How to Be Authentic

Do people really want the real you? All of it? The answer will, of course, depend on the audience and the forum.

If you are writing a blog about drug addiction, telling your most horrifying stories is a prerequisite. Your audience will expect it.

If, on the other hand, you are writing a blog to support your tax preparation business, you probably want to keep most of your tales of woe out of it — no matter how “real” they may be.

Being “authentic” means being genuine. It means having an honest conversation with your audience. Within reason.

So how do you know what is too much you, how much is not enough, and where the sweet spot is?

That’s the topic of the latest episode The Lede.

In this episode, the final in our 11-part series on the essential ingredients of a great blog post, Demian and I discuss the following:

  • Do people really want the real you?
  • The importance of understanding your USP
  • What techniques help you come across as authentic in your blog posts?
  • Is something like a scripted opening to a podcast discussion still “authentic”?
  • How can mentors help us develop authenticity (that works)
  • Who should we be focusing on when we’re trying to be authentic?
  • How authenticity develops through practice

[episode no=”65″]

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The Show Notes

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Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: How to Be Authentic

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. I’m your host, Jerod Morris.

Well, we’re here. It’s the final episode in our 11-part series on the essential ingredients of a blog post. If this is your first time listening, go to to see the infographic this series is based on, and to find out what the other ten ingredients are. Then I suggest you start going through the podcast archive and learn more about each ingredient, one 15-minute episode at a time.

We definitely saved the most interesting, perhaps even confusing, or you might say misunderstood, ingredient for last. And that is: be authentic. It’s easy to say, but it’s not always so easy to do. Hopefully the conversation Demian and I had about authenticity, which you’re about to hear, will help you incorporate more of this essential element into your blog posts.

Do people really want the real you?

Do people really want the real you?

Well, that depends. When the real you is offering optimism, entertainment, or a solution to a problem, yes. People want that you. But if the real you is off-putting, or angry, or uninformative, well that you may be authentic, but it’s not likely to be desired.

The reality is there is no definitive answer, except that the extremes are unlikely to work for any sustained amount of time. As an online content creator, you cannot infuse your work with every emotional whim of your being, as authentic as that would be. But you also can’t be a robot, devoid of all the vestiges of the roller coaster that is life, a roller coaster that is universal.

What you have to do is be the real you insofar as the real you helps other people tell the story they want to tell about themselves. You’re creating content for other people, so “keeping it real” means keeping your audience #1 and figuring out what authentic parts of yourself will help them, compel them, perhaps even sell them.

Demian, I say that authenticity online, at least authenticity that works, stands at the intersection of who you are and what you stand for, and what problems that helps to solve for your audience. What say you?

Demian Farnworth: Yeah. So Jerod, this is by far the most nebulous of the 11 that we’ve covered so far, because the preceding ten really rested on an empirical effort, right? Things that we observe, can do, subheads, headlines. We can test them. We can see them.

So talking about being yourself is really quite a different experience. I find this is a subject that’s dear to my heart because, you know, I have a tendency to say things like “We want you to be authentic, right? We want you to be yourself. But you know, don’t do that unless you’re a loser,” and I get in trouble with that, and people call me out on that, about being judgmental. But as you pointed out, there are clearly people who are being themselves, and who are being losers.

And another movie that I’ve actually seen, Jerod…

Jerod: There aren’t many.

Demian: Right. Exactly. But Napoleon Dynamite, right? Here’s a guy who’s clearly a loser, and he’s positioned as a loser, but you know, you fall in love with him. And who doesn’t love Napoleon Dynamite? Or who doesn’t love Uncle Rico or Kip or Pedro? You know? So in that sense, those people have proved me wrong. But back to your point of this idea of being authentic. If you’re a jerk, then yeah. You clearly need to not be yourself anymore.

The importance of understanding your USP

Jerod: Okay. So I guess the question, then, is if we have this kind of definition of what it means to be authentic in a way that works, then how do you do that? How do you convey that, then, in a blog post?

Demian: Yeah, that’s a good question. So like I said, this is one of those things that takes time, it takes experience. It takes experimenting with just, you know, figuring out who you are.

From a business standpoint what we’re trying to do here is we’re basically trying to carve out your very own personal USP or unique selling proposition. Rosser Reeves, who was actually one of the “Mad Men,” wrote a book called “Reality in Advertising,” and that book is really just an extended commentary, a 153-page commentary on the USP. His point is that a good USP is unique. It’s meaningful, and does it sell. And so this idea is when it comes to you and what you’re trying to do, be authentic. And you need to come across in a way that’s unique, that’s meaningful, and that sells.

So for example, when I started working for myself I was trying to figure out what is this I want to do? How do I want to become this person who stands out, because copywriting, there’s a lot of competition. And so I had to kind of define myself, and I was looking at things, like “how can I do that?” And I saw a lot of people really wanted to be David Ogilvy, and a lot of people really wanted to be Jakob Neilsen, who’s a web usability SEO guy. And I thought, you know, and I kind of did this all along in my career, was just trying to balance both of those: trying to become that best at both of those worlds, because I knew I was going to pour a lot of my time into writing online. So I needed to learn as much as I possibly could about persuasive writing. But at the same time, learn as much as I could about things like usability, and SEO, and readability.

And so I merged those two together, and eventually kind of came up with this idea of being the bastard child of David Ogilvy and Jakob Nielsen. And that’s really kind of resonated. You know, when people ask me for a USP or a tagline, or a high-pitched concept, that’s what I usually tell them.

Jerod: Okay. So let me ask you a question, because I think that brings up an interesting point. Now did you try to merge those two areas because that came from within you, like that’s who you wanted to be, or because you had an audience picked out over here that you wanted to serve, and you realized that’s who you authentically needed to be to serve that audience? You get the kind of distinction I’m making?

Demian: I think it was more — it was what I was trying to become, in essence. Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to become the best persuasive copywriter I could become. But I also wanted to become really smart about usability. A lot of that’s just a natural-born curiosity of wanting to learn. But also at the same time, yeah, I wanted to be valuable. I wanted to bring something to the table that other people weren’t bringing to the table.

So in essence, yeah. That was for the audience. But it was more about how I wanted to better myself, and then naturally just pictured, okay, so what are people looking for, and what can I provide that people aren’t getting out there at that moment? Does that make sense?

What techniques help you come across as authentic in your blog posts?

Jerod: Yeah, it does. So we’ve talked about some of these kind of big-picture ideas about authenticity, and look. It’s a big topic, and we could spend a whole lot of time talking about it. But let’s try and get into some more practical ways.

So what are some more practical ways where people can actually — some, even, techniques possibly — that people can actually put into their writing to display their authenticity?

Demian: Yeah. So there are quite a few things you can do, and something I want to mention. When you’re thinking about who you are, a lot of people, they don’t. That’s probably the major kickback. “I don’t know who I am.” Well then, you need to figure out who you want to be, and then aim for that person. For example, here’s a technique. A lot of people say, “What do you want people to say about you when you die?” Right? And so whatever that is, that’s how you need to live your life then, right?

But then, outside of that, what it really means to be authentic, sort of the practical ways, it’s things like just relax. Enjoy yourself. What is it that you’re comfortable writing about? Write like you talk. Be courageous. Don’t use jargon. Definitely don’t try to sound smart. Don’t go out of your way to try to impress people. There’s nothing authentic with that, and people will sniff that stuff out.

And also, you know, practice what you’re doing. You want to experiment about ways like, you know, because that’s the thing. It’s just like people say, “Well, I don’t know what I want.” A lot of times people will ask questions like, “I kind of like web development but I also like writing,” and they say, “Will you look at my writing and tell me if I’m any good at it?” And I’ll be like, “I’m not even going to look at your writing, because here’s the deal. Could you write no matter what? Do you have the sense that you need to write? Because if that’s your feeling, then it doesn’t matter if what you write is crap or not, because you’re going to push through that. But if you kind of feel like this is something I could probably do,” then choose web development instead.

You want to drive yourself into that sort of arena where you’re comfortable, where you feel not like a fish out of water. And a lot of people have to get there just by experimenting.

Is something like a scripted opening to a podcast discussion still “authentic”?

Jerod: Let me ask you this. As you were kind of going through some of those, I started to have a little crisis of my own. So when we do these episodes, I’ll script that opening that we do. Is that inauthentic, do you think? I mean, it’s not necessarily relaxed. It’s not always me writing like I talk. I try and do it to make sure that that opening is clean and crisp and so that I say exactly what I want to say, but is it at all inauthentic, do you think?

Demian: No, not at all. I think it’s being who you are in that sense of this is how you feel comfortable. There are some people who don’t, you know, and these are people that I admire, but I know I won’t be like, I don’t try to be like. They will look at an opening, they will have an idea of what they say, and they just talk, and it comes out and sounds like it’s scripted, but it’s clearly not. And perhaps it’s rehearsed in some capacity, but it’s not.

So that’s the thing. If that’s what you’re comfortable with, like if you like roller skating but you can only roller skate with the little cart in front of you, do that. If you like to roller skate, just do that. Don’t worry about “crutches” you have to use to get it done. It’s okay. Eventually you may get to a point, though, where you don’t have to do that, and you just have an outline.

How can mentors help us develop authenticity (that works)

Jerod: So let me ask you this: How can finding mentors, having mentors, assist or kind of help us develop authenticity?

Demian: Like I said, this is a nebulous topic. And just thinking through my own experience. And one of the things, too, that we talk about being yourself that we cannot not talk about when we’re talking about authenticity, is like finding your own voice. And I mean that.

It’s like it’s Jerod Morris when he writes. It’s like people know that, and people tell us all the time, right, when they get Copyblogger headlines. “Oh, that’s a Demian,” or “that’s a Brian,” or “That’s a Sonia.” That’s your voice. And that takes time to find, but one of the ways that I found that it’s good to help you find that if you don’t know where that is, is to get a mentor. Somebody that can hold you accountable, even if it’s just a friend, a co-worker, somebody that you work with, that you can just say, “Hey, help me out. What is it that people like about me?” What is it that people — it’s that objective set of eyes that looks into your life and says, “Hey, that’s great.”

Another thing, too, is a critique group. Critique groups are really great in the sense that–if you can find a good one, with people who are supportive, but people who are also not afraid to give you constructive criticism, because you need those people, too, to say, “Listen, when you do that it just doesn’t sound authentic. It sounds like — you sound strained, whatever, stop doing that.” But you know, you can also just find a mentor, like someone you look up to, and there are so many programs that you could actually pay, that people actually do this.

I’d recommend people just try to find somebody and e-mail them, and just say, “Hey, you know, can I chat with you for about 20 minutes? 30 minutes? Maybe two or three times a year or something like that?” There are a few guys in the industry that I set aside time with to do just that, to help them think through things, and they’ll rewrite their landing page and give it to me, and I’d say, right off the bat, this is wrong. You’ve got to think about this when you do it.” Help guide them, because they’ve got questions that I had back when I was starting off. And so I just want to give back, in that sense.

But you know, of course, talking about finding mentors–I can’t really say this without talking about Ryan Hanley, who’s got a great podcast called “Content Warfare.” He interviewed me, and it really just dawned on me after that interview what he was doing, really. And it’s not why he does it. But if you look back at all that he has interviewed, he’s really getting mentors for free. He’s talking to some high-powered, influential people, and he’s giving something in exchange. “Here, I’ll give you time in front of my audience if you talk to me,” and he asks them questions about things that he wants to learn about. And that way he’s kind of finding a free mentor in that sense.

Who should we be focusing on when we’re trying to be authentic?

Jerod: Yeah. Well, as our time has run out here, Demian. Think of a final thought that — I think for me, when it comes to authenticity, and I’m going to link in the show notes to a couple of posts that Brian Clark has written about this, because I think they’re very compelling posts. And I keep coming back to the point he makes, that when it comes to authenticity, a lot of times that makes us think about ourselves. Us, right? When instead we need to be focusing on them, the people we’re trying to reach and influence.

And as Brian says, your story absolutely matters, but only to the extent that it helps people tell the story they want to tell about themselves. Again, kind of harkening back to what I said at the beginning.

So I think, to me, that’s the most important part about authenticity, is just how we think about it. Our perception of it. It’s not necessarily us, it’s what’s part of us we’re going to show people that will help people, and so I think that’s a really important aspect to keep in mind when we talk about authenticity.

Any final thoughts for you, Demian, before we wrap this up?

Develop authenticity through practice

Demian: Yeah. So I’ll just piggyback up on that, and just say that that comes down to trying stuff, experimenting, practicing. When I say “practice,” you know, lawyers practice law. Doctors practice medicine. But we know they’re professionals, and so as a writer we’re always practicing being writers. See what works, you know?

There’s a great book out there called “Talent is Overrated” and it is in the line with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers with this idea of, you know, it’s not necessarily about talent. It’s really about deliberate practice, and that’s the concept that Coleman, out of that book, pushes the most, is this idea of deliberate practice. And just practicing in such a way that you modify. You try something. It doesn’t work. So you modify. You try that again. It doesn’t work, or it might work slightly differently, but you’ve just got to tweak it again.

So it’s modified, deliberate practice towards one thing, and so you learn, and you’re just building this bank of stuff that you see people respond to, you see that people need, and so that you can start delivering that in an authentic way.

Jerod: Well, I think that does it. I don’t know about you, I’m getting a little teary-eyed here. This is the end of our eleven-part series on the essential ingredients. It’s been fun.

Demian: Yes. I agree there, Jerod.

Jerod: Thank you for listening to The Lede. If you enjoyed this episode, and if you’ve been finding our other episodes useful, please consider giving the show a rating or a review on ITunes, and if you’re not the ITunes type, you can tweet about the show or tell a friend. That obviously helps as well. And by the way, if you ever have a comment, a question, just some random thought that you’re just dying to get out to somebody, feel free to send me a tweet: @JerodMorris. You can probably send it to Demian, too, @DemianFarnworth. We love interacting with and learning from our listeners, so don’t hesitate. Reach out to us. Twitter, or anywhere else that you can find us out there online.

All right, everybody. We will be back next week with another new episode. Talk to you soon.

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*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.