Empathy is not a soft skill in my mind. When we approach business from a place of empathy and vulnerability something magic happens. Vulnerability is a powerful thing in storytelling because it creates a human connection unlike anything else.
As a business and stage storyteller, even I can fall into a rut. So I challenged myself this year to push that empathy and vulnerability envelope. This past weekend, October 16-18, I did something I had never done before: a solo (one-woman) show in San Francisco where I talked about stories from my life for 80 minutes. I got personal.
Talk about being vulnerable and empathetic. You see, every audience has human needs and fears. My goal was to make it OK to talk about things many of us don’t want to talk about. I help organizations and teams (marketing, product, brand, even engineering) tell their most important stories, so it was important that I tell my stories more deeply and personally, too.
Something magic happens when we are transparent about certain things – it sets off a chain reaction of reciprocity – the must fundamental part of sharing. That’s what brand engagement really is all about. And as humans, we want to share with each other. But we only share things that move us emotionally – towards, joy, happiness, redemption, laughter…sometimes even anger. Sharing is an amazing thing. I told stories I hadn’t told before publicly. What happened after the show? People came up to me and told me how they not only connected with my stories because they could relate to them; many people in my audience – even strangers – told me their stories. They felt they had permission (they felt safe) and I had earned their trust. The sharing of stories is a sacred act and the currency is trust. had showed mine first, and people responded by showing me theirs. Reciprocity is a fundamental act of trust and a deeper human connection.
Customer Engagement and Vulnerability in Business: How Much Leg Do I Show?
I get it. I really do. As a business owner, sometimes it’s hard to know how much to share in a business context. And I am not advocating you get as personal as I did in a business capacity. My show was a personal pursuit, not connected to my business. Ah, but here are a few really important lessons even business can benefit from when it comes to empathy, vulnerability and reciprocity (because sharing is what customer engagement is all about):
1. While you don’t have to share so much as you might in a personal context, it’s imperative that your stories show some vulnerability – whether it’s about a failure or a challenge you’re having, being vulnerable builds rapport and trust. Businesses have to break the 4th wall (where they talk as humans to the audience and the audience talks back!). We talk about it all the time, but few brands do this well. You cannot build trust if you only talk about successes. That’s not realistic or human. It’s important to open up and talk about a business challenge you are having that affects your audience. As a company evolves, so, too, will, its strategy. It’s OK to admit you’re evolving and you don’t always know how things will turn out. What matters is communicating why a certain direction is best for your customers. Context matters – so share when it is relevant.
And your fanbase can help you get there. Lego’s super fans hacked the Lego site when Lego was struggling and made the site better because they loved and trusted the brand. JetBlue, a company that has had its share of issues, got very honest with people in its early days about capacity challenges and used the opportunity to work with customers to create a customer bill of rights. Imperfect is what generates trust, connection, and a sense that your company is human. Imperfect is human.
2. I’ve said this before and it’s critical – stories need to be anchored through a human lens. That means the best business stories aren’t about a company; they are told through a human lens of a person or team, actual people an audience can relate to. Whether it’s a product team, a founder, a customer or customer team, people relate to people. People connect with people and the only way to generate reciprocity is at a personal level. If your team shares their stories with customers and audiences, you will see more people share their stories with you and share your stories with others. You want reciprocity and engagement to increase? It does not work easily at a corporate level. Focus these vulnerability stories through a very personal and human lens.
3. Too many businesses think they can’t be vulnerable or open about challenges. Here’s the thing – challenges provide conflict and tension that makes for a better story. No conflict – no story. And your audience likely faces the same challenges you do, so when you are open about those challenges (the right context and relevant challenges), it acts as emotional surface area for your customers to grab on to when you are telling your story.
How do you get vulnerable in your business stories? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Header image source: Bells Design