People frequently comment to me about how every speaker needs to be their “authentic self” and they expect me to immediately agree. Then they are surprised to notice the pause I take before answering.  Let me share a story about the late great Jimmy Buffett.

While I certainly couldn’t call Jimmy one of my closest friends, we’re only three degrees of separation apart.  Hey, that’s gotta count for something, right?  My colleague, Bruce Turkel, is a great writer, keynoter, and blogger out of Miami.  He shared a story today about his good buddy Tom Todoroff, who worked with Jimmy.  Tom is one of the world’s leading acting and keynote speaker coaches, working with some of biggest names of the stage.   Am I envious of Tom getting to work with Jimmy?  Heck, yeah, but that’s another story, and we’re here to talk about Jimmy (with my thanks to Bruce for permitting me to quote the purple section from his blog).

Tom was helping Jimmy prepare for another taxing worldwide tour. They were discussing what it takes to be successful − how much of it is talent, how much is hard work, and how much is just plain luck. 

Buffett summed it up something like this:

“You know, Tom, I ain’t the best guitar player in the world. I mean, I can play, but Mac MacAnally, my lead guitar player, can play circles around me. I’m a bit of a good guitar player. But Mac? He even won Musician of the Year at the CMA Awards.

“And, c’mon Tom, you know I’m not the best singer in the world either. Hell, if I was, I wouldn’t need you to coach me now, would I? My backup singers are all classically trained. They sing opera and on Broadway when they’re not onstage with me. They’re the real singers.

“Bottom line? I ain’t the best guitar player in the world, and I ain’t the best singer in the world. But it’s my name on all the sold-out theater signs up there. 

“Why?  Because I’m the best goddamn Jimmy Buffett in the world!”

Buffett was indeed more than a performer; he was a philosopher, sharing the notion that there’s a time and place for everything…that regular folk are good enough…that we may not all walk the red carpet, but we all deserve a little time in “Margaritaville.”  Maybe all day sometimes.  Maybe almost every day a little.  And that notion pulled people in, because it called to a basic need we all have in our crazy worlds:  to exhale. Half the kids on American Idol are better singers than Jimmy was.  He could hold his own on a guitar, but I’ve seen more skill on the instrument in coffee houses.   He even admits that he wasn’t even the best musician in his own band!

But Jimmy was tremendously Jimmy.  Unapologetically, artistically, and joyfully.  And that created a grand career, businesses, and best-selling books, because he CAME from a place of authenticity.  And yet, the story above doesn’t come from Jimmy’s fan or friend or manager.  It comes from Jimmy’s coach.  Because Jimmy knew well enough to learn from others.

Sometimes, the authentic speaker might be a rambler.  Or, by nature, a little bland.  Or missing how to make a story interesting.  When Uncle Victor starts a yarn at the Thanksgiving table and everyone groans every-so-silently, he IS being authentic.  It’s just not working for him.

Do I want Uncle Victor to start speaking like Martin Luther King?  Or Tony Robbins?  Or Robin Williams?  All great speakers, but none of their styles would be authentically Uncle Victor.  It’s just that no one ever showed poor Vic how to be the BEST VIC he could be; Jimmy got that, blending his natural instincts with good training to make the impact he wanted.

About fifteen years ago, I had to teach one of my clients how to make his face move more as he was talking; “Greg” was so stiff that he almost looked like a ventriloquist without the dummy.  He said that what I was showing him felt inauthentic.  I told him to go home to try it out what I taught him on his wife.  She said, “Holy cow!  That’s the best I’ve ever seen you present!”  Greg replied, “But it doesn’t feel authentic.”  She blurted out, “I don’t care!  It sounded interesting! And you LOOKED like YOU found it interesting!  Which you do, Greg, so that makes it authentic!”

He grew into speaking with our blended direction – truly Greg, but with a bit more flair −  and it simply became his new way.  The fear of being inauthentic passed in time, leaving him a stronger and more entertaining presenter.

Jimmy Buffett got that it took a lot of worthwhile effort to be able to come across that casual on stage.  That what made him successful by day, even though – by his own choice – he spent many an evening wasting away in Margaritaville afterward.