03 May Opening up shop (in more ways than one…)
Hello and welcome to Genuine‘s new blog of writing about writing.
When this website was being built, the designers – the brilliant and lovely Creative Jam) – asked whether I wanted it to include a blog. Indeed I did, much the same as a chef would want their kitchen to include a set of spoons. Genuine is new, but I’m not. I’ve been writing professionally for over a decade and blogging in one form or another since I was seventeen in 2001, when dialup internet was still normal, a blog was still called a ‘weblog’ and most people thought bloggers were weird and smelly. (I may well be the first of those things; hopefully not the second…). I blogged long before I ever got paid, and even when I felt I had nothing to say. – the equivalent of kicking a ball against a wall on a Sunday afternoon, or killing time with some reps at the gym if you’re of a naturally sporty persuasion which, whisper it, I’m not. But no matter how much of an old hand you are at blogging, the first post at a new blog always makes you feel a bit vulnerable and unsure what to write about.
For someone whose business is about difficult conversations easier, the most obvious answer to what to write about is, well, exactly that. Vulnerability, and the question of whether you can be both emotionally honest and professional is a question I’ve been steadily interested in since my career began. Like most of us, my late teens and early twenties were difficult. I was variously assured I still had it all to play for and things would get easier. Instead, life threw challenge after another at me with a relentlessness that by the time I was 30, whether I was actually living inside someone’s reality TV experiment seemed an almost rational thing to wonder. Two or three years ago I went through a particularly challenging time professionally and personally. The number of people I’d got to know through writing who’d died horrible deaths was greater than it should be for someone in their thirties, which is any number greater than zero. For that and other reasons, I wasn’t doing much writing: something of a problem for a professional writer happily married to the job – equally because no other job would have me and there was no other I’d ever wanted. I was extremely lucky that a few people around me – good friends, acquaintances and total strangers alike – were incredibly open and supportive. But other involvements started to feel uncomfortably one-sided. People who were always busy but had once seemed at least notionally keen on the idea of going for coffee with me every now and then suddenly seemed to be busier than God, Angela Merkel and Beyonce combined, and a nagging inner voice suggested this might not be a coincidence. At one point, even my dad suggested that perhaps the reason why certain people were keeping me at arm’s length was because they’d become worried about what they might be letting themselves in for if they got to know me better. Not exactly a high point for my personal pride, let alone my idea of what professional success looks like. I felt 31 years old going on 12; asking my daddy why people he’d never heard of didn’t seem to want to be my friend so much anymore, and feeling it was the price I’d paid for being vulnerable.
I’ve recently come to understand much more about vulnerability and emotional honesty in a work context. When I trained as a journalist back in my early twenties, we were taught that print media always responds to readers’ fears. I always took a somewhat negative view of this, thinking it meant silly magazines feeding your fear of cellulite by trying to flog you special pants which cost thousands of pounds. Or telling you how to stop your partner ever fancying anyone else (Never mentioning the only two actual ways 1. Conduct all your relationships entirely in darkness 2. Never ever have a partner…). Later I realised a professional response to someone’s personal fears doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As a writer and copywriter, you need to understand both your own fears and other people’s. If you can’t be vulnerable yourself, how will you ever empathise with your clients and readers? Companies are increasingly recognising the value of employers with neurodiverse conditions, including dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism. Their profile of particularly profound strengths and weaknesses gives them a combination of great confidence and vulnerability. In other words, they know what it’s like to be both top and bottom of the class. For an organisation to reflect the community it serves, it needs to reflect both.
Back in April was at RARE LDN, a conference for so-called “rare minds” for encouraging diversity in the advertising and creative industries. Roxanne Hobbs of Hobbs Consulting gave a great talk on the benefits of being vulnerable in business. “What do you do when people don’t react well to your vulnerability” I asked. “I’m asking for a friend, obviously.” She laughed. We all did. Her answer was effectively: “I’ve learned not to care.” I’m happy to admit that I haven’t learned not to care just yet. My clients can still choose me more than I can choose them. I couldn’t stop myself from feeling bothered when I felt rebuffed by friends at a point when I needed as many as I could get. And yet, I remained honest, while equally trying to understand where they were coming from. Vulnerability is a two-way street. We shouldn’t be afraid of difficult conversations. Equally, have to allow that others don’t find them as easy and give them the space to admit that. “Perhaps your emotional honesty is something some people just aren’t used to and part of them envies you for it,” someone else suggested to me. “But they’re worried that if they say hanging out with near-strangers and trying to start public conversations isn’t the way they like to approach a problem, you’ll feel stung and criticised.” Maybe I would, but it would help me to understand their perspective – something I do every time I sit down with a new project.
Sometimes when I mention Genuine’s recent projects, people understandably ask “What made you want to write about this stuff?” I tell them it’s where life has taken me. This isn’t strictly true. The challenges I’ve dealt with might’ve inspired someone else to write about designer shoes and go to lots of champagne -fuelled parties. I know various people who dealt with various demons in such a way; it didn’t go well for them. Ultimately, I’d far rather make myself useful. The way I was mostly taught to deal with problems was to try and ignore them and think about someone else’s, in a way which solved neither theirs or mine. But a better way is to think of mine and theirs as one, and try to solve both. So here we are. Welcome to Genuine; starting as it means to go on.