We may be the busiest, most distracted species on the planet. But strip away our phones, our houses, and our machines, and we are just people, hardwired to connect.
In fact, human beings are made for connection. Neurobiology tells us that our brains are full of mirror neurons—little pieces of brain magic that allow us to match a person’s emotional state as we’re interacting with them (you feel inspired, I feel inspired; you are worried, I am worried). With each beat, our hearts literally send out signals of connection that are actually able to be measured.
Step back from biology and look to the heavens, and the science of connection gets even deeper. In fact, the very universe in which we live seems to be held together by strange phenomena, where particles at opposite ends of the universe are entangled and mirror each other—what Albert Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance”. (We’re not making this up! Watch the wonderful Tom Shadyac documentary I Am for the most concise discussion of human connection we’ve ever seen; find it here, or catch it on Netflix streaming.)
Forget biology and theoretical physics, and just look at technology. The web has connected humanity like nothing before. And social media has added another layer of connection—every new portal built with the promise of better ways to connect us.
We are itching to connect. At every moment.
And yet, for associations, there is so much disconnection happening—right in front of you.
Even as your members’ hearts are sending out signals, hoping to be mirrored and entangled, the loop isn’t making its way back. Even as you use the very technology built to connect the human race, there is more and more disconnection. The loop is broken.
We know exactly why it’s broken. You won’t like the answer. You probably won’t even believe us at first. But we’ve seen too much and been in this industry long enough to know that there is no way it isn’t the answer.
Let’s Back Up: This Isn’t a Blame Game
The most helpful thing to do as we begin this discussion is to remove blame and judgment from the equation. We’re not passing judgment on your organization, or finger pointing. This fear business has mutated its way into the DNA of the association industry, and no one person or association caused it.
We want to help your association—truly. We’re not interested in calling you names and making you feel like crap. But we can’t help if we also operate from a place of fear, and only tell you what you want to hear. In these last few years, we’ve been aligning more and more with truth telling. And now, we’re taking it to a new level by calling your association on its fear (which also means confronting our own, since our livelihood depends on you and your industry colleagues hiring us).
For most associations, the crux of the fear is this: we are a professional organization, and we can’t appear to be anything but professional. Your worth, your membership retention, and your events are all tied up in this idea of professionalism. The problem is that most associations we’ve encountered have a very narrow definition of what professionalism means.
It means not stepping outside of what is sanctioned or expected. It means the lowest common denominator. It means walking only as far as the accepted edge, and not sticking as much as a pinky toe over it. It means pulling back, building walls, and drawing distinct boundaries around personal and professional.
In your marketing, it means being guarded and thinking you have to talk to people in a stiff, formal way—instead of a human, conversational, and lively way. It means being careful about what you show. It means repurposing the same marketing and the same ideas over and over again—because you know that although they don’t get very good results, at least they don’t offend anyone. It means relying on posting links on Twitter instead of telling stories about people. It means a well-manicured appearance that is mostly just . . . uninspiring.
But here is the central problem. Among people, it’s vulnerability that truly forges connection.
Here is a piece of truth we will not back down from: An association that operates from fear, constantly checks itself, and hides behind accepted norms about professionalism CANNOT connect. All you can do is create professional-looking disconnection.
Anything But Vulnerability, Please!
It would be great if you just believed us now.
But we sense you need more.
Let us introduce you briefly to researcher and storyteller Brene Brown, who changed our view on vulnerability dramatically (along with the almost 18 million other people who have watched one of her two TED talks, here and here.). Her work on shame and vulnerability is groundbreaking, and it applies to business as much as it applies to things like relationships and parenting. Because her research is about people, and every single organization is made up of people.
One of Brown’s central points is that the myth that vulnerability is weakness is profoundly dangerous. It stifles people and organizations. Because without vulnerability, there would be no innovation and no creativity. In fact, she says, vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage, because it means stepping out and being seen. It means risking failure. It means putting forth a human face when it’s easier to hide behind something else. But it’s that very risk that makes people connect.
After her TED talks exploded, Brown got offers to talk to organizations all over the world. They wanted her to talk about innovation, creativity, and change—but not vulnerability. Not possible, she told them, because vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.
Here Comes the Bravery Part
So what does leaving fear behind and getting comfortable with vulnerability look like for your association?
Well, we can tell you what it has looked like for us.
It looked like nearly losing our business six years ago, and one by one, letting loyal employees go as the recession strangled us. It looked like putting family vacations, eating out, and anything that wasn’t an absolute financial necessity on hold. It looked like pacing the floors at 3 a.m. wondering how it was possible we had depleted all of our savings, but trying to shield our worry from the three bright-eyed kids at home.
It looked like climbing out from under a pile of rubble and loss to start again from scratch, but this time, digging down deep and asking hard questions about why we were in this business. It looked like making a counter-intuitive decision to narrow our focus, and work with the people we thought we could make most difference for: associations and non-profits. It looked like investing in support we were afraid to invest in (like high dollar business coaches that we absolutely could not afford), saying things we were afraid to say, and putting things out there before they were perfect.
The thing is, without failing so spectacularly and painfully, we would still be operating on the surface. Without that experience, we wouldn’t be able to understand what’s under the surface, and to look at organizations and see clearly what needs to be fixed.
Ultimately, the result of all of that vulnerability is that now—for the clients who will listen to us and trust us—nobody does it better in this space. Nobody else gets the whole picture of talking about WHY you do what you do—and how that forges real emotional connection—better than Rottman Creative. And the only reason we get it is that we went through emotional and financial hell, and came out on the other side with a new sense of purpose.
And here we are again, being vulnerable in front of the very people who send us the checks: telling you that your association is so mired in fear, it hurts us to see it. And it’s affecting everything from how you run your meetings to how many people show up at your conference.
Ask yourself: what could stepping into vulnerability look like for your association? We’d love to dive deep with you and figure it out. In fact, we challenge you, right now! Show this article to your boss, and say: “This article is talking about us. What should we do about?”
We can’t wait to see which association is brave enough to take the challenge, let their guard down, and market their event on a personal level. Who will do it?
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