Essay

Which Video of Me is More “Authentic”? On the Style of Authenticity

By Duff McDuffee on September 8th, 2009

Tuesday morning, after doing a Core Transformation session with a pro bono client, I got inspired to make a short video. I’m getting a FlipHD that I got birthday money for, and so I’ve been thinking about doing video blog posts for Beyond Growth. I was cramped for time today, but creatively inspired, so I thought I’d do an “authentic” video on the MacBook using iMovie while making an omelette for my breakfast. Below is the result, entitled, “Breakfast with Duff: Cultivating Inner Harmony vs. Inner Dominator Hierarchy.”

I have several questions for you once you’ve watched the video, so if you’d like, please watch the video above and then answer any of my questions in the comments.

This video was done in the very same “authentic” style that I have critiqued on this blog. What was your reaction to the style? Did you find it engaging, repulsive, ironic, annoying, funny? Unlike Tony Robbins’ “authentic” videos, this is not part of a scheduled launch of an upcoming product (although in the interests of full disclosure, I do have some ideas in mind for building my coaching practice and website using video).

I noticed within myself that I was talking really fast, almost imitating other “authentic” speakers like Tony Robbins and other A-list bloggers. After watching the video again, it seems like the style was both authentic but also someone else’s, like it belonged to the style of authenticity.

(UPDATE: I found this prototypical example of what I mean by the style of authenticity. This $300/hour dreadlocked marketing coach probably wouldn’t object to or see any irony in the label of “authentic style,” as she herself has written a book entitled Style Statement: Live By Your Own Design which she quotes Body & Soul Magazine as saying “redefine[s] the concept of style.” No doubt, her book defines style as depth, fashion as authenticity. From Amazon.com: “STYLE STATEMENT is an inspiring take on the power of style and authenticity. Deemed ‘style psychotherapists,’ Carrie and Danielle are the creators of the Style Statement: a two-word compass that helps you make more confident choices in life — from your wardrobe to your relationships, your living room to your career plans.” The perfect marriage of consumerism and spiritual seeking comes in a self-designed mantra uniting sacred and profane. What Would Tyler Durden Say? The love of all forms of affluence proclaimed in big, bold text on her about page seems to me a recipe for reinforcing unjust economic structures, but perhaps that’s not what she meant to say….)

Beyond the “authentic” style, what did you think of the concepts I was describing (if you could hear them—the Macbook mic doesn’t pic up sound as much as I would like). Do you think there are contexts in which setting up an inner dominator hierarchy and “breaking through” are appropriate and useful?

And Now, A More Formal Video

After I made the video above, I got the idea to do a more formal version of the same content, to create some dialogue on my favorite topic lately, that of authenticity. Why has being casual become synonymous with authenticity? Here is the more formal version, “The 5 Keys to Accepting Unwanted Emotions”:

Embedded in the notion of authenticity—which is central to personal development—is the idea that we can and should throw off social conditioning in order to become free and unique individuals. But is this true, or even possible? To what extent can we throw off social conditioning? To what extent are we always bound by culture, even in our rebellion against it? And what exactly is the nature of one’s true identity?

Which is More Authentic: Casual or Formal?

The first, more casual video, apparently throws off the social conditioning of formality, of how speeches are given, of video production standards, and of how much preparation should be undertaken before creating a public recording. The inspiration for shooting a video this way came from to me from A-list personal development bloggers like Jonathan Fields (see this video on his blog where he’s going for his favorite walk just outside of New York City) and Merlin Mann—i.e., from the already very popular existing style of “authentic” video blogging. I spent no time at all preparing for this video. I attempted to capture the informal, chatty, and even voyeuristic style (“I’m just cooking some breakfast”) of popular YouTube videos and personal development vloggers. I didn’t shower, didn’t prepare even—just loaded up iMovie, shot for 5 minutes, and uploaded to YouTube. And it came out pretty darn well if I do say so myself. :)

The second formal video, adheres to conventional standards of giving speeches, presenting a professional image, etc. It could be much more formal and professional of course, with better lighting and video camera especially, but hey—I’m wearing a freaking tie. I did my best to follow the rules of giving speeches that I can remember, such as “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” I wore more conventionally professional clothes, groomed well before the video, and framed the camera shot so I was centered. I wrote out what I was going to say beforehand, and went through three or four takes.

My question for you is whether the casual video style actually throws off any social conditioning, or merely adopts different conditions and trends—whether something can be more authentic or not due to style alone. I believe in the message that was expressed through both videos, and did my best to be authentic (and not ironic or mocking) within the casual style of the first and the formal style of the second. I am confident in my ability to present in either style, and to engage with criticism of the ideas I expressed. But what I’m most curious for the purposes of this post is not necessarily the content of my presentation (I would like to hear about that too), but the notion of authenticity and how it relates to style and trends in expression within personal development and media in our culture.

“Authentic” Gets More Attention…But Should It?

In a world of manufactured experiences, marketing hype, and broken political promises, a more “authentic” style tends to capture more attention and have greater influence. But is there any deeper truth to this tendency, or is it merely a fashion like pre-torn jeans? Should we pay more attention to the casual, apparently more authentic speaker, or should we look for truth in whatever style it is expressed? And are we giving something up by rejecting conventional social norms and styles of communicating?

Far from being free from cultural norms, there are many unwritten rules to the new, casual style. I expressed myself as charismatically as I could while still coming across as informal and casual as possible. If “ums” and “ahs” are missing, it almost seems suspicious. In the second video, I did the opposite—I expressed myself charismatically by being more formal and logical, without being stodgy or overly rigid. I monitored my speech for “ums” and “ahs.” Was this more or less authentic?

In the casual video, I let you in to my personal world, showing you that I am a multitasker who eats omelets and has creative bursts of energy—I presented a casual, but truthful face. In the formal video, I did not show my personal world at all, showing you only my professional face, but also truthfully I sometimes am more formal and withhold personal details of my life (e.g. in coaching sessions, at weddings, etc.).

In neither video was I trying to secretly manipulate you into buying something from me, although both videos hint that I do coaching sessions. Which face/video is more authentic, or are they both authentic, or are both inauthentic? And who decides?

Can We Climb Out of Social Conditioning through Irony or Integration?

Is there any escape from social conditioning by presenting multiple perspectives as I have done? Am I now beyond social conditioning? Hardly. I am now in the social role of the meta-thinker, someone who can present various perspectives, step back from them, and analyze them. This is the social role of the cultural critic, the philosopher, the politician, the comedian, or the actor. When you become good at acting—not just mimicking outer behavior but deeply playing the part—questions of authenticity become very complex. (Perhaps this is one reason why Hollywood actors often hire personal development guru life coaches like Tony Robbins.)

If we cannot escape from social conditioning, should we instead seek greater integrated complexity, as integral philosopher Ken Wilber and his community tend to propose? As any integral thinker will tell you (including Wilber), greater complexity lends itself to greater potential ways in which things can go wrong (dogs can get cancer, amoebas cannot). Are the risks worth the rewards, or should we instead seek healthy integration of the amount of complexity we can currently handle?

Questions of identity also become very complex when we introduce the “authentic actor” to our discussion. Who am I? Clearly I am not simply a casual guy, because I am also a formal guy at times, as well as a meta-thinking philosopher guy. Are any of these characters the “real” or “authentic” me? What does it mean to say “he’s the real deal,” a phrase often used to describe known scammers like Frank Kern, who sell their scams with their casual and “authentic” style?

Which persona is my “real” one? If a person consistently adopts a casual persona across all contexts, does that mean it is their “real” and “authentic” identity, or that they are simply attached to one way of being? Is it better to be consistent throughout all contexts or to have great flexibility and adapt to a context as appropriate? I can hardly count the number of “authentic assholes” I have met in various conscious communities, and indeed I have at times been that asshole (with apologies to my Twitter followers).

Authentic Men, Gurus, Bloggers, and Marketers

What is an “authentic man”? The “authentic man program” (warning: link goes to a marketing “squeeze” page that does everything it can to get your email address) or AMP presents the authentic man as having certain definite characteristics—e.g. an “authentic man” is highly sexual, emotionally “in touch” and expressive, not “stuck in his head,” powerful and dominant, charismatic, etc. By this definition, being shy, intellectual, formal, or interested in non-hierarchical relationships is “inauthentic” for men (in all cultures, for all ages, everywhere, apparently). And the aim of being an authentic man? To have “authentic sexual power” (warning: link goes to an aggressive long-form sales letter for a $435 product) with women (always spoken of in this unspecified generalization as if to indicate power over the entire sex).

Having seen the founder of the Authentic Man Program Bryan Bayer do his work in a group, it seems to me that he is a classic example of too much of a good thing—in this case “authentic presence.” Our no-limit personal development culture tends to swing from not enough to too much. While many of the things listed in the authentic sexual power course are good things, it seems clear to me that the course is designed to take men who are not sexually expressive enough to being far too sexually dominant and expressive. Do you really need to practice Taoist sexual alchemy in order to find a suitable romantic partner? A similar thing has been noted by many who participated in Gestalt and Encounter process groups since the 50′s (the tradition in which Bayer’s work springs)—groups of seekers get the notion that if a little catharsis is a good thing, than always expressing emotions in a dramatic way is the ideal. Being authentic becomes being dramatic. Indeed, the two-word “Style Statement” of our prototypical authentic style coach is “Sacred Dramatic.”

Tony Robbins was one of the first popular personal development gurus to talk in a more casual, yet dramatic hypomanic style. Before that, gurus like Brian Tracy and Robbins’ mentor Jim Rohn gave formal speeches, wearing blue or gray business suits, and spoke slowly and deliberately. Now gurus like James Arthur Ray speak and present in very similar styles to Robbins (Ray has even stolen one of Robbins’ jokes!), and many personal development bloggers and tweeters use Robbins’ catch phrases without attribution (which of course Robbins himself does when he speaks). This style of “authenticity” includes plagiarism as acceptable practice. Referencing the sources of your ideas is seen as stodgy and academic.

Havi Brooks, a popular personal development and marketing blogger, writes in a specific style that she claims she developed (and I believe her), having found her authentic voice as a writer. Her writing style includes making up silly words, writing “stream of consciousness,” often being sarcastic and cynical about personal development/spirituality/marketing, talking from various voices within herself and to parts of herself, using various font sizes for emphasis or de-emphasis, and sharing her “process” of personal growth. Is it then inauthentic that many of the people who read her blog have adopted very similar styles? I’ve seen many of the same stylistic elements in other quirky countercultural people, long before Ms. Brooks was writing online. Does this mean she isn’t being authentic, or hasn’t developed an authentic style, or that her version of authenticity already existed in the surrounding culture?

It is worth noting that Brooks charges nearly $500 an hour for her 1-on-1 marketing and life coaching services, and says herself that pricing can be a “super trigger-ey” subject. Her methods for pricing your services not only do not take into account what is a going fair market price, but actually consciously reject such market information as being irrelevant (“Comparison-based thinking will always get you down” and “The help you need on this is internal, not external”). The only relevant criteria for determining one’s prices are subjective and internal to business operations, reducing all structural factors to personal ones (i.e. working through “one’s money stuff”—and presumably those who succeed at this task all become libertarians!). As I’ve noted before, all this “authenticity” is expensive! And again, too much of a good thing. Many healers and coaches under-price their services—overpricing is not the solution to this problem.

Why is it that the most self-proclaimed “authentic” people charge several times that of market rate for mysteriously named services that are basically marketing coaching? Let’s be honest with ourselves here. None of these “authentic” marketing coaches and consultants are truly creating something new. Selling may appear different in the new economy, but how much of this different appearance is just a change in fashion to try and bypass the cynicism of the postmodern consumer, so that these individuals can charge exorbitant rates, all towards the aim of selling others on the dream of one day authentically overcharging their own customers?

Identity and Authenticity, or Who the Heck Am I?

What does it mean to accept all aspects of your being (the content of both of my videos) in light of these questions of identity and authenticity?

A Buddhist or neo-Advaitist might respond to the question of identity by saying that either a) I am empty, i.e. that all notions of self are ultimately false, or b) that I am consciousness itself, unborn and undying and pervading the entire universe, and that answering the question as either (a) or (b) is liberating when experienced phenomenologically (not just intellectually). These answers cannot be fully examined in this article, but my question is do either of these answers (the “nihilistic self” or the “I AM self”) truly give us any practical guidance for how to live and how to express ourselves authentically in the world?

If we realize there is no self in any of the phenomena that make up our experience, then knowing that, which video should we make—the formal or the casual? If we realize instead that what we truly are is luminous mind/rigpa/buddha nature/dharmakaya/atman-which-is-brahman, then which persona should we take on in order to find a suitable romantic partner? And being still and knowing that I am God, how much should I charge for my life coaching/marketing services? :)

More questions than answers in this post, I’m afraid. And there are unlikely to be any simple 5 keys to answering these questions for you. But I do believe that gaining comfort with uncertainty, or the ability to hold a question without compulsively seeking a solution, is an important part of the kind of personal development I encourage you to explore.

I invite you to add your thoughtful and intelligent comments below, to spread the word about this blog post on Twitter and Facebook etc. if moved. Also, subscribe for free at the top right for more videos, criticism, and commentary.

Also, please try out the following “exercize,” in the tradition of the late, great Robert Anton Wilson, to explore these ideas for yourself experientially:

Authenticity Exercize

Sometime in the next week, pick a day to act “authentically casual” for the day. Dress down, speak colloquially, let someone know about something you normally don’t share, and “keep it real” in your communications with others. Perhaps even write a casual-authentic blog post. Notice how people respond to you and how you feel inside.

The next day, act “authentically formal.” Dress nicely, put on makeup or groom especially well, use manners and be polite, present a professional edge without letting out too much about your personal life, but still be totally honest and authentic. Write a formal-authentic blog post. Again, notice how people respond to you and how you feel inside.

Be on guard during this exercise to not be ironic or feel like you’re putting on an exaggerated show on either your casual day or formal day. Keep it subtle and authentic on both days, to the degree that you can. Allow your actions to come from deep within, even as you act differently on the surface.

After you’ve completed the exercise, ask yourself which of the personas feels more like “you”? Which one feels more authentic? Which one had people responding to you as if you were more authentic? Which persona does it seem like would make you more money?

After the exercise is over, tell a couple people (or your blog readers) what you were doing, and ask which persona felt more authentic to them. Add your results of this exercise to this blog’s comments for others to reflect upon.

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37 Responses to “Which Video of Me is More “Authentic”? On the Style of Authenticity”

  1. LionKimbro says:

    Excellent post. The questions you grapple with, I grapple with as well.

    Here's my piece of the puzzle, that I play down to the board: "You may be able to fool others, but you can never fool yourself."

    You will understand what to do at the given time. The cliched way of saying it may really be the best way to say it: apply all of your strength, all of your heart, and all of your mind.

    If you are asking other people, "Am I coming off as authentic?", — in some ways, it is a fundamentally broken question. Yes, of course, you may "come off" as authentic. And that "coming off" may be a manipulation, it may not be. And authenticity in a low-signalling situation may *require* the performance of a manipulation. (ie: You have only 5-10 seconds to convey an extremely important message.) (ie: A spy must pretend, in order to be true to his or her loyalties.)

    But ultimately, authenticity is an individual matter between you and God, whatever you understand by that term.

  2. Gina says:

    Aloha Duff!
    I am chomping at the bit to watch both of these and read your post so….I'm taking you to the Maui airport with me (on my way to Boulder right now!) and will enjoy my time waiting- with you….Great experiment and what I do find Authentic even without watching is that you are sharing your process with us. This is what make you so REAL to me.
    I'll post again after I watch.
    Much Aloha~~

  3. I've went through some of the AMP stuff myself, and have found that their program does help bring awareness to many subtleties in communications and inner channels – very much worthwhile for these reasons alone, and the folks there are real sharp.

    I will say though in later reflection that some of their current ideals like being 'raw' 'bad-ass' 'unapologetic' 'magnetic presence' 'attractive' are not always desirable or authentic. Authentic, like you've mentioned in a few places, also could include a lot of other things, some of which could mean being solitary, emotionally buffered, reserved, discrete, abstract, impersonal, formal, serious, intellectual, in the background, or even lack of desire to cultivate atractiveness or attention, at any given moment.

    AMP principles themselves ARE universal, but the issue lies not in the ideals but in the approach and marketing. As of this writing, the marketing scheme and subtle undercurrent highlight a subspectrum of qualities and attainments implied to be a superior quality. As a counter example, Andrew Cohen's group, last I checked, himself promotes an idea of an "authentic self", but presents a very different subspectrum.

    Groups, like individuals, are constantly evolving in this day/age, so I hold out for all of us to continue to grow in awareness. Regardless, I feel for an organization to promote the full spectrum they must give up any and all allusions to what authenticity looks like, sounds like, smell like, is like, and what results it provides. Organizations try, but none completely do so as far as I've seen…perhaps it's not even possible by design since an organization by definition is formed around holding a subset of identifiable qualities above others.

    I gotta share my appreciation for this article and opening the critical floodgates with lots of intelligence and a broad background you guys provide. I feel more encouraged to voice my own critiques. I look forward to continuing to resonate with and grow with you guys.

    • …perhaps it's not even possible by design since an organization by definition is formed around holding a subset of identifiable qualities above others.

      I think that hits it right on the head, which is why organizing a group around "authenticity" will always be inaccurate.

      Thanks for your thoughts, and hope you will join in future discussions. And if you provide some critiques, let me know!

  4. Duff's experiment interests me because of what it suggests about why people might perceive a particular presentation as more or less "authentic." FWIW, here's my analysis. YMMV.

    Informal video
    Duff is more animated, gestures more, moves his body more, and varies his voice tone more than in the formal video. As he moves around, the lighting shifts on his face and glasses. These sensory cues make the video more interesting to watch and listen to. They provide more input for mirror neurons to create emotional responses in the viewer. Visually oriented people will see lots to watch; auditorily oriented people will hear engaging voice tonality; and feeling-oriented people will respond emotionally.

    Duff also gives social cues that help engage the viewer and establish rapport. He makes eye contact, smiles, moves his body in relation to the viewer's viewpoint, and makes lots of social gestures toward the viewer. Verbally, he sets more of a background context: he just finished doing a Core Transformation process with a client, then he explains what Core Transformation is and does. He asks himself questions such as "Why is this important?", then answers them. These questions, along with voice tone shifts and other social cues, help the viewer calibrate on which parts of Duff's presentation are most important.

    Most people have our strongest emotional responses to friends and family members we relate to informally. Someone on a video giving social cues that say "engage with me" is more likely to trigger our automatic engagement response.

    All these factors help Duff establish rapport with the viewer, increasing their emotional response. More emotional response means the information part of Duff's presentation will seem more interesting and engaging to most people. They'll find the video easier to watch, with less effort, and remember the content more easily because they have stronger feelings while learning it.

    When Colin Wheildon researched the effects typography has on comprehension, he discovered that the more easily people could read an article (it was the same article, typeset different ways) the more likely they were to read it. I presume the same is true of video.

  5. Formal video
    Compared with his informal video, here Duff moves less, gestures less, keeps his body in almost the same position, and speaks with much less inflection. He omits most of the rapport-building social cues he used in his informal video. The poor lighting of his face obscures his expression and makes his eyes almost impossible to see. Visually, there is low contrast between Duff's green shirt and the tan chair behind him, making his torso and arms difficult to distinguish from the background, especially since he doesn't move much. The viewer's mirror neurons have a lot less to work with. In terms of sensory data — pictures, sounds, and feelings — the formal video is much less interesting that the informal video. Neither seeing-, hearing-, nor feeling-primary people will find much to respond to.

    Duff also provides fewer social rapport cues. The viewer can't really see whether he makes eye contact, but he rarely smiles, he doesn't move his body around in relation to the viewer's viewpoint, and he makes few social gestures toward the viewer. Verbally, he provides much less context for his presentation.

    For most of us, formality is a signal to not engage passionately and connect with deep rapport. We've all had lots of exposure to "talking heads" on video, and Duff presents himself as one.

    These factors all work against establishing emotional rapport with the viewer, or creating a strong emotional response in them that will make the video's informational content seem interesting, important, or worth remembering.

    Framing and context
    In Duff's informal video, rapport and social cues create a frame for the content that makes it seem relevant and interesting. Duff's formal video lacks these rapport and social cues. It is pretty much "about" its informational content. A viewer who has a burning interest in the information might find Duff's formal video riveting. For most people, the content alone won't be enough to create the same level of interest.

    On the other hand, some people will interpret the lack of social cues in the formal video as meaning that Duff has high authority. Some of those folks might pay more attention to the content because of that.

    It would be interesting to do another A/B test. In the informal video, Duff could dress and act casually, but speak in a monotone, mostly avoid eye contact, and not move much. (I have seen numerous bad YouTube videos like that.) In the formal video he could dress and act more formally, but speak and gesture animatedly, smile, and made lots of eye contact. I suspect people would find the latter more "authentic."

    There's also the matter of context. Duff's making-breakfast video would probably go over poorly at a stuffy professional conference, because it mismatches people's expectations for that context. But for someone surfing the Web in their spare time (informal context), his breakfast video matches their expectations.

    Bottom line: If you want to get your point across, engage your audience!

  6. …continues from above:

    Informality can waste time
    One of the down sides to informal videos, and a pet peeve of mine, is the tendency of presenters to waste the viewer's time. Video bloggers, I do not need or want to see you set up the camera. I don't care about your technical difficulties. If you shoot some material that isn't relevant, do a favor to every single person who will watch your video, and edit it out! The same goes for poorly organized and presented material. If you can't say it clearly and concisely, do a retake!

    Duff's informal video does a nice job of presenting the context (Duff making breakfast, and the reason he shot the video during that time) without burdening the viewer with unnecessary fluff.

    Results of some relevant experiments I did
    Throughout 2009 I experimented with presenting myself in various ways at parties, social events, workshops, and on dates. I dressed more or less formally, sexily, sensually; I did or didn't wear/carry clothes and props that nonverbally signaled my interests; I interacted with people in various ways.

    Rather than testing formal vs. informal behavior, I played with how and when I approached people. For instance, introducing myself to other students before a workshop began vs. approaching people during and afterward. Introducing myself to everyone, systematically, vs. approaching people individually when they said or did something interesting. Saying hi to everyone I knew, vs. saying hi only if we crossed paths during the event. Introducing myself only, vs. also introducing the person I had just spoken to.

    Unsurprisingly, I discovered that I get more of the responses I want when I dress and act in ways that are congruent with the outcomes I want. For instance, if I want to meet potential dates at a party or workshop:

    1. I wear something socially appropriate, so I fit in the context and people feel comfortable with me.
    2. I wear something that looks both pretty/sexy and touchable, so people will find me visually attractive and also want to touch me.
    3. I am friendly and smile a lot, which makes me more approachable.
    4. I introduce myself to everyone I can, as early as I can. Once people talk with me, even briefly, they are much likelier to approach me later, and to introduce me to others.
    5. I do fun things with people that make them and me smile. I have fun, they have fun, they enjoy being around me and tend to come back. And as a side benefit, other people see me surrounded by smiling people and figure I might be worth approaching.

    By behaving this way, I meet and gain rapport with many more people, make far more friends, and find probably 20 times more potential dates. Or they find me, LOL!

    I don't regard any course of behavior as more or less "authentic." Virtually all human behaviors are arbitrary and constructed! However, some behaviors work better to get the outcomes I want, which aligns better with my values and goals. When I behave in ways that generate the results I want, I feel grounded, congruent, and alive. I have fun. And people respond well to me, as if I've got some kind of social magic. As if I'm, well… authentic. :-)

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