When I started my first website (which is still up and running), I followed the advice to write about myself and my personal life. My About Page even included a “why” story, which goes like this:
I’ve lived all over North America, I wrote, including Alaska and Canada. I’ve been a free spirit: I moved for new opportunities and for adventure.
My goal was to show that I place a high value on not paying attention to “shoulds.” Freedom and independence have always been my strongest core values. I was hoping to help others find their own path to what I called “career freedom.”
Soon I discovered what happens when you share your story publicly, whether on the Internet or via the media.
Your audience reads your story through its own lens. Readers might be critical, judgmental, or at least confused.
Fortunately, my website attracted kind, gentle people, who sincerely wanted to understand where I was coming from. They wrote comments like, “Does this mean you leap without a net? You’re awfully brave!”
The truth is, I never leaped without a net. Many of my moves were paid by employers, including my move to Alaska. I was never in danger of going broke.
This story actually confused my audience. Undoubtedly some of them clicked away and never returned.
You’ll see this happen with news stories about specific people.
For instance, the New York Times reported a story about a woman who wanted to be a musician. Specifically, she wanted to play the bass. She turned down opportunities to attend Harvard Law School and then to study flute at Juilliard. She understood the risks, but she wanted to be a bass player, not a lawyer or flutist. She turned down an offer to play with David Bowie’s band because she didn’t feel ready.
And now, with Covid19, her career is gone.
The Times intended to portray her sympathetically. Most of the comments were supportive, but some were scathing. Readers criticized her choices; they were aghast at her decision to turn down these rare opportunities that most people would kill for. They pointed out that she own an apartment on the upper East Side, which represents a significant asset.
It’s clear that her story resonates strongly with some of her audience. But generally, when you put your life out there, you’re going to be judged.
Stories reveal a lot about ourselves, even when they’re not about us.
Storytelling has become a core element of professional brand and branding. And storytelling, we often hear, involves some element of the personal, even if we’re trying to be professional.
“Be vulnerable” has become conventional wisdom. It seems like every day someone’s telling us, “Make sure you come across as human,” or, “They want to believe there’s a real person behind your website.”
The result? We’re learning a lot of personal information about strangers. Almost every Ted talk begins with a story, usually presenting the speaker as vulnerable. They made a mistake that should have been career-ending but managed to turn things around. They found success by mistake. They’re still scared.
Even when your story isn’t about you, you’re sharing a lot. What qualities do you admire in a colleague? What inspires you to do an extra good job with a client? You might be giving little hints about your home office or coworking space.
But revealing yourself carries a risk. Some people’s revelations will be inspiring. Others can only be described as cringe-worthy.
Find the balance: come across as human but still remain credible.
There’s no need to pull back and go into hiding because you’re afraid you’ll attract trolls, critics and nay-sayers. But you can choose stories that will foster growth productively.
Will some people be turned away? Of course, and that is a good sign. But they’re turning away because they’re not in your target audience and they’re not a fit for you – not because they’re overwhelmed with TMI.
You raise doubts about your ability to be all there for your client.
My client Martha said, “I was going to hire Jane as my tax accountant. But on social media, she told stories about her struggles with anxiety, her dysfunctional family and her health problems. I found myself wondering if she has the ability to focus on helping me. I don’t want to have to worry about her problems: I want her to take care of mine.”
Martha may seem insensitive or even cruel. But she’s paying Jane to do a job and she doesn’t want to deal with Jane’s problems. She doesn’t want to worry that she’s adding to Jane’s stress if she asks for something special.
Ironically, Jane the accountant may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Martha, her client, worries about Jane’s health, Martha may unconsciously behave in ways that trigger Jane’s incompetence.
When you ask for empathy, you ask for energy.
When you share stories of illness or loss, your readers may feel concerned and compassionate. But they can also feel drained. Then they feel guilty about not caring as much as they should, which is even more stressful.
If you’ve got a loyal following that’s already drawn to you, your news might be more effective in your ezine than your blog or social media shares. People who feel they know you and who think you’re a genius (see #1) will view you even more favorably. They don’t need to be sold on your professional brand.
Four years ago when my wonderful cat Ophelia died, I decided not to share with Facebook or even my email list. Most of my Facebook friends don’t know me that well and they certainly didn’t know Ophelia.
I did post some photos of our newest feline family member, Pudge, and suspect some readers might have wondered, “Where did she come from?” But nobody asked and I figured they got all the info they wanted and maybe more.
So Jane needs to wait to tell these stories. Once she’s past the pain, she’ll have a great story.
You might actually seem less likable.
Psychologists have found that when a really successful person comes across as vulnerable, that person will be respected and appreciated. But if someone who’s less than successful uses the same tactic, it will backfire, especially when you’re trying to create a professional brand.
So when a movie star says, “Um. .. I feel a little scared,” she gets a warm response. A novice speaker would do better to come across as confident even if he’s quaking in his boots.
A seasoned professional at the top of his career shares stories of dropping his cell phone. Everyone chuckles, relieved to hear he’s human. A newly minted entry level person in the same field would know he was human…a clumsy human.
(1) Present your personal struggles as a triumph over obstacles, not as an ongoing struggle.
No one does this better than Connie Ragen Green. In her book, Road Trip, Connie shares a story of pain. She became very ill on a cross-country trip, to the point where she had difficulty walking and getting out of her car. She kept going, with the aid of kind friends and clients. When she returned home, she collapsed on her bed, exhausted.
Connie didn’t share this story in real time, except with those she encountered along the way. But much later, when she was healed and bouncing around the country again, she shared a story of triumph. We don’t pity her. We don’t have to spend emotional energy to sympathize. In fact, the only downside to her story comes when readers like me think, “I just have this little sore muscle. And I’m taking the day off to lie around with a mystery novel. Connie would use the time to write six books and sign up ten new clients.”
(2) Use stories to communicate your success in a matter-of-fact way.
Share stories about how you helped clients reach success. If you want to avoid coming across as omniscient and even obnoxious, you can add comments like, “When I worked with Oscar, I thought I’d never be able to help. He had been fired from his last three jobs and I could see why. He had worn out the patience of three other coaches. He resisted my suggestions. At one point I was so frustrated, I turned to my own mentor for help. I worked with Oscar to identify the obstacles that kept him stuck in jobs that were so bad, he wanted to be fired. But today, Oscar enjoys a prestigious, senior-level job with a major corporation.”
If the story’s true except for the name change, of course, you may seek Oscar’s permission. Or you can state that it’s a composite of two or three clients. Readers can tell instinctively if your story is accurate. Most of them will have their BS radar turned to high.
You can also write about your own life, walking the fine line of sharing your lifestyle and bragging about your worldly goods. One business owner wrote a story about buying a new car. She showed us she’s successful (not that anybody doubted). But she showed herself as human – a thrifty, three-dimensional person who’s not showing off her wealth (“It’s my first car in twenty years”).
(3) For more personal connection, pick 3 to 5 topics that make good conversation starters. When you choose topics that stimulate conversation and connection, if they’re genuine. My best topics are WNBA basketball, animal rescue, and the city of Philadelphia. I like sports and many of my clients – both men and women – are sports fans. Most people in my world are animal lovers. And I’m constantly amazed at how many people I talk to, all over the world, who have some links to Philadelphia.
Some topics actually turn people away. I’ve learned to be careful when I talk about my stints in stand-up comedy, my secret life as a country music fan, and my ceramics classes. Those topics just don’t connect the same way.
Some people talk about their families – especially if they’ve got children and grandchildren. They’re successful when they’re proud and respectful but also slightly humorous. It gets tricky when you’re showing up monthly at the police station with bail money or, conversely, when your perfect kids make straight As, keep their rooms in perfect order, and start a successful real estate business before they’re out of high school.
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