the person wants to see and hear. Second, even if their predictions are accurate, they may act in an unconvincing manner because they feel inauthentic, deceitful, or anxious.

In fact, this is exactly what they found in the study: candidates who used the catering approach in an interview experienced higher anxiety than those who were simply being themselves, and this anxiety is what led them to be viewed as less hirable.

What are we to do with this information? Should we throw out the catering approach entirely and ignore the expectations and interests of our audience? Of course not.

But while we’re doing so, we should make sure we’re still being true to ourselves. The problem here is not with emphasizing the parts of our message that will be most relevant to a particular audience audiences (i.e., choosing the right “tip of the iceberg” for this particular crowd, which will be different than the “tip of the iceberg” for another crowd). The problem is with trying to be something we’re not, which leads to anxiety and impairs our performance.

A recent tweet by Nancy Duarte is instructive here:

If the tweet were perfectly parallel, it would read: “The audience does not need to tune themselves to you. You need to tune yourself to them.” But it doesn’t—because that’s not the optimal strategy. The optimal strategy is to be yourself, but tune your message to the audience.