There has been some chat about vulnerability in the small business online world lately, and it has made me (and others I’ve spoken to) feel a bit crappy. After spending the week thinking about it, I want to consider the other side of the story.
THE PERCEIVED “PROBLEM” WITH VULNERABILITY
Of course my takeout is subjective; it is influenced by my personal experiences and feelings. I may have overthought or misinterpreted certain things. But if I have others who - like me - are sometimes vulnerable online might feel the same.
The talk I have seen revolves around the idea that some business owners are deliberately using vulnerability as a marketing tool; making themselves vulnerable to emotionally manipulate their audience to follow, engage, and buy.
This might be true, which frankly is sad. As an eternal rose-tinted-glasses-wearing optimist, I actually struggle to believe it. But I accept that I might be being naive. The reality is that for many people in the early day / months / years of running a business, it can feel like you’re always behind, and failing to live up to the well-known success stories. That can be tricky to navigate. If this has led to vulnerability being used cynically to drive connection and gain traction, then perhaps we need to take a look at the bigger picture. There could be something wrong with the industry-wide beliefs around marketing and growth - but that is a conversation for another day.
Meanwhile, we must be very careful that conversations about the use of vulnerability do not tar everyone with the same brush, even accidentally. We mustn’t risk vilifying those who choose to be genuinely vulnerable.
THE RISKS OF NEGATIVELY DISCUSSING VULNERABILITY
When I first came across these conversations, I was mortified. And a bit angry. I know that I am sometimes vulnerable online, and so I instinctively felt a bit defensive.
I hasten to add that I don’t think that the conversations were meant to condemn all vulnerability, only the calculated use of it as a tool for business growth. But that didn’t leap off the page. In fact, it seemed to be buried pretty deep in discussions.
And so I worry that some of us, myself included, are at risk from this conversation; in fact, I know that I am not the only one who has been bothered by this conversation. Instagram, and other online platforms, provide an amazing space for sharing and connection, and many of us open up there because we feel safe and part of a community. We make ourselves vulnerable there because we:
a) genuinely want to help someone else, making them feel less lonely or allowing them to benefit from the things we have experienced and learned. And;
b) because what we share truly is our reality. Our lives. My life.
As someone who used to be intensely private, I now share in case my experiences can help someone else. At the darkest times of my life (and simply day-to-day!) I have found comfort in others sharing their truths. It has, and does, make me feel less like I am the only one. It helps me to feel connected. It helps me to remember that everyone has something, whether big or small, that we’re dealing with.
So if you do choose to make yourself vulnerable, because you are just sharing honestly about who you are and what your life and work looks like, more power to you. Do what feels right, for you.
If genuine vulnerability happens to generate followers - fine. They’re probably people who need / want to hear it, rather than potential business customers. But if they have circumstances or personalities or dreams similar to yours, and feel a connection to you, they might become customers. That doesn't take away from the fact that you originally connected genuinely, through simply telling your story.
On the other hand, let me be clear that I also feel strongly that is totally okay not to share! The idea of making something public, of being vulnerable in general is totally personal, and can even fluctuate over time. I don’t share everything; I have boundaries online and in real life, and I recommend that approach.
CONNECT THROUGH TRUTH
The bottom line for me is this: people acknowledge that vulnerability sparks connection. This can be true - and I for one am grateful for this, on a personal level.
But saying that vulnerability is being USED to spark connection as a marketing too feels like a sweeping statement. It's arguably subjective, and is upsetting to people like me. As such, some people are now worrying that they shouldn’t be sharing their lives in case they are deemed to be disingenuous.
Conversely, as a result of vulnerability being labelled a marketing tool, some people are worrying that they don’t have enough troubles to deploy this tool effectively. I don’t really have the words for this one.
Ultimately, it is honesty that sparks connection. Whether this includes vulnerability or not. In the interest of fairness the conversations I have seen to do acknowledge this, but by the time that conclusion was reached, it was too late for me… I already felt terrible.
A HEALTHY APPROACH TO HONESTY, SHARING AND VULNERABILITY
The way I see it, is that connection can come from many types of conversations, as long as they are honest. You may share struggles, your family life, or the joy of a wedding day. Perhaps you share your passion for your work, with little mention of anything personal. Regardless of levels of vulnerability, all are honest, and therefore spark connection.
We don’t need to overanalyse or label what we, or others, are saying and sharing. We all just need to do and share what feels right for us. So if you, like me, are sometimes vulnerable online and in life and in your work, I applaud you. Keep going if it feels right to you; each to their own. Just be honest. Be you. Be kind.
To finish up, here are my tips for sharing online, and in real life. Nothing mind-blowing, just something to think about:
Only share what you want to, rather than what you think you should.
Only do what feels right to you, rather than replicating the actions of others.
Don’t share anything that you haven’t processed yet.
Don’t share anything that doesn’t feel true to you.
Only share if you want to!!
I share what feels true, about me. I share in case others can benefit from things. I don’t share for sympathy. I share good stuff. share bad stuff. I share things I would talk about in real life. I share because it does and has generate ‘me too’ moments, creating community, and ultimately making me and others feel less alone. I don’t share everything - if it makes me squirm, it stays inside me, and that’s cool. I am cautious about sharing anything that may be triggering, and seek my Mum’s advice if I am unsure. And so… each to their own.
EXAMPLES OF HONESTY GENERATING CONNECTION
After 5 miscarriages, Jamie couldn't stand the culture of silence around infertility — so she opened up about it on Instagram and live TV.
Olivia Purvis & Joe Galvin got married last weekend, and Instagram was flooded with beautiful pictures of a JOYOUS day. What amazed me was how many people who have engaged with the couple’s work over the years, were following along with the hashtags and celebrating the magic of the day.
And then there are the people who helped me to believe that I could create a business that would allow me to also take care of myself as my health deteriorates into significant disability over the next 10 - 20 years. Who helped me to realise that so many of us have low points with mental health, but that none of us is alone. Who are dealing with a variety of challenges and determinedly keep going, and showing up.
These people only mention such things occasionally, as a reflection of what is / has been going on in their real lives, but it means the world to so many, drives connection and helps people feel less alone. Shout out to Jen Carrington, Sara Tasker, Fiona Barrows, Ella Mills, Kate Rogers, Syreeta and Rob from Moments of Sense of Style, and so many more. Thank you, for your honesty - it makes many people feel connected.
If you’re in the online business world, I hope that this has been thought-provoking. We all have different experiences and different perspectives. I just wanted to share this one.