Our professional lives started punctually at 9am on Monday morning, when we walked into the office in our smart clothes. Our personal lives were confined to evenings and weekends, when we wore an entirely different set of clothes, mixed with a different set of people and showed them a different side of our personality.
For some of us, it was just as well that our work colleagues didn’t find out about our personal interests, beliefs and/or habits, as they could have compromised our professional image. But as our work colleagues never met our weekend friends, it wasn’t a problem.
Then along came the internet.
Social media has blurred the neat dividing line between our personal and professional lives, giving rise to a whole new range of social dilemmas: Should you accept your boss’s Facebook invitation? What about those photos of your friend’s stag/hen party?
You don’t have to be breaking a full-blown taboo for this to be an issue. Will your colleagues laugh if they find out you like making ships out of matchsticks or taking part in historical re-enactments? Would they sneer at you for supporting the ‘wrong’ football team?
This is even more of a problem if you’re a creative entrepreneur and want to attract customers by projecting a professional image online.
How much of the ‘real you’ should you reveal? Are you being inauthentic if you don’t share your private life and opinions? Is it bad for business if you do?
This is the dilemma faced by ‘Esther’ who sent me the following email in response to my invitation to send me your creative blocks, and asked to remain anonymous:
I’m actually facing down this creative block for the sqau-billionth time this very morning! And, as always, it’s winning…
I would like to start a website/blog, online presence, but my mental pattern that stops me is:
- I feel like I have to niche (reasonable)
- I think I feel like once I choose one, I can’t include or “reveal” the other aspects of me in that project…
- SO, I become paralyzed in picking a niche, and…
- Have been stuck in this place, therefore doing nothing – for weeks and months!
I love learning, coaching, teaching, and writing funny but profound emails! (yes). I’m a certified coach, have a PhD and lots of good teaching experience, LOVE to write, want to work at least part of my life virtual, love to move around and “BE” in different places.
SO – I want to start a blog and website, but I get STUCK thinking, well, should it be for COACHING? If SO, then I can’t be funny in writing about my personal life and mishaps like I am with friends, because it won’t be “professional!” And people won’t hire me. I need a “professional persona,” I guess is my rolling assumption.
If I DO a slice-of-life, just entertaining-but-profound blog, then I need to use a pen name, because the antics described therein would detract one day from my more “professional” posture on another site one day… AND – what would be THE THEME of THIS blog anyway? And a title? OH – HOW I AGONIZE OVER THEME AND TITLE!!!!
So, here I sit – all this content and enthusiasm, but doing NOTHING because I don’t feel like any direction is “RIGHT,” you know?
This is an issue faced by many would-be entrepreneurs and freelancers – they have an awful lot to give and express, but until they resolve this question, they feel paralysed, unable to start creating the phenomenal website and online presence they are burning to get started on.
Fortunately, the choice doesn’t need to be as black-and-white as it sounds in Esther’s description. In fact, the dilemma is based on some questionable assumptions about social media, branding and what it takes to succeed online.
1. Authenticity Doesn’t Mean Letting It All Hang Out
One of the big myths of social media is that to be authentic, you need to share all aspects of your life and opinions, from what you’re having for breakfast this morning, to your personal relationships, political opinions and philosophical musings.
In turn, this is based on the idea that you have a real, authentic self that is bursting to be expressed – so you’re not being true to yourself if you suppress any of your thoughts or feelings.
Having practised psychotherapy as well as coaching for over 15 years, I’m not convinced by this idea. There are many different facets to your personality, they are what make you interesting – and they can’t be reduced to a single ‘true self’.
You aren’t exactly the same person with your work colleagues as you are with your parents, your friends, your partner, your children, or people you meet in other contexts. Every relationship brings out a different aspect of your personality. You don’t express everything to everyone, all day long.
So why should social media be any different?
If social media is really about authentic relationships, shouldn’t those relationships look a little more like the relationships we have in other areas of our lives?
Brian Clark likes to say that effective communication and marketing via social media is about telling an authentic story.
It’s authentic because it needs to be genuine – people can sniff out a fake, so there’s no point (or pleasure) trying to pretend to be something you’re not. But it’s also a story, in that it’s a personal account that emphasizes some aspects of who you are, while leaving others in the background. Just like your communication with people in every other context of your life.
For a great example of authentic storytelling via social media, see Tim Siedell’s interview on Lateral Action. He points out that he has several different online identities – including funnyman @badbanana on Twitter and the curator of the Bad Banana Blog – that could easily be different personalities. And far from revealing everything about his personal life, he enjoys playing with the “theater of the mind” quality of Twitter, “because people are talking about what they’re doing, but you can’t really see what they’re doing”.
In my own case, there more to my life than creativity, but it’s a big passion of mine and Lateral Action is the place I go to express that. I sometimes mention my poetry, since poetry is a creative medium and conceivably of interest to my audience.
But I don’t blog much about the time I spend watching football, playing with my children or hanging out with friends and family, as I can’t imagine Lateral Action readers would be interested. And I still maintain a psychotherapy practice, but again, it’s not particularly relevant to this audience, so I don’t write about it here.
Finally, beware of the temptation to write an “a slice-of-life, just entertaining-but-profound” blog! If you want to do this for your own pleasure, that’s cool. But if you want the blog to help you build your business, remember that VERY few people can pull this off. I know I can’t.
Heather Armstrong has done an amazing job of this over at Dooce, but if you look around at most successful bloggers, you’ll see she’s the exception to the rule. Most bloggers, especially in the coaching sector, succeed by being helpful to their audience.
When it comes to writing a business blog, it’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for them. Which means it’s about who you are for them.
2. Being Professional Doesn’t Have to Be Boring
When you say “I need a ‘professional persona'” it sounds very buttoned-up and proper. And to be honest, not very interesting.
What does sound interesting in your description are the little hints you give about the ‘mishaps’, ‘antics’ and humour in the background. Now I don’t know what you mean by these, and I deliberately haven’t asked – but I’ll bet there’s something in there that contains the seed of a truly remarkable professional identity.
A unique selling proposition (USP) is a classic marketing concept – it’s about defining what makes you different from all the other people and companies in your industry, and then communicating it to your audience. There are several different types of USP, but if you’re a coach, trying to attract people to work with you one-to-one, then your USP needs to include something about your own personality and idiosyncratic passions.
For example, I used to be a ‘normal’ business coach, wearing a suit and working for large organisations, and doing pretty well. But my career really took off when I ‘came out’ as a poet and started focusing on working with creative professionals.
For another example, Naomi Dunford is a great example of using ‘unprofessional’ language and attitude over at IttyBiz. Apparently she gets quite a few emails from people telling her she won’t sell anything by swearing on her blog. The irony, of course, is that she’s built a successful business precisely because of her swearing and irreverent attitude to marketing.
Gary Vaynerchuk stretches the boundaries of what is considered professional in the wine industry, by posting insanely enthusiastic and opinionated videos on his site.
Chris Guillebeau‘s personal assistant is his cat Libby. He has also used his blog to speak out on political issues such as healthcare reform in the US. He got his share of criticism and unsubscribes for that – but he also got a lot of respect from his audience who love the way Chris isn’t afraid to speak up for what he believes in.
You’ll probably remember these people, not because they share every aspect of their lives, nor because they stay rigidly professional at all times – but because they tell authentic personal stories that resonate with their audiences.
So throw out the boring ‘professional persona’ and open the door to a more interesting you…
3. Who Can You Be Now?
It looks to me as though you have two choices:
A. Craft a professional identity around what makes you unique AND valued by your clients
Once you give yourself permission to project a quirkier version of yourself on the web, you may start to get an idea of which traits to accentuate in your online portrait.
It’s also worth asking your coaching clients what they value about you, and why they chose you/stayed with you as a coach in preference to the legions of other coaches out there.
And if you have a trusted friend, mentor or colleague who knows you and your work, ask them what they consider your most attractive and distinctive qualities. Apart from giving you a valuable new perspective, this should be a great ego boost. 🙂
If you like reading, check out Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow for advice on how to stand out from the crowd and create a remarkable business.
Once you decide which of your personal and professional passions to focus on, it should be a lot easier to come up with a name and theme for your blog.
B. Have separate sites/brands for different aspects of yourself.
My first blog, Wishful Thinking, was about creativity. So I figured it made perfect sense to include the odd post about the poetry I was reading.
Certain members of my audience made it very clear that they weren’t nearly as interested in my views on medieval Scottish poets as they were in practical tips to make them more creative. So I took the hint and set up a separate poetry blog.
By having separate sites for different interests, I can take each of them to extremes. Over at my poetry site I’m free to write an entire post in Middle English, or about the pronunciation of a single syllable in a poem by W.H. Auden, confident that my poetry-geek readers will be as interested in it as I am.
If you really think your personal interests would damage your business, and you still want to blog about them, then you might be better off writing under a pen-name.
But if your interests are complementary, or at least not detrimental to your business, then having two different blogs could add an extra dimension to your online presence and actually help your business.
Whatever you do, take the time to make sure you feel genuinely excited at the prospect of writing your blog, and 100% committed to making it a success.
Over to You
Do you ever feel a conflict between your personal and professional identities online?
How do you resolve the conflict?
Any tips to help Esther resolve her dilemma?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. To get the rest of the Creative Blocks series delivered to your inbox, make sure you sign up for free updates from Lateral Action.