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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Fellows

Cultivating Creativity with Vulnerability

We may "live in a high lonesome world" today, but we have agency to build communities

For in this world I’m bound to ramble / I have no friends to help me now / I fare you well, my own true lover / I never expect to see you no more” — I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow

Out of the blue, I hear Roscoe Holcomb croon a soulful ballad; I’m at INBOUND ’17, Hubspot’s annual inbound marketing conference, when keynote Brené Brown interrupts her message to offer a snippet of this song.

The moment of pause and change of medium reminded me of something equally true in life as in business. Sometimes, words alone aren’t enough. Sometimes, when persuasive oratory falls short, we have the great pleasure to call upon other vehicles to tap into audience humanity.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then is a song worth a thousand lectures?

Music connects us to others. It connects us to memories and shared experiences. The way the crunchy grass felt under your toes, mixed with the wafting scent of dirt and dew and fried food at that outdoor festival years ago. When words alone fail, music steps in.

We are inundated with words every day. Short form, long form; wide form, skinny form (ok, I made those last ones up). Marketers are keenly aware of that. That’s why we’re here at INBOUND. “How do we break through the clutter?” We are asked on the reg.

Forced into a reckoning, we can accept that words lose meaning if they are competing for space amidst an onslaught of many, many other words; or, we can strive to tie them to other things, so that we can connect to people in real ways.

Good Storytelling Welcomes Diverse Interpretation

We can think differently about words. We can connect words to imagery and music. We can find space between the lines. Instead of seeking to fill a page or reaching for yet another listicle, we can think of storytelling in a business context as we have for centuries thought of storytelling for humanity: a myriad of devices used to balance persuasion with emotional resonance.

This starts with identifying opportunities to marry the desire to make a point with the pursuit of ambiguity: the ability to let an audience interpret meaning for themselves. The rare, highly sought-after art within the marketing and advertising corner of the world is a story that holds both a singular takeaway in mind while also leaving the audience with an intricate set of notions to deliberate.

I have it plastered on my Facebook cover image, lest I forget: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon” — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings. The mantra strikes a chord.

We need to tap into moments where emotions can linger. Where meaning can take many forms. Where takeaways can be subjective — and personal. Where individuals can find a thought to latch onto and think awhile; maybe even return to it later.

Can we still find opportunities where emotional impact stays front and center?

Sure, we need to be practical, data-driven, and efficient. We aren’t always going to be able to “reach for the stars” and it may not always be the right approach to introduce subjectivity in a one-sheeter. But we talk about these best practices often; so, today, let’s focus on excellence in other forms that nonetheless advance our efforts in different ways — ones that shape a brand.

Using multi-media tactics in marketing is not new; neither is storytelling. In fact, it’s a sexy buzzword right now. But effective storytelling is never easy. It requires the right mix of characters. A narrative arc. Conflict and resolution. Perspective. Metaphor.

Storytelling requires vulnerability. And that, to my delight, is Brené Brown’s expertise. Never ceasing to inspire me, her keynote immediately put me in reflection mode: Because vulnerability extends to so much more than delivering a message to a crowd or relating to others on an individual level outside of the office — it’s inherent in the work that we do every day.

Our Work Requires Vulnerability

Vulnerability — as it relates to storytelling — starts with how we connect with our audience: how do we interpret their needs?

It reaches farther still to our relationships with subject-matter experts: How do we tap into their psyche? How do we ask the right questions to expose deeper thinking, novel ideas, and bold statements? How do we empower them to embrace their position as thought leaders? To observe the way things are and reflect on the way they could be?

Vulnerability is also the foundation of planning and client relationships. How do we encourage key stakeholders to be willing to try new things? How do we understand the pressures of the status quo while creating buy-in for experimentation?

When we get it right, we lead. Overheard at INBOUND, in fact: Nearly two-thirds of people remember stories; only 5% remember stats. But stories are hard. They require some serious sleeve rolling. When’s the last time you compromised storytelling in favor of generic “key messaging”? If it wasn’t yesterday, it couldn’t have been that long ago. And while it may have made sense for that particular scenario, let’s all be honest in saying we sometimes cut corners to avoid the “squishy” stuff. We can keep ourselves honest and accountable by carving out space to make storytelling our goal — and declaring an unyielding commitment to improvements to retain its integrity upon execution.

Most importantly, vulnerability is at the heart of creativity: a thing that inspires and terrifies me to act every morning when I wake up. The ideas themselves aren’t as scary as the act of sharing them with others. Before their public release, as merely a note on a post-it or a passing thought in the shower, ideas are a burgeoning possibility in the mind’s eye. But saying them aloud gives them sudden gravity. Sharing ideas is outright scary. It exposes pieces of ourselves: The way our ideas are received by others leaves a mark on a person’s identity and sense of self worth.

If we continue living in a time of vulnerability destitution, our creative capacity will suffer. The more we, as creatives, share our ideas with others, the more we invite others to share their bonkers ideas in exchange. But the paradox is that we are resistant to sharing our wildest ideas unless we feel certain that those we share them with will be open to them in the first place. It’s up to us to counteract the tendency instituted in modern culture to shy from vulnerability with a call to action of our own: one that starts deep within ourselves to give permission to unleash thoughts — the “as real as it gets” ones, no matter how “fully baked” they are, without apology — so that others, too, can begin to offer ideas in the spirit of real, vulnerable, outrageous movement.

Let’s Get Wild, Starting with Ourselves

As Brené called out, a huge part of cultivating vulnerability relies upon a sense of belonging: being a part of something gives us courage to step into a crazy, creative world of unknowns. However, finding where we belong begins with the ability to stand alone. “It’s not something you negotiate, it’s something you carry inside of you,” she stated. So, while we’re living in an increasingly “always-on” world with 24/7 connectivity, we need to free ourselves from the mold and detach to first discover belonging. Belonging to oneself ensures a baseline acceptance of the power of our ideas, making us less afraid to be vulnerable without confusing solitude and individual conviction with loneliness.

I’m going to get real with y’all: As a single woman, living alone in a city nearly 1,000 miles from home — I “get” what lonely looks and feels like. And there’s truth in the concept that you can be in a room of thousands of people (INBOUND main stage, even) and feel terribly alone. But with a firm footing in my sense of self, I can make my daily challenge to be to seek “collective effervescence” — outwardly sharing my emotions, so that they, in turn, can fulfill my work and my place in the world. I’ve got a newfound vigor because of Brené’s talk this week, and I’m carrying it with me out into the wild.

The Opposite of Loneliness? Collaboration

Vulnerability is a prerequisite for boldness. Through vulnerability, we build sustaining relationships — in our personal lives and our professional circles. When we’re lucky, these worlds converge, and we create lifelong partnerships with people we trust and with whom we share our deepest aspirations. Like Brené (can I refer to her on a first-name basis?) noted, our “Brain Trust” is the group of people where we go to get a vote of confidence; our posse — real or imagined — where we gut check our biggest thinking and our most outrageous goals; where we share our most authentic selves. It’s a place where we create our paths, no longer bound to ramble on a road of isolated self doubt. It’s a damned good place to begin — again and again — and to reinvent, along the way. And, it’s the best place to be inspired by those who came before and continue to come to the table, determined to tell stories ripe with vulnerability, too.

P.S. Who’s reading or has read Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone? Accepting favorite excerpts and Book Club recommendations. :)

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