Keeping It Real: Authenticity in Storytelling

Keeping It Real: Authenticity in Storytelling

by Esther on 15 augustus 2011

Authenticity is hot – almost as hot as sustainability or minimalism.

How much of you do you share online?

How much of you is enough, and how much is too much?

Partial Storytelling

A recent article on Copyblogger, titled Why People Don’t Want the “Real” You, sparked an interesting discussion on authenticity.

In this piece, Brian Clark states you should always have your customers in mind and tell them the stories about you that they want to hear, to help them tell their own stories.

He believes, however, that you shouldn’t share all stories  of who you are – just the ones that resonate with your audience.

A fragment:

Your story absolutely matters, but only to the extent that it helps people tell the story they want to tell about themselves.


Am I telling you to be fake?

No, I’m telling you to get your head in the right place.

Focus on them.

Match them with aspects of yourself, your products, and your services. But never forget that you’re helping them tell their own stories as you create your own.

I love helping people tell their story, but here’s where I disagree: I am a person, not a persona.

Chris Brogan puts it even bolder in his article I Am Not Authentic, when he states the following:

None of us are authentic, unless we suffer from some serious mental disorders. We all filter. It’s part of what makes the world work. If we were completely and utterly authentic, we’d have no friends, no loved ones, no business.

Wait, what? Being authentic is now a mental disorder?

To me, being authentic means being real, true, pure, raw and open. And sure, that’s not always easy to do – but it’s definitely a lot healthier!

The Difference Between a Person and a Persona

I am the same person both online and offline.

I value honestly and openness, although I do know where to draw the line of too much information.

I don’t see the advantage in creating an online persona: a prettier, polished version of myself. Maybe that would attract a larger following or sell better, but it just wouldn’t feel right to me.

Life is not all rainbows and ponies and I’m a real human being. Just like you, I have my off-days and difficult moments – and I don’t mind you knowing that.

I like to read about both your successes and failures, your best and not-so-pretty moments in life.

There’s life in awkward. There’s truth in errors.

Your stories are what make you human.

Being Authentic Online

I firmly believe people want to connect with real personalities, not brands. Or, as Chase Night puts it when he explains that being a werewolf is not his brand:

There’s no point in writing if you don’t want people to know who you are.

Or take this example.

For April Fools, Joshua Millburn played around with the idea of being real versus being a brand. He announced, jokingly, that he hadn’t actually quit his six-figure job to pursue a minimalist lifestyle. Let’s say his readers were… not amused.

The bottom line: stories only matter when the people are being real.

You can’t be inspired by people who only show you the very best parts of their lives, who have breakfast on the beach every morning and who don’t ever complain about the sand between their toes.

Give your audience the best you’ve got – but don’t be afraid to show your shadow side as well.

You might be surprised to see others identify with your quirks, your struggles and your hardship.

It might actually inspire them more than your success stories.


The picture above this tale shows me, waking up in Santiago de Chile back in 2007. The effect on it is not made by Instagram or Photoshop. It’s simply the reflection of my dirty apartment window.

My boyfriend loves this picture, because it reminds him of “an old movie in which you preferably play yourself”.

Think about that for a minute.

A movie in which you preferably play yourself.

Are you playing a role online? Are you a person or a persona?

  • Every person is a bundle of personas. In other words, you show different aspects of yourself in different contexts.

    From Wikipedia:

    In the study of communication, persona is a term given to describe the versions of self that all individuals possess. Behaviours are selected according to the desired impression an individual wishes to create when interacting with other people. Therefore, personas presented to other people vary according to the social environment the person is engaged in, in particular the persona presented before others will differ from the persona an individual will present when he/she happens to be alone.

    • Hi Brian! Thanks for taking the time to comment here, I appreciate it.

      I hear you: we all have a lot of hats that we wear at different moments and under different circumstances. But do you believe we can be as well-rounded online as we are offline by showing various aspects of ourselves on different occasions? Or do you feel some personas are better left in the dark because they don’t aid our online presence?

  • “The picture above this tale shows me, waking up in Santiago de Chile back in 2007. The effect on it is not made by Instagram or Photoshop. It’s simply the reflection of my dirty apartment window.” Love this one; “editing in the head” is something I do value. How shall I frame this? How much does the (perceived audience) need to know.

    That said, abook that germinated much of my writing style, ethos, et al, was ‘An Unquiet Mind’ (K Redfield Jamison) which recounts, as it were, her mental disorder (manic depression). It is real, visceral, and tell us a lot. I suppose we have to remember that she ( PhD in Psychology) put a lot on the line by publishing this work.

    I suppose some of Brogan and Clark’s point is that our “persona” is rarely integrated with our “true self.” For Jung this is the high ideal of “individuation.” It’s a wonderful ideal, but it’s usually something that evades us.

    • Another insightful comment Mark, as always. “How much does the audience need to know?” is a good question. I do wonder whether I find it more important than “How much do I want to express?” This touches upon the subject of making art for a public, or for the sake of art itself.

      Writing a book on your own manic depression is indeed putting a lot of yourself out there and taking a massive risk. But should we hide those stories that are so life-defining and such strong identity shapers? Every writing risk like that one will probably lead to both lovers and haters. It takes a strong person to handle all the responses.

      I’ll have to do more research on personas, as Brian’s comment points out. But being & expressing your true self is indeed a wonderful ideal. I’m so with you on that one!

  • I’m working on sharing as much as possible about my creative processes.

    The other day I was thinking about writing a post explaining exactly the process that went into the next song I write. But then I thought that this wouldn’t be possible because there is no way represent this linearly.

    I try to be as authentic as possible. One of my mantras is that “I would never say something about someone behind their back that I wouldn’t say to their face.” It means that I bite my tongue a lot in conversations, so perhaps this is not so genuine. But it also means that (I hope) people trust me more in conversation.

    Thanks for reminding us to be real!

    • Hi Joe, nice to have you here! I like that idea of giving others insight in your songwriting process. Maybe it’s doable with metaphors? It doesn’t need to be done in logical steps, as long as you manage to put the feeling of the process into words.

      There’s a bit of irony in trying to be authentic, but I definitely hear you. In another post ( ), I wrote how I want to wear my heart on my sleeve and tell people exactly how I feel. But I still find myself biting my tongue way too much. I like that motto of yours though.

  • Love this piece, Esther!

    It’s been so liberating to share real stories, and I connect with people intimately like I’ve always wanted. With all the disarray, there’s opposition in constricting authenticity into a box. I’ve been fearful of being real because I thought I may not have potential business. By sharing, I attract like-minded people. And ironically, it’s moves me closer to my ideals.

    I’m so glad to see that “the best you’ve got” also includes “the shadow side.” We’ve been programmed to see our vulnerabilities as weaknesses. I’ve been worried b/c I have more shadows than light.

    Thanks Esther for keeping me awake and alive to my truth! <3

    • Thank you so much Rhina, your kind words and support are always great to read!

      It is absolutely fearful and difficult to be 100% yourself and express your identity to others. But some level of sharing is necessary if you want to connect and not remain in the superficial realm.

      Maybe your true power lies in your shadow side. Have you thought of that? I might do a piece on our creative shadow sides at some point.

      • Funny, I say it all the time, but it’s only when you said it, it completely registered. So illuminating! I’ll be looking forward to that piece on create shadow sides.

        Thanks for the revelation. I’ve been guilty of shoving my site into a role. I’ve been so tunnel-visioned for long. All this mind-expansion makes things more interesting. Best part about it, my dreams are actualizing itself by opening up. Love it!

        • It’s funny how it’s a lot easier to give others advice than it is to tell ourselves what we need to hear… or so I experience daily.

          We all fall into the trap of playing roles, so don’t beat yourself up over it. Being authentic doesn’t need any effort, but we need reminders to fully express ourselves the way we are.

          Curious to see where the shadows will lead you 🙂

  • Hi Esther,
    I enjoy telling stories that I have experienced & which fit in to my blog theme. Interesting posting.
    be good to yourself

    • Thanks for stopping by David, appreciate it! Glad you liked this tale. Like authenticity, I think storytelling is also a hot tool that many companies use to draw their customers closer. In that category, I prefer the authentic ones over fiction that is made to look real.

  • Great post, Esther. I strive to share the good with the bad on my blog. I feel it helps my readers get to know me better as a real person, and not some one-dimensional voice online. That’s also why I started posting a video with every article, allowing people to see the walking and talking me.

    That said, one thing Corbett Barr once wrote has really stuck with me. Paraphrasing: “It’s not so much about being your true self, as it is about being your best self.”

    I don’t consider “best self” to be the flawless and polished version of yourself, but the version that can be of most help other people. So there are some stories I don’t share on my blog, but mostly because I can’t figure out a way to make them valuable to my readers.


    • Hi Niall! Thanks for stopping by, man. I totally get what you’re saying & I think it comes close to what Brian Clark meant. Share, but let what you share be of value.

      There’s probably a difference in whether it’s a business or monetized blog, or a personal art project. The question what stories are valuable is relevant in the first case, whereas in the second case, it’s more about the artist than about the audience. I’m debating where IdentiTales fits in and currently I think I don’t aim to write for my audience here. Sure, I want to change the world and all that (just a goal, you know ;-)) but I also value writing in itself. That might explain my feelings about what stories I share.

      Wish you best of luck with your blogging & travel endeavors 🙂

  • I dig this meditation on authenticity, Esther– I, too, don’t know how to wrap my mind around it when folks offer to me that I should craft a persona to suit the expectations of readers or customers or whatever. On the one hand, I intuitively understand the need to be accessible and non-alienating– but on the other hand I’m like– hey, you know the personality I’ve got is the one that I’m using– I’m not about to go out and invent a new one. So. Yes, it seems like a complex issue– perhaps minds more adjusted to advertising and marketing than my own grasp it better.

    • Hi Carolyn, thanks for coming over! It’s funny, because I do translate marketing texts, but when it comes to personal marketing I’m more like “no, thank you”. I don’t think there’s a need to market yourself too much if your personality shines through in what you do. Thanks for giving your two cents 🙂