“Just be yourself.” How many times have you been given this advice in the run-up to an interview, presentation or speech? How useful have you found it? My guess is, not that useful, so let’s look at how to improve on it.
The main problem is the implicit suggestion not to bother too much about preparation, the subtext being, “Just turn up and do your best”. Would you recommend that course of action to someone planning to enter a marathon?
In any case, an interview is an artificial situation (as is a presentation or speech) and you’ll have few points of reference to draw on in order to ‘be yourself’. Preparation and practice are crucial to success, not only because they make sure you’re fully in control but also because they give you an opportunity to get psychologically accustomed to the situation you’re building up to.
Often, the suggestion that you just be yourself is accompanied by the well intentioned but erroneous ‘permission’ to let everyone see your vulnerabilities. “Tell the audience how nervous you are, it’ll get them on your side.” “Be honest with the interviewer that you’re hopeless at XYZ.” I can see why people think this kind of openness is a good idea but it’s a big mistake. Showing yourself in the best and most suitable light is not the same as being phony – otherwise, why not attend the event in your pyjamas?
Being phony is to be avoided, partly because keeping up a pretence is exhausting and partly because sooner or later you will be found out. Of course you need to be authentic and true to yourself, but this doesn’t mean you should indulge every impulse and reveal all your vices and insecurities. The one element I would definitely recommend you fake, if necessary, is confidence. In purely business terms, presenting yourself as a trembling wreck is a waste of everyone’s time, since it eclipses every positive trait about you and prevents people from appreciating you. Conversely, if you have a tendency towards self-aggrandisement, strengthening your underlying confidence will reduce your need to show off. For your speech, presentation or interview to be a success, you have to put the people in front of you at their ease.
My mission is to help my clients to put themselves across, so I have spent many hours dissecting exactly what “just be yourself” means. My conclusion is that we all have, to a greater or lesser extent, different faces for different circles of friends, family, work colleagues, clients, strangers. This is normal, self-protective, efficient and by no means dishonest or false. The secret to success is to be the right version of the authentic you for the occasion.