Eventually, we all need help (how we ask for it matters)

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I know this firsthand: asking for help can be a hard thing to do. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers or the capacity to accomplish what needs to be done can be challenging, sometimes defeating, and almost always humbling. But I’ve also discovered it’s among the best ways I learn and grow – personally and professionally – if I’m being genuine with my ask.

What to ask for

It has me thinking about how I can best offer my help as well. Usually it comes down to having to interpret what the ask is for. I’ve realized through my own “bad asks” that how you ask for help matters, and it starts with clarifying exactly what you’re asking for:

  • Am I interested in insights or just implementation?
  • Do I need advisors/experts to help guide the work or assistants to follow my lead?

Knowing what to ask for brings clarity to the need. Knowing who to ask for help brings focus on the right skill sets and fit. 

Certainly there are tasks that just need to get done. In those situations, there’s nothing more helpful than sets of extra hands. But sometimes more digging and legwork is necessary, especially when it comes to issues of branding, messaging and marketing.

When your brand isn’t performing or its purpose, promise and message are unclear, insights from the outside are going to be helpful. This is where that old adage rings true – sometimes you’re just too close to the work.   

Yet the business of branding and messaging all too often slips into that implementation part of the ask when insights could prove more helpful. But that's what happens when some fast-on-the-horizon marketing opportunity looms.

The benefits of outside expertise

Few of us would be foolish enough to advise our physicians on how to cure what ills us without their expert evaluation, or advise our attorneys how to structure a business deal without their thorough assessment of the terms. Yet with issues of branding, marketing or communication, self-diagnosis and proposed solutions are what usually greet outside counsel. This is what makes the marketing or branding RFP nearly obsolete for thoughtful creatives who place extraordinary value on their relationships, their time and their craft.

Being open to the full potential of collaboration   

Like many of the partners I choose to work with, I’m drawn to the genuineness of connections over the binding of contracts. This is where expertise gets leveraged, trust and potential is realized, and how the best (and sometimes unexpected) work gets accomplished.  

While current challenges might be unique to your brand – they are not unique in general. That’s good news for any organization. Those current challenges likely resemble scenarios that outside experts work through day in and day out. They have familiarity in this territory. There is a knowledge of which questions to ask. And there is a recognition of what works and what doesn’t.

By clarifying the kind of help you’re asking for, you’ll have a stronger likelihood of saving time and, budget while also avoiding the difficult dance of finding the right partner to help.

The perils of not asking  

I’m more accustomed to asking for help these days – creative help, mentoring help, financial help and additional brainpower help – even though it didn’t come natural at first. Better yet, I no longer see it as a sign of weakness or personal failure, but rather a desire for something greater when my own perspectives and talents just aren’t enough.  

Nobody outright asks for trouble. However, there's one clear takeaway I have learned: by not asking for help and clarifying my ask, by default trouble is essentially what I'm asking for.  

On Message (vol. 1)

Recently someone share with me what they thought ratchet was all about – and for the most part they were spot on. But the analogy that was used to describe the work really struck a chord:  

Message is to a brand what location is to real estate.

Indeed, it is that important. People don’t make real estate investments without carefully weighing all the issues of location and, for a business, audience. Yet for some reason many brands jump headlong into identity work, marketing, sales, further product development, and even social media, without giving much thought to developing a concrete and easily understood message. 

Building stuff and focusing time on brand design, marketing, advertising, creative and the potential of social engagement – these are the shiny new things that many of us get excited about. This is the fun and sexy stuff, and we would agree. But there is a caveat. 

Among all this creativity, our job is to pause and ask: What will you say? Why should anyone care? This is creative work. It is a critical part of the creative process.

Don't forget the message ...

Don't forget the message...

Shiny things have the potential to blind us from the proven and somewhat pedestrian ways of success – which starts by articulating the why, the how, and the what. 

Not many people get excited about words on a page. But words do matter. When chosen judiciously and with intention, their impact can be far-reaching. Messages give rationale to our purpose for being and why others should take notice. Stories, which are examples of our messages in action, have the power to connect, ignite, transform, inspire and best of all – linger. The greatest stories are timeless and shared with conviction. They also contain conflict, which is something we shouldn’t shy away from either. That vulnerability is both real and relatable.

Does your brand have a clear message? Do your stories have power? If not, keep in mind that you have the ability to refine, rethink and recreate. 

To borrow from the textbook real estate perspective and a friend’s analogy, perhaps the most important thing about your business and your brand is – message, message, message.  But unlike a piece of real estate, your brand is not stuck on the same plot. 

The Consensus Paradox

Seeking consensus among the masses is good when choosing a vacation destination (nobody wants to embark on new adventures with a disengaged or disgruntled traveler). It’s not particularly helpful when building brands. In fact, it can be detrimental.

Asking for a show of hands and getting less than 100 percent alignment does not constitute a trip back to the drawing board or appeasing every new idea. While thoughtful feedback is fuel for bettering just about anything, discernment on when and how to use that feedback is critical. The buck must stop with someone who is empowered to say – this is the direction we’re headed and why

Seeking consensus sounds noble and democratic in theory. In practice, it sounds flat and uninteresting – the very things that branding and messaging initiatives seek to avoid – or reverse – in an attempt to differentiate.

In your quest to stand out, get comfortable pushing the envelope and, when necessary, reining things back in.

Not everyone in your organization will love the logo, the colors or the choice of type. They may not embrace every word of your message – and that’s okay. It’s not designed for them. It’s for your customer. 

Your extended team can do amazing things when they help shape the brand rather than dictate it. Asking for or falling victim to the consensus paradox won’t create internal believers. To the contrary, it can create pockets of skeptics who can appreciate the attempt but can’t get over what the brand has become versus what it could’ve been. 

Perhaps you’ve heard that a brand is more than a logo – and even more than a message. It’s about consistently exceeding expectations, providing exceptional experiences and connecting with stories well told. That’s where people fall in love with your brand. Your team included.   

 

Links & likes: could they be ruining your reputation?

Perhaps you’ve seen the online quote attributed Abraham Lincoln – the one that goes "you can’t believe everything you read on the internet."

As absurd as this mash up is, its point is well taken and should make us consider the veracity of content marketing and thought leadership we receive. It also should make us check our own practices as we try to keep pace in a furious sprint to create new and fresh content.   

Stop and think: are you taking the advice, tips and counsel that permeates your inbox, LinkedIn or Twitter feed at face value? Are you clicking through the links – the subtle signposts of an expert at work – to see if what is being cited is accurate and reputable? Beyond intuition and personal experience, how do you decipher between what is brilliant and what is bunk? 

Recently, I took up the link-verifying approach while reading an online article regarding website development in a highly regarded publication. This bold subheading caught my attention:

"94 percent of comments in a recent study said that people mistrusted a website based on its design elements over its content."

As someone who relies heavily on design partners to frame the messaging and content I create, this seemed noteworthy – and perhaps shareworthy (a driving purpose behind content marketing pieces like this). Intuitively I know that good design plays a significant role in positioning content and shaping the user experience. But 94 percent?

Prior to sending the post to a design colleague, I felt compelled to dig deeper – and I’m glad I did.

By following a link related to the 94 percent stat, I was directed to a Forbes article published a year ago, which in turn linked to the original research study. That’s where I learned the truth about this stat and just how focused the research was:

  • The study was specific to health websites
  • It only observed 15 people
  • All participants were women
  • All participants “faced a risky health decision”
  • All participants lived in United Kingdom
  • The study was published in 2004 

Each of the six bullets challenge the credibility of the bold generalized statement I read. Then there is the rapid change in how we define the online user experience 12 since the study. Certainly the participants in this study did mistrust website design, and perhaps there are universal truths to be made about design and trustworthiness. However, this isn’t the link to use to make the case about web design, in general, in 2016.   

 

WHAT WE WRITE + SHARE MAKES AN IMPRESSION (FAVORABLE OR NOT)

Just like you, I read plenty of content and often have the impulse to react, share or shed light where I think it could be helpful to others. When we read articles in what we believe to be reputable publications, we make assumptions about accuracy and fact checking. We don’t have time to read all of the links and citations to validate the author as a trustworthy thought leader. We see the author is well published and a regular contributor, which signals some level of subject-matter expertise.

As the age of DIY and brand journalism plows forward with platforms that thrive on new, self-published content, the journalism institute Poynter has been documenting the rapid decline of editorial professionals in newsrooms over the last few years here, here and here. The point is that with significantly fewer fact-checking professionals ensuring what we read is accurate, we must become more diligent and critical readers. 

As content marketers and thought leaders, we must earn the trust of our audience so they return to us with regularity. That means we owe it to them to take the time to be thorough and accurate. That may seem counter-intuitive given the perceived simplicity and speed in which new content arrives and the recommendations on how often you should post content (advice from content marketing thought leaders, of course). Keep in mind: 

  • If it’s worth writing, then it’s worth writing well. Take your time, edit and revise.
  • If it’s worth publishing, then tell your best story. Your reputation as a thought leader requires it.

Our reputation and credibility are always on the line – whether we create the post or decide to pass along the commentary of others.

 

HELP RAISE THE BAR BY BEING AN ALLY

Mistakes will happen – even among the most reputable journalists and publications. Be helpful and alert content creators to a possible issue or correction that would improve their piece. When we nudge respectfully, authors should see that we’ve taken the time to improve rather than attack their piece.  

When I reached out to the author suggesting the article was intriguing but this data point was misleading, the author responded with gratitude and quickly changed the article. Now readers get a better story and the author has a credible piece of thought leadership where the opinion remains unaltered and misleading links no longer exist.

How a hearing impairment is teaching me to be a better listener

 

Many good leaders will say that their success is measured by the actions they -- and their teams -- have taken. And a good many more will say that the opportunity to lead and achieve success started with being a good listener.

Certainly I had heard that before, but I wasn’t really listening. And to my defense, I was legitimately distracted.

Early in my adult life I was diagnosed with having tinnitus, a symptom of a hearing-related problem. The symptom itself is a highly annoying and perpetual ringing in the ears. To explain it, I tell people that it is similar to being in the country on a summer’s night and hearing the symphonic hum of crickets, where there is no discernible beginning or end. (It’s also quite similar to the last 30 seconds of bagpipes in this AC/DC classic.) Now imagine that hum never going away and being present as you work, accompanying every conversation and every waking moment. This is my reality.

But I’m far from unique. Statistics suggest that one in five U.S. adults experience hearing loss that often begins with tinnitus. It is a distraction that presents real challenges. And with nearly two decades of ringing in my ears, I’ve accepted it’s not going away anytime soon.

When I embraced this fact, something surprisingly counter to my situation happened: I became a better listener (partially out of necessity). It also meant coming to grips with the fact that, until this point, I wasn’t the listener I thought I was.   

The good news is you don’t need the distraction of crickets chirping or Bon Scott’s bagpipe coda in your head 24/7 to force yourself to be a better listener. Instead, start being more intentional. Here are five things I’ve learned over the years:  

  • PRACTICE INTENTIONAL LISTENING: This is far different from hearing. Listening is actively processing ideas and making connections to what is – and isn’t – being said. My clients are too kind to question my listening techniques, which may include cupping an ear or getting up and moving about the room to hear more clearly. When we choose to listen with intention versus simply hearing what’s being spoken, we become better problem solvers, and more understanding and empathetic to the stories being shared with us.
  • PUSH THROUGH DISTRACTIONS: Tinnitus, for me, amplifies sounds that are high pitched. That can mask what I’m trying hard to glean and discern. If I focus on this as it happens in my head, it can send me off course and I miss chunks of conversation. So I refuse to focus on it as I did in earlier years with this symptom. My listening challenges aren’t all rooted in audiology. Visual distractions play a key role, too, as I notice people around me, the large TV screen above the bar, or anything that’s moving in my peripheral vision. To combat this, I take off my eyeglasses and look directly at the individual in front of me. Simply put, I can no longer focus on the distractions.
  • ADJUST TO ENGAGE: I’m guilty of occasionally being in casual conversation and nodding along when I don’t hear clearly. This also means I'm not clear on what I’m agreeing with or laughing to, which is just bad form on my part. This is particularly the case when I’m in a noisy, crowded environment. But if I care about the person who is choosing to speak to me, I should care enough to listen. That may require moving to an area that is less noisy or leaning in a little closer as a nonverbal gesture that says I want to hear what you’re saying. Stop nodding along and make the necessary adjustments to be engaged. You have no idea how important that conversation might be.
  • ASK CLARIFYING QUESTIONS: The idea that there are no bad questions sounds good in theory, but to some degree most of us are embarrassed to suggest we don’t understand. When we overcome our fear of asking questions by asking clarifying questions, we put what’s in question into context: “So what you’re saying is…”  “are you suggesting that…” “so how do you see that playing out…” are a few thoughtful ways to have content readdressed that perhaps didn’t stick the first time. We all miss the point from time to time. Asking clarifying questions can help. And it may get you to a comfort level of simply saying – I don’t get it or “could you repeat that?
  • MAKE 'FACE' CONTACT: More than just eye contact, I’ve found that face contact allows better processing of nonverbal cues by paying closer attention to the mouth. As a result, I’ve become adept at reading lips to cross-check what I believe I’m processing. This has proven immensely valuable the more I work with individuals whose native language is not English. I can see how they are forming sounds and words, and that helps us to have smoother and more fluent conversations. Recognizing my nature to be an introvert, averting the eyes has always been easy. But when I look intently at someone, they know I'm dialed in to them and them only.  Conversations of all types reap greater rewards when we’re focused on the one who is talking.

If you want to lead, start by being an intentional and engaged listener.  And if you're currently in a leadership position, assess how strong your listening skills are and commit to becoming even better.

Are you listening with intention or just hearing the chatter and noise around you? What practices do you employ to be a better listener – and thus a better leader? Consider sharing your thoughts, tips and strategies. We can all afford to get better.