One of the best books I’ve read in a while is one called Emergency by Neil Strauss. It chronicles his quest to become completely self sufficient in case of a natural disaster, getting lost in the woods, or some other sort of apocolyptic event that results in a Mad Max kind of society where Mel Gibson rides around the ruins of civilization wearing animal skin and hunting for gasoline.
As such, he finds it necessary to learn how to ride a motorcycle, despite the fact that he’d never even driven a standard in his life. After a number of stalls and burnouts, his instructor informed him of his problem – he was driving with his sphincter clenched, and that until he learned to relax, all the lessons in the world wouldn’t help his ability to ride a motorcycle.
The notion immediately made sense to me. I studied jiu-jitsu for about four years, and while I was fairly technically proficient, I was always called out by my instructor for being “too stiff”. Jiu-jistu is a martial art that’s entirely based in fluid motion in which the entire body works together. A punch begins in your feet – a throw is entirely controlled by your stance. Like the force of a whip comes from the energy transferred along its length, the fluidity of motion is what allows a 215 pound male to be thrown through the air by a 13-year old girl (true story). Introducing tension in the fluid motion interrupts the flow, and weakens the entire stance.
The point of this rather long-winded story is this: one of the biggest problems I see in organizations that want to get into social media is this stiffness, which is usually one borne of fear. Fear that someone will say the wrong thing, that the organization will be criticized, that someone out there will use your words against you. But, like tension in a throw weakens your stance, tension in your communications weakens your message. The result is seen all over the web in the form of sanitized marketing-speak, safe (read: boring) blog posts, and corporate communiques that no one in their right mind could possibly find interesting.
This isn’t to say that you don’t need to be careful what you say on the web – far from it. However, just like you need to learn to ride a motorcycle or hip toss an attacker, you need to learn and explore social media by doing it. By engaging in the community, by making mistakes, and by allowing yourself to communicate fluidly.
I completely understand the fear and trepidation that comes before submitting a press release for distribution, an email marketing piece for delivery or sending a large print job to press. The thing is, social media doesn’t have the same gravity of these things. Mistakes are easily corrected, and as long as what you’re saying and doing in these realms doesn’t fly in the face of the community or step on ethical guidelines, you’ll recover – and you’ll learn.
Posting something uninteresting on Twitter is not a failure. Missing opportunities to engage customers in dialogue because of a fear of saying the wrong thing definitely is. Just relax.