How to spot a faux authentic storyteller and not become one yourself

Recently I was hanging out at a speaking day where a presenter was sharing a personal story about overcoming her challenges. The speaker was funny, interesting, and polished in her presentation. Yet as she delved deeper into her ‘difficult’ journey, I found myself slowly recoiling into a prickly echidna ball in the back row.

It was an unusual reaction, I’ll admit, especially as the rest of the audience was as enraptured as the front row at a Tony Robbins seminar.

I needed to do some detective work to figure out my feelings. After having discarded my own everyday neuroses as possible causal factors, I decided to look at the evidence more closely. The subtle clue was in the juxtaposition between the massive challenge the speaker presented and the seeming breeziness with which she overcame it.

This lead me right to the prime suspect — she was presenting a ‘faux authentic’ story.

The faux authentic storyteller is as insidious as the interviewee who says their biggest weakness is ‘working too hard’. They dazzle you by giving away just enough challenge to make their story relatable, but manage to sidestep the messy, confusing, depressing, and difficult journey of actually making change.

Sometimes they present ‘cute’ failures like: ‘the first time I went to my modelling shoot I didn’t like the swimsuit they asked me to wear’ or ‘once I earned my first million we just couldn’t decide where to throw the celebration party’.

And as you shrink in your seat, comparing your struggle to get to yoga three times a week to the speaker who’s gone from a hospital bed to olympian in a month, a small voice inside you asks — how did they do this so effortlessly?

The faux authentic story is so intoxicating is because it presents the mirage-like notion that change is easy. If only I was more like this super-human individual (you say to yourself glumly), then everything in my life would turn out fantastically.

But I promise you, if you’re not seeing an emotional range in a story of triumph over challenge — then chances are you’re not getting the whole picture.

There are several reasons faux authentic stories happen. The storyteller isn’t yet fully in touch with the core themes of their story, or more likely, they haven’t totally healed from/overcome the challenges they’ve faced.

When we haven’t completely connected with an aspect of our journey (and just a clue — it’s usually the most difficult aspect), we often present the lesson in our story as an intellectual premise, rather than an embodied truth.

This can happen particularly when presenting stories about traumatic events, or difficult subjects you haven’t totally worked through yourself.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not being totally ‘there’ yet. You don’t have to be totally perfect, have everything figured out, or be the messiah of your particular area of leadership.

Authentic storytelling is a journey inside yourself to the very core — and at the core there is joy, excitement, hopelessness, vulnerability, rage, hilarity, despair, and pizzazz in equal measure. Presenting your true self, in all its imperfections, will have a far greater impact on the audience than showing a polished version of your ideal self.

In fact, the greatest act of storytelling leadership is sharing the one story that no one else in the room can — and in the process, freeing everyone to be a little bit more themselves.

[Just as an aside: the other side of the faux authentic storyteller is the vulnerability oversharer. This is the person who can manage to weave into a story about going to buy milk that their boyfriend recently cheated on them, then they lost their job and apartment, and now they’re destined to spend every day alone wallowing in sadness with nothing but a glass of milk to keep them company. But I’ll leave that post for another day.]