Authenticity and storytelling: A dangerous balancing act

Op-ed piece on the leading B2B portal with ~ 55.000 readers and ~ 95.000 page views monthly

Authenticity and storytelling: A dangerous balancing act

August 30, 2022

What do a tearful CEO, Finland’s celebrating prime minister, a top executive faking his Alpine crossing on a road bike and my #MBS client’s luxury watch have in common?

The dangerous balancing act around authenticity and storytelling!

Both are important ways of communicating. But misinterpreted, unfortunately, the sure path to reputational damage.

But let me start my story from the beginning

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of narration techniques in the world. This also makes absolute sense in business. If you use storytelling in a targeted way, you become approachable. Customer relationships are created that would be inconceivable on a purely fact driven basis.

The same goes for authenticity. It makes CEOs and top decision makers more human. It opens up levels of conversation that would remain closed in company brochures or power point slides.

The challenges of authenticity and storytelling

If everyone suddenly needs – and in some cases, unfortunately, “misuses” for tear-jerking drama – the narrative scheme of the hero’s journey through storytelling, it quickly becomes boring.

The same is true of misinterpreted authenticity. In the end, this one brings in more enemies than friends.

Here are four current examples.

Viral authenticity: The crying CEO

Braden Wallake, CEO of HyperSocial, posted: “This will be the most vulnerable thing I’ll ever share“. He went viral as “The Crying CEO“.
And not only on LinkedIn, but also in leading media such as the Washington Post or FAZ.

One camp of the nearly 11,000 commenters accused Wallake of being insensitive, narcissistic and cringe. Faced with more than 68,000 laid-off employees in the startup sector, they criticized Wallake’s misplaced focus on his own pain rather than on the laid-off employees. “This comes across as clueless, self-absorbed and inauthentic“.

The other camp praised him for his vulnerability, humanity as well as ‘raw honesty‘.

My honest opinion of the “Crying CEO”?

To me, this is crossing the line in publicly communicating business decisions and misjudgments.
Not that I’ll be accused of “toxic masculinity”. Of course, everyone – regardless of gender, level or age – is allowed to cry!

But posting this on LinkedIn is the wrong way to go. In the worst case, one is accused of cheap click baiting, i.e. the desire for likes & comments on LinkedIn through the commercialization of the suffering of others.

The divisive authenticity: The groovy Prime Minister Sanna Marin

The leaked video of the grooving Prime Minister Sanna Marin sparked an unparalleled fire in Tier 1-media as well as in social media. Thousands of people expressed their solidarity á la “Good girls go to heaven, rocking ones everywhere “.

The hashtag #SolidaritywithSanna trended. Videos of dancing social media users went around the globe. Purely exemplary: Lea-Sophie Cramer’s post. The multi-founder and investor comments on her dance video by saying You can be a politician and remain a human being at the same time. Doing one without leaving the other.

Sanna Marin’s critics – especially in Finland – found it inappropriate to the role. Since Marin had admitted to drinking alcohol, the opposition Christian Democrats even saw the country’s security in danger. After all, she said, a head of government must be ‘capable of action’ 24/7.

In the meantime, Marin took a drug test to calm the situation, which was also fueled by Russian trolls. It was negative.

Sanna Marin’s Statement “I hope that in 2022 it will be accepted that decision makers also dance, sing, and go to parties” underscores the crux and gender bias. Why her actions were blamed as more questionable than celebrating male politicians like Trump, Johnson or Orbán is an open question.

Because actually…

  • … the video only shows a 36 year old dancing.
  • … it is a positive symbol that society is changing and that this is also reflected in politics – just á la Thomas Jefferson: “The government you elect is the government you deserve.
  • … it makes clear that even in high political positions, one has a private life despite all the crises.

In short:

Normality, visibility, identification potential for all those with a disenchantment with politics, as well as authenticity – precisely one that can also divide.

The curated authenticity: My client’s luxury watch

Recently, an #MBS client showed me her new business portraits. On it, the top manager, who has successfully built several companies, did weare a well known luxury watch.
As a jewelry lover, I cheered.
As a positioning expert, I gulped.

We are currently positioning her as a strong personal brand. Unfortunately, it will also hit journalists who get hung up on trivialities. I outlined to her the example of a well-known business magazine. This “philosophized” in a business feature on Tina Müller about her Roger Vivier shoes as well as the fabric quality of her coat.

As a result, we decided – quasi preemptively – to take photos without a clock.

My flanking LinkedIn post asked “Right or wrong consulting decision!?

It went viral. One half could understand my advice in terms of “safe” PR positioning.
The other half criticized me for my violation of the dictate of authenticity.

As featured in my op-ed on “Authenticity: why the hype around it in marketing is dangerous” in November 2020:
Some overlook the possible authenticity trap. Anyone who wants to succeed in the media at the top management level without being damaged needs a professional attitude as well as authenticity appropriate to the occasion and context – just curated.

As media trainers advise, “Leave your insides where they are!”. Hence the subtle difference between “appearing authentic and being authentic” is worth noting.

Storytelling: A double-edged sword

Storytelling is authenticity translated into communication. Of course, everyone loves a good story. Hollywood earns billions with this narrative strategy. To keep up to date, I just completed a ten-week storytelling masterclass.

There, the necessary bridging of content to business was emphasized again and again. Yet for months, dozens of decision-makers have been philosophizing on LinkedIn about what they learned from playing with their child’s Lego or what their five learnings are from every everyday occurrence, no matter how trivial.

The case of a top manager shows how the hype of visual storytelling blossoms.
He had himself chauffeured up a mountain trail in a Tesla. Finally, he stopped at a hairpin bend and heaved his racing bike out of the trunk. There, a female employee sprayed him in the face with a flower sprayer. She then shot his “bike mountain tour pictures” – in effect, a badass fake. Because he has never sat on his bike.

Used correctly and honestly, strong storytelling helps win the race for attention. Those who build on emotions in exciting narratives differentiate themselves from the competition.

As mentioned in my op-ed “Modern storytelling: what consultants can learn from cowboys“:
Tell the right stories, tell them right, and tell the right stories in the right place!

Conclusion: The right dosage determines your successful positioning

Professional services players all face the same challenge: abstraction. Because expertise alone is not a USP, other ways of differentiation are needed in brand management. The formula for successful positioning is: “STRATEGY x CONGRUENCE x PERSONALITY x CONCEPT x PROMOTION “.

Dosed correctly, storytelling and authenticity are effective levers. But going over the top doesn’t cut it. Here my advice applies as well: “Why you shouldn’t drive every cow through the village in consulting.

Let’s have a call if you are a CEO or a top-manager who seeks a spot-on positioning!

Author: Susanne Mathony

Susanne Mathony
Susanne Mathony

The positioning of brands and people are my passion. For more than two decades, I have lived out my calling with CEO positioning, strategic marketing and communications consulting, PR and business storytelling.
Added in 2014 was the Social Media Consulting. Here, the focus is on #SocialCEO and personal branding and positioning of boards and teams on LinkedIn.My home is Professional Services. At GSA and EMEA level, I worked for AlixPartners, Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), Strategy& as well as Russell Reynolds Associates, among others.
As a political scientist and trained journalist, I started my career at a Washington, D.C., think tank.

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