Learning from Beyoncé: How to win an audience

January 24, 2013, 9:52 PM UTC

Guest Post by Mary Civiello

The communication goal for 2013 should be aiming for authenticity.

I’ve been looking for what the world needs now, and Beyoncé was the catalyst. Like everyone else, I was in awe of her on Inauguration day–her beauty, her voice…and then it went just a bit flat with word that she was probably lip synching, forcing the Marine Corps band to fake it.

Oh, I know it was cold, and plenty of entertainers lip synch.

Beyoncé was aiming for perfection. She didn’t want to make mistakes. But even if she had, she would have been amazing, and authentic, missing a few notes like the rest of us!

It reminds me of so many clients, business leaders and all Type A’s who fear showing their real selves, exposing shortcomings to their employees and the public.

I worked with a top executive in the healthcare sector who would insist on using a teleprompter even with relatively small, informal groups because he said his speechwriter made him sound better. I asked him to define success in these settings. Was it being perfect, using beautiful syntax with no mistakes? Or was it bonding with his employees and customers? He decided on the latter. I had him practice talking from bullets every week. Eventually he got comfortable with a few stumbles because he realized that’s the way we speak. His audiences told him he’d never spoken better and connected more completely.

Then there’s the woman who built a retail operation into a multimillion-dollar business and refuses speaking engagements and media opportunities that others would die for because she is afraid of sounding unsophisticated…”sounding stupid,” to use her words. I had her listen to videos of leaders who have regional accents, who admit they don’t have all the answers. I reminded her that she had to win over many sophisticated audiences to get the financing for her business. She got her feet wet, reviewed tapes to build her confidence,  and she is now swimming laps.

In a speech at Harvard Business School,  JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said that people always talk about his leadership roles and risks he’s taken and won, but they rarely mention his failures. He shared with students the time he was fired and how he and his family felt at the time. Dimon counseled graduates to own their failures–to use them to get ahead and also to encourage others to take risks.

Photo credit: Peter North

These days, Dimon–who, by the way, is supremely confident talking without a teleprompter–has been owning up to his most famous failure: his company’s $6 billion loss from a trading debacle. This week, he told an audience in Davos that the so-called “London whale” trade was “a terrible mistake.” He added, “If you’re a shareholder…I apologize deeply.”

In a photo-shopped world, we need more leaders to risk being real, to tell stories of how they blew it–and even stumble over a few words.

Authenticity is far more perfect than perfection.

Mary Civiello is an executive communications coach. She works with leaders at companies and not-for-profit organizations including Morgan Stanley , Merck , American Express , AIG , CARE and the United Nations.