Are you a fearless communicator?
Posted by Mary Fletcher Jones
Today, at Social Media Week DC, the Case Foundation presented a session, “It’s Time to Be Fearless in Social Media.” The moderator, Michael Smith, did a fantastic job of presenting examples of fearless organizations, innovators, and creative talents.
He posed a question to the attendees. He asked something along the lines of “Who here is fearless in their communications?”
My hand shot up. It was a lonely hand, maybe the only one in the room. I looked around, abashed. Could it be that other people did not think of themselves as fearless communicators? Am I overly cocky to think of myself that way?
Maybe a lot more hands would have gone up if the question were phrased like this: “Who here feels the fear but does it anyway?”
I’m not saying I am braver than these people. I am scared of plenty of things. But the truth is, people who know me well and describe me on LinkedIn say I am a fearless communicator, also passionate and creative. It doesn’t mean I am the best communicator there is. That is just how I was described, and I own it. It wasn’t an idea I formed about myself. But it was a realization I came to accept about myself after reading those testimonials. And I know why people perceive me that way. I have been challenged by life, again and again, and have had to become resilient, just to survive. I’ve had failures, and I’ve come back from them. With that resilience, over time, I have become more comfortable with risk than some, and I have a perspective that would not occur to everyone. Because not everyone has had my tough luck! But more about that later…
The Case Foundation is launching a three-year “Be Fearless” campaign to motivate nonprofit organizations working for social causes to take more risks and tackle bigger challenges, for bigger payoffs.
The 5 Things It Takes To Be Fearless
The Foundation identified five principles associated with fearless and inspirational innovators and game-changers, like President Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling, Gandhi, and other public figures…
- They make big bets and make history. Fearless people set big goals. They have big dreams.
- They experiment early and often. Fearless people are not afraid to be first.
- They make failure matter. They learn from their failures, and wear them as badges of honor.
- They reach beyond their bubble. Fearless people develop partnerships with new and diverse groups and people to accomplish their goals. They don’t stay with the comfortable same set.
- They let urgency conquer fear. Fearless people are decisive, are not hesitant, and don’t overthink every move. They have a sense of urgency about their causes and want to be a part of the solution, now.
Why Aren’t More People Fearless?
I thought about the possible reasons why most of the attendees did not consider themselves fearless, and even why the panelists, who were demonstrably able communicators, seemed unable to summon professional experiences that involved compelling risks, big dreams, spectacular fails, out-of-the box partnerships, and the kind of urgency associated with must-act-now causes. They had interesting stories, and communications best practices to share, they just weren’t “fearless” stories, at least by the Case Foundation criteria.
As I mentioned, fearlessness — it’s not really the absence of fear, although that is technically what it means! It wouldn’t be mature not to feel some fear. Fear is a good thing, in some situations. Fearlessness in this context, I think, is synonymous with courage. Courage involves being aware of the risks and feeling the fear, but not being ruled by it to the point where you do not take a needed action. It means taking all that into account. Having no fear is just denying risks, which is reckless and foolhardy. Fearlessness, or courage, is responsible.
Can You Make Yourself Fearless?
I pondered that fearlessness, in the way I think they are trying to promote it as a desirable attribute in communicators and organizations, is a quality that can be cultivated, just like creativity. I talked about how to enhance your creativity during my blogging session on Tuesday, and how that improved creativity will carry over into your professional work. And during this “Fearless” session today, several ideas occurred to me that might help a communicator flex and build their “fearlessness” muscles. Each everyday act of fearlessness emboldens you. I believe it can carry over into your work. Here are a few examples…
Cultivate generosity to yourself and to others. When you make sure your needs are met, you will have energy to give to others. You are creating a foundation of stability in yourself that allows you to reach out and give your best, when called to do so. Generosity is a strong and even brave act, when it is properly motivated and executed. Sometimes you can be fearless on behalf of someone else, more than yourself. For example, I find it easier (but still difficult) to advocate for my child in school, than to advocate for myself, sometimes. But becoming his strong and persistent advocate has, over time, made me a stronger advocate for myself than I was before he was born. Not all fearless people are generous people, but all generous people are fearless people.
When an opportunity to do good comes across your path, do good. You don’t let a lost child cry in Target without staying with them until his or her mom shows up. You don’t let a homeless person look for the dinner in a trash can if you have some way of feeding him or her. You don’t look the other way when you see a lost dog. You talk to a very old person in the grocery store line. This won’t happen to you with every poor soul you see that needs help. But you know it when it happens — that little prickle you get that says, it’s your time now: you can do something about this. Usually, it’s small, short-term, and almost always anonymous, right? Hold the elevator. Pick up a piece of litter. Smile at someone. Pitch in and help the committee. Help put away chairs after the meeting. Give blood. Leave a crazy big tip for someone who is working really hard. If you walk away from a situation you come across and you think, I wonder if I should have stopped and… STOP. And turn around, run back, and do whatever you were just called to do. That is your soul talking to you. Your soul is what enables you to be fearless, so don’t ignore it too frequently. Being a good person isn’t someone who thinks good thoughts. It’s someone who does good deeds.
Be your own biggest fan. Most of us, self included, are too hard on ourselves. Overly self-critical. So, it’s not a bad thing to be conscientious and to want to do better. But, do you keep track of the times people say you’re great? When I was at the Red Cross, I kept a binder that contained every thank you letter, thank you email, and compliment I received. I called it my Kudos binder. I kept another binder with examples of my best work. Right on my desk. NO ONE thought this was egotistical. It was helpful during performance evaluations and my exit interview. HR loved it. If you don’t know your own value, how can you expect other people to know it and appreciate it? So, chronicle your wins, and review them as much as you want. It’s proof positive that you can do whatever you set your mind to, which helps make you fearless.
Cheer on others. You can do this, if you can be your biggest fan, you know how to help others do their best. You can let it be about them, because you are strong in yourself.
When you think you can’t do it, remember the times when you overcame obstacles. I have this thing I say to myself: is this harder than waiting tables at the 3rd Street Diner or Joe’s Inn? Those were tough jobs. Almost nothing I have done is more physically demanding or exhausting than waiting tables when I was working my way through college — except, parenting of course. Nothing tops parenting for sheer exhaustion. If you can handle serving at the 3rd Street Diner, though, there’s not a whole lot life can dish out that you can’t tackle. What’s your 3rd Street Diner?
Be strong in your character, even when it doesn’t matter. For example, I teach my son not to cross against the light. And I don’t cross against the light, even if I’m not with him. Even if I’m the only one on the curb. I think about how my actions impact others, even in small ways. I know jay walking makes it hard on drivers. So, I can deal with standing on the sidewalk a few more seconds until the walk light comes on, even when all the other pedestrian Washingtonians are venturing into traffic 🙂 Even when my boyfriend crosses without me. I stick to my guns. Think it doesn’t matter? It does, really. The small stuff matters. Erode away too many small things and then it get easier to cheat on the big stuff. Obeying your principles and rules, not just when someone is looking, is a character-builder. And when you have a strong character, it’s easier to be fearless.
Honor your word, especially to those younger, weaker, or more vulnerable than you. When I make my son a promise, I stick to it. Sometimes, it becomes inconvenient. Sometimes, maybe it doesn’t seem that important. Well, it is. That is my problem, not his. Have I been tempted to make excuses and get out of it? Yes, but I don’t. If I want to raise a child with good character, he has to see that when I say something, I mean it, and when I promise something, I will do it, to the best of my ability. Children understand actions better than words. We all do. When you know you are a person who stands by your word, you learn to trust yourself enough to be fearless when it counts.
Be fiercely beautiful. Beyonce created this persona for herself called Sasha Fierce, a strong woman to be reckoned with. I think about that sometimes. I am not the most confident person in the world. Sometimes, I feel VERY shy. At those times, I sometimes self-talk to myself. As I walk into a room, I say “Work it, own it!” That is from the movie, Pretty Woman. Remember that? Kit is encouraging Vivian as she approaches her next john. It’s kind of a silly thing to make me feel braver, but it works.
So, allow yourself to be as beautiful, and by that, I don’t mean, a model. I mean inside, and creative, and as fierce as you dare. Wear a red dress instead of a little black dress. Smile, big. Give yourself flowers. Sparkle when you walk into a room. Light it up like a Christmas tree. Appreciate how magic you are, just because of all the completely ordinary but divine things you can do. When you realize, just by being human, that you are pretty darn special, then you can be fearless and open to all kinds of possibilities. But girl, you got to own it.
Let the waiter decide. You know, it takes courage to give up control, and be in the moment, and just accept what life gives you and see the good in it. So, the next time you go to a restaurant, just order the special, whatever it is, no substitutions. Or let the waiter or your date or your child decide what you eat, or where you go on vacation for a week. Let the interns handle the project. Give the hair stylist carte blanche. And no arguments, amendments, or complaints! Just give up control and enjoy what you are given, as much as you can, in the moment that presents itself, even if you are given knowledge about something you now know you don’t like. You’ll come to appreciate even this small act of resilience.
Tell the truth, even if it makes you uncomfortable, sometimes. As a communicator, it’s our mandate to say when the emperor is wearing no clothes. It’s not our mandate to make our clients feel good about themselves. We can do that after we accomplish our objectives. I do try to be tactful, most of the time, but if I have to be blunt because a client is not moving forward, and I know it is in his or her best interests, I will be. I told a client once that her website looked like a yard sale, and she needed to focus her resources on improving it. It is better if they hear it from me than lose another contract or sale because of something that can be fixed, like a messy website. I am not honest with them because it is in MY best interests; I have LOST clients this way. But I know they don’t pay me to tell them what they want to hear, or already know, and the ones who stick with me are the ones I work my heart out for.
Embrace your uniqueness. Stop trying to be everybody’s friend, stop trying to please everyone, stop trying to be one-size-fits-all. You can’t. Laser focus on your goals and what you can make happen.
Connect with different kinds of people. Don’t just work with, network with, learn from, or be friends with people who are your same age, color, ethnicity, religion, professional level, educational background, or economic background. That’s a very human tendency — to flock with birds of your own feather. If all the people you know are just like you, you may be playing it too safe. Too safe and fearless do not go together.
Have the courage of your convictions. Own your informed opinions. But you can only do this in good faith if you are also prepared to give credit where credit is due, and humbly accept and admit being wrong time to time, because no one is right all the time. It’s a relief, sometimes, to be wrong. And being able to say sorry and be forgiven with grace is a real gift.
Effort, effort, effort. Fearlessness is not just about attitude. It’s about seeing it through, to completion, and if that means digging ditches, you dig ditches. Don’t phone it in. If you’re presenting to people, wear your interview clothes. Show them how much you respect them and their time by putting your best foot forward. Make killer Powerpoint slides and handouts. Ask for help when you need it. When you do whatever it takes, and you succeed or make progress, you know you are a person who accomplishes things you set out to do, and does self-concept ever make you fearless!
Stop trying to be perfect. Forgive yourself for being imperfect. The one main thing that stops people I coach from blogging or taking on other communications projects, other than lack of time, is perfectionism. You can aim for excellence as long as you keep working toward your goals, but perfectionism tends to get in the way of results. Procrastination and perfectionism are linked. And if you don’t take actions, you can’t be fearless.
Learn to laugh at yourself. You know how you do that? You try and do things that make you feel foolish, and you don’t give up when you feel your cheeks turning red and hot. It’s hard and you feel silly when you first learn how to speak French, learn how to belly dance, or get up and sing Karaoke in a crowded bar (a whole song…by yourself…without drinking alcohol!). You’re always trying to improve right? But the dichotomy is you also have to cultivate some self-acceptance to get there.
I remember when Rollerblades first came out and I really wanted to learn how to roller blade. I took a class and I was, by a wide margin, the worst and most uncoordinated student in the class. But you can see the success in your failures. For example, I got really good at falling over, in my protective gear (I wore more protective gear than anyone else). Falling well is important. It keeps you from having a serious injury. By the end of the class, I was given the dubious award of “most-improved” which was a nice way of saying, you’re still the worst but you have come a LONG way. And you know, with practice, I got really good at rollerblading! I could do it for miles and miles. But I could do it because I could laugh at myself when I fell down, and I could really appreciate my “most improved” award. It made me fearless on the W&OD Trail, later! Of course, that physical confidence I obtained carried over into other areas of my life.
When you can take things on with that kind of spirit, when you learn that failure is just a step, and sometimes a fun step, to becoming a better person, and that you don’t necessarily have to be the best or greatest at every single thing you take on, in order to enjoy it and benefit from it, then failure loses some of its power to make you afraid.
What do you do to cultivate your personal fearlessness? Has it carried over into your professional work?