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What the Oscars Teach about Effective Communication

Don’t Be Yourself: What the Oscars Teach about Effective Communication

By Dr. David Hagenbuch, Professor of Marketing at Messiah College and Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Imagine being backstage at the Oscars.  An eager journalist asks the new Best Actress Award winner how she pulled off such a convincing performance, leading the actress to reply, “I followed the advice of my friends and family to ‘just be yourself.’”

We’d be surprised to hear that response from any accomplished actress, especially an Academy Award winner. Great actors are great because they make us believe they’re someone they’re not. Their success depends directly on their ability to not be themselves.

It’s interesting that the advice we often give and receive ahead of an important communication situation is the standard suggestion “just be yourself.” While we hear those words today before presentations and job interviews, the same advice has been handed out for centuries: Even 400 years ago Shakespeare’s Laertes counseled, “This above all – to thine own self be true.”

It’s not that being oneself in a communication situation is entirely bad. Certainly, individuals should leverage their unique strengths in social settings. The conventional wisdom to “be yourself,” however, ignores another very important principle: Our default demeanor may not be ideal in certain communication contexts.

The classic case involves introverts, which happens to be my personality. We introverts tend to prefer privacy to people, and we’re not naturally inclined to public speaking; in fact, we may even try to avoid it. Does that mean that introverts are never dynamic and engaging communicators? It certainly doesn’t seem that way when one considers how many very accomplished actors are introverts, including Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep . . . the list goes on.

How is it that those who eschew interpersonal contact become some of our world’s most compelling communicators? Certainly, there are specific tactics that introverts and others can use to enhance their oratory skills, but the central strategy is a counter-intuitive one: Don’t be yourself.

The actors listed above all have played parts in which they’ve needed to become more affable, amorous, or aggressive than their natural inclination. Of course, that’s what actors do, but it’s also something that any of us can do, if we flex our communication style, that we embrace for a moment or more a communication style that’s not our usual one.

From my own selling experience, I know salespeople often employ such flexing in order to cater to the communication styles of their clients and prospects. For instance, if your customer is an extrovert but you’re an introvert, you become more outgoing in order to increase their comfort level and meet their high social need. The opposite also applies if you’re an extrovert selling to an introvert: you dial-back your extroversion so as not to unleash an unwanted charm offensive. Research by Miles, Arnold, and Nash (1990) supports this kind of communication flexing, as well as that of adapting to the needs of the specific selling situation, e.g., building awareness vs. gaining commitment.

Another profession predicated upon adaptive communication is my current one—teaching. As an educator, you’re often adapting your communication style not just to appease one person but to engage an entire class whose age and communication preferences may be quite different than your own, such as the biggest college cohort: millennials. Here’s where introverts really benefit by not being themselves.

As an introvert within a large group of people, my natural tendency is to lay low. However, after 16+ years of teaching, I’ve learned that low-key doesn’t cut it at the head of the classroom, especially when working to engage an audience with high expectations for stimulation that is also easily distracted. As a result, I do some serious communication flexing.  Interestingly, when we talk about personality theory in one of my classes, I confess and leave many students amazed to learn that I am not an extrovert.

Adaptive communication can win awards for actors, but can it do the same for the rest of us? Actually, it can: I was honored a few years ago to win a national teaching award—an especially meaningful accomplishment for an introvert who never imagined he would be a teacher for much of his life.

(This article originally appeared on CommPRO and can be found here.)