Sharing oneself can be awfully awkward. For most of us anyway.
I was in a networking training session this week with a group of people for whom networking was really important. They were in a safe group of like-minded people all of whom were trying to learn to explain who they were and what their business was about. This wasn't sales. It was simple introduction and positioning. No one in the group would volunteer to introduce themselves. The trainer needed to directly nominate people. And each person fumbled, mumbled and generally finished with an upward intonation and a vulnerable, questioning look on their face that pleaded "don't judge me".
Whether it is fear or shame or embarrassment or anxiety the vast majority of us in both our personal and professional lives shut down when called on to share who we are and what we care about. And yet, if we are able to overcome the awkwardness and authentically share ourselves we open up powerful opportunities to have stronger relationships and therefore stronger careers. If people know who we are and what we value they can clearly lodge us in their minds ready for retrieval when opportunity arises. If we remain vague and non-committal in expressing ourselves, for fear of alienating anyone, what we have to offer doesn't stick. This is equally true for marketers and those promoting organisations.
I've seen some great stories this week that have inspired my inquiry into awkwardness. The first is an amazing art project out of Seattle called simply BABY, in which two artists conceived and delivered a child publicly in a gallery. That's right, an audience was firstly invited to watch the artists who were friends but never lovers spend 4.5 hours engaged in the ultimate act of collaborative creation. From the reviews I've read this 'act of magic' was the antithesis of pornography. When they returned to the gallery nine months later, an audience of strangers experienced the most epic of intimate unfoldings. 6.5 hours of labour that had audience members 'sobbing with joy' and united in the most extraordinarily profound way. What the artists and audience were able to access by overcoming their awkwardness was an unparalleled experience of openness, trust and aliveness. Despite a plethora of very serious ethical dilemmas that surround the project it illustrates what many of us have discovered in our own lives when willing to have incredibly difficult, honest conversations with loved ones. On the other side of awkwardness is a breakthrough into openness and freedom.
That certainly seems to be the intent of 'End the Awkward', an English video campaign that playfully invites the audience to question and measure their awkwardness around disability. By addressing the embarrassment with fun rather than righteousness they aim to free people up to connect. With a little over 200,000 views in just a few weeks it clearly has some social currency and sharability.
So if transcending awkwardness offers so many benefits, why do we try so hard to avoid it? Why do we shy away from that feeling? Awkwardness is like an early-warning system for confrontation and not many of us embrace conflict particularly if we're not the ones dishing it out.
Marketing guru Seth Godin talks about the difference between your comfort zone and your safety zone and the fact that we usually collapse the two. We sense discomfort and scurry away as though we're in danger. However, if we are able to recognise the distinction between these two states we will come forward to indulge discomfort in pursuit of fun (theme park roller coasters), entertainment (flash mobs), or personal growth (speaking at an industry conference).
Recently, there has emerged a trend of highly potent viral videos designed to challenge the audience's social conscience. At their core are stunts that reveal awkward truths, but unlike the mocking, detached, knowingness of Punk'd or Candid Camera these films force the audience to question their own morals, judgments and behaviour.
This week I noticed two very similar films Have the Homeless Become Invisible (4 million views) and The Importance of Appearances (3 million views). These films have achieved huge reach whilst addressing issues that most of us would rather ignore. Obviously, the genre lends itself most naturally to promoting causes or Not For Profits, but, the technique is also being employed by brands. Unilever must receive credit for pioneering this phenomenon and really disrupting traditional marketing of the beauty industry in the early 1990s with their Dove brand. Dove Real Beauty Sketches (63 million views) is their latest offering, as they continue to walk the awkward line between empowering and enlightening with this marketing, whilst using the techniques it derides to flog other products within its product stable. That inauthenticity no doubt inspired some of the wonderful parodies which themselves have many millions of views. Interestingly, The Most Important Sexy Model Video Ever (2 million views) leverages subversion of the fashion industry tropes to promote a NFP, Save the Children.
If our natural inclination is to avoid experiences of our own awkwardness then why are we willing to firstly push through that feeling to watch these films, but then also share it with our networks - effectively claiming its viewpoint as our own. There may be an element of righteous indignation, but I believe there's also a willingness to elevate our own personal and collective treatment of one another. The stories in this genre that become contagious touch our humanity and release a compassion.
Upworthy is a fascinating aggregating channel that has undoubtedly played a huge role in their current wave of do-good, social change content that they call "stuff that matters". By building a community of people with shared values and a hunger to be inspired and challenged they offer content creators the rocket fuel that may just launch their story into the stratosphere - if it rings true and touches the right nerve. It is often criticised for its 'manipulative' headlines, but the result has been what Forbes magazine calls the "fastest growing news site ever".
As people dedicated to promoting the issues and organisations that we care about (or are paid to care about) what can we learn from these campaigns to use in our own work?
What are the awkward truths in your industry? In your community? In your market?
What issues in society are unacceptable when viewed through the prism of your organisations values?
How might you strategically use video to contribute to that conversation in a way that uplifts your audience rather than preaching or finger-pointing?
Are you ready to break through the awkwardness?