It’s very hard for me to be involved in projects that don’t have some personal meaning to me.
When Ryan and I started Soulful Brand, it wasn’t just about creating jobs for ourselves where we could lean on our past experience. And it wasn’t just about delivering brand positioning so that our clients could stand out in the marketplace.
There’s always been something deeper.
“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.” ~ Viktor Frankl
I’ve worked with start-ups which initially turn to technology for surface-level meaning while leaving their humanity in the background. In telling the story of their business, they speak of machines and tools. But without human characters, they’re missing the connective thread behind stories that others can relate to.
I ask them, “who is this for?” and they reply “it’s for everyone!” This passionately naive answer reminds me of a former teacher, a master in the art of communications, who shared a crucial distinction: When we share in abstraction, there is a disconnection from feeling. When we share in specifics, the feeling comes through.
For example, if you want to disconnect from feeling the loss of lives in any war, you use large numbers and broad labels to share the information:
- “457 troops killed in action. The war against terror rages on.”
If you want to feel connected to the loss of lives, you speak in finer details:
- “Dan Robinson stepped on a land mine and was gone 6 minutes later. He will never see his wife and twin daughters again.”
The closer you zoom in, the more you feel.
When your aim is to build connection and trust through your communications, you may discover your authenticity through the gateway of that which you keep at bay. For many of us, that may be our willingness to let ourselves feel.
We do an exercise with clients that invites them into the shoes of their ideal customers: to see through the customers’ eyes as a way to feel what it’s like in their world. It’s a mind-altering experience of empathy. Once given that view, they see their work may well not be “for everyone.”
Our clients may also realize something considerably more important: it doesn’t need to be for everyone.
Instead, their work may be for a more specific audience. Such as the audience of the 35-year-old nurse mired in student debt who only wishes to feel free again. Or for the 42-year-old UX designer, terrified of influencing change and yet passionate for an interface that respects a person’s nervous system.
With this level of customer description, our clients have a human being in mind that they can speak to in relatable details. When you know your customer intimately, you cultivate more feeling for your audience, and more meaning for yourself.
Details keep us in our hearts.
Abstractions keep us in our heads.
But that’s only a part of how we locate meaning. Yes, one aspect of inspired work is about WHO we get to impact as a result of our efforts. It’s, no question, a crucial aspect… and it’s just as crucial not to stop there.
The other part has to do with you, the founder. The leader. The one who holds the vision, and sets the tone. You might well say the vision was always about helping others, and you would be half right.
The other half is this…
Your work is fulfilling a purpose that comes out of your past.
I was the quiet one in my family. The youngest and the shyest. At dinner, I barely spoke, even when I was given many chances. I had a hard time with eye contact, preferring to observe the shape of my broccoli rather than return my family’s gaze. Over time, I developed a behavioral pattern that kept me trapped in this silence.
I was born with a full heart and an excitable spirit. I began shutting that down around 3rd grade, and stayed disconnected from myself and what I really wanted to say to the world for over 20 years. Along the way, I became an expert at pretending to be someone more confident and happy than I was so that others would accept me. I also stayed numb to the feelings of rage and sadness that built up after I closed down.
I envied people who felt comfortable in the spotlight, secretly wanting them to stop talking so I could say something. Then they would stop, and I would stay silent.
Years later, I remember one day saying: “I want to write about something really important. But I feel like I have nothing meaningful to write about.” It would take me six years to kickstart my first graphic novel about the challenges of male authenticity in today’s culture, shared through the lens of my personal experience.
It seems that most of my life has been a search for my authentic voice. I tap into this experience every time I sit with a client—every time I invite the depths of her feeling and wisdom, and listen for the whispers of her soul. Sometimes, together, we walk briskly towards that voice and sometimes we sit quietly so as not to scare it away. But I always know there’s a deeper part inside that wants to express aloud and inspire others.
In that way, as my client discovers her natural expression, her journey is my journey.
Perhaps you can now see how my work is about my story of losing and regaining my authentic voice—holding personal meaning, looking inwards at me.
And in the context of brand positioning, my work is also about a kind of authenticity in the marketplace that moves way beyond inflated postures of confidence and positivity—holding communal meaning, looking outwards at the world.
Both these lenses of meaning (inward personal + outward communal) contribute to my experience of depth. And both are inextricably linked—in my case, around the practice of authentic communication.
Looking inwards and outwards simultaneously isn’t easy. It’s like trying to feel two distinct feelings at the same time.
For example: visionaries often feel a frustration in seeing the world as it is, and inspiration in a vision of how things could be. The tendency is to try to let go of frustration and seek only inspiration as we share our work.
What if we need both?
Ryan and I were coaching a client recently who couldn’t shake a past experience of losing herself to what her superiors had wanted. She had gotten so wrapped up in their directions that she became someone else in her words and actions—someone she was not proud of. When her project halted, everyone saw her as the person she was pretending to be, not as who she was. This pain of being miscast had stayed with her for years.
I asked her, “what if that pain never goes away?”
She let out a disgusted sound: “Ewww.”
And then she dropped in.
She could see how this experience allowed her to be compassionate with the people she supported in her work. In her history, much like mine, she had a journey of suffering that she held close. But now, she realized that suffering also held a subtle power. Through her presence, she could know very well both when someone was getting lost in trying to please others, and how to help guide them back to themselves.
In this way, she kept both inspiration and frustration nearby—this was more authentic to her experience of herself. Very quickly, her speech and tone became more genuine, more real.
Honoring these extremes brings us back to a meaningful depth that can impact how we communicate. In the marketplace, it’s not just about wrapping a message with a word like “community” and playing nice music alongside photos of happy people. It’s about being able to sit with the deeper meaning of “community”, and feel how and why that stirs you as a human being.
Today, I still notice my temptation to posture as confident and happy so that people will accept me. I also notice the way I may keep feelings at bay and remain lazy in nourishing a connection to the more compelling nature of my business.
As I communicate in the marketplace, my practice is to share my tenderness alongside my vision and inspiration. In other words, I practice welcoming the voice in me that is connected to the multi-faceted depth of meaning behind my work—staying connected to who my audience is, to the broader community of the marketplace, and to my own history.
This article first appeared on LinkedIn.com