Are Your Stories Making You Appear Inauthentic?

An illustration of a politician talking to a crowd

As this is a post about one way to best convey and communicate your stories, I’ll start with one.

Back in 2004, when Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry was looking for a running mate, he met with then North Carolina senator John Edwards, a rising star in the Democratic party who also had campaigned for the presidential nomination before ending his run earlier that year.

As Kerry recounts in his 2018 memoir, Every Day is Extra, he became “unsettled” after meeting with Edwards. The source of that angst was a moving story Edwards shared during that meeting about a promise he made to his son Wade, following the teen’s tragic car accident. It wasn’t the story as much as it was the preface that bothered Kerry – Edwards told Kerry he hadn’t told the story to anyone else.

The problem was that Kerry had heard it before, at a dinner with Edwards several years earlier.

Clearly, you could give a pass to a grieving father, which is what Kerry says he did, ultimately picking Edwards as his running mate. But Kerry’s unease isn’t unique.

In a series of recent experiments, researchers Rosanna K. Smith, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Georgia and Rachel Gershon, assistant professor of marketing at the University of California San Diego, set out to measure the effect that repeated performances, such as sales pitches, stories, and presentations, had on observers.

What they found was this …

Every time study participants witnessed performers repeating themselves, such as when a politician shared the story of why she wanted to run during a speech and then repeated it during a subsequent media interview or when an entrepreneur finished his pitch with the same tagline to two different and distinct groups of potential clients, they were seen as less sincere and less authentic.

Even when study participants acknowledged those instances when repetition was required – such as a tour guide who must follow a script – they still viewed the tour guides who repeated themselves as less authentic as the ones who didn’t.

What’s happening here?

The researchers hypothesize that the problem comes from observers assuming that all social interactions are unique – that the connection is a one-time shared experience not to be repeated again. That is even when participants rationally know that repetition is necessary or even helpful in some situations – such as consistent messaging. As Smith points out in this news release:

“This thinking seems to be driven by people tending to assume that social interactions are, by default, unique – even interactions we rationally know are repeated. When you listen to a politician give a moving speech, it seems like you are having a unique interaction or connection. So, when I see a YouTube video of them saying the same thing later, it feels like they fooled me and hence, I see them as less authentic. The interaction was not the unique connection I thought it was.”

There are many interesting findings to explore in this research. I recommend checking out the full paper here. However, the fundamental takeaway for any presenter, subject matter expert, spokesperson, politician, performer, or teacher who often repeats stories (or facts, pitches, or lectures for that matter) is that frequent repetition may mean your authenticity and sincerity are going to take a hit.

As the researchers point out in their paper, “unacknowledged self-repetition is thus seen as a lie by omission.” In other words, if you fail to acknowledge your repetition, you are seen as no better than the performer who explicitly lies and says they are sharing unique material when they are not.

What’s the solution?

Does this mean if you use the same story or stories over and over again in your presentations or interviews, then you are fated to always be seen as inauthentic?

Not necessarily. In fact, there is one thing you can do – a relatively simple fix – that the researchers say will mitigate the damage, so to speak. Just simply acknowledge the repetition. Here are some examples:

“I often tell this story because I believe it has a timeless message … ”

“As I always say …”

“You may have heard me share this before …”

“Here’s a story I often end with …”

The researchers suggest that some of this might be a product of the age in which we live. Smart devices make it easy to record speeches, interviews, or performances and widely disseminate them – sometimes in real time or mere moments after the words are uttered. Share a unique story during a campaign stop on a Tuesday and it can already be old news for your TV interview the next morning.

An illustration of shelves of books

It’s worth noting that their findings go against some of the conventional public speaking advice to not use phrases such as, “I’ve told this story before,” for fear that doing so will deflate some of the story’s power in the room. Indeed, there may be times when a self-conscious lead-in might actually sap some of the magic. Some stories have such transformational power that no amount of digital replication or vocal repetition will diminish their effect.

In the end, our advice is to be intentional. Balance the research findings with the reality. Sometimes, your story may be able to stand on its own. At others, it might benefit from a preface.

Either way, consider the reality that your audience might be harboring what the researchers call an “unspoken assumption,” that the “performance is unique unless otherwise specified.”

Want to learn more about storytelling and authenticity? Check out the four stories you should prepare to tell. And listen in to our recent podcast episode with CEO and author Sabrina Horn, who talks about how leading with authenticity is a key to professional success.