Ask the Readers: How Much of Your Self Do You Have to Reveal to Succeed?

  • July 20, 2010 by Corbett Barr
  • 30 Comments

Here’s a question that I’ve been chewing on for months. How much of your self do you have to reveal to succeed?

I’d love to get your take on this one.

When it comes to your “voice” online, does it pay to reveal your full personality? Do you have to be fully self-expressed for your business to succeed online? Can you hide who you really are and still be interesting enough to grow a following?

There are lots of possible dimensions here, so share your thoughts about your specific situation if you would. The answer could depend on a lot of things (your topic, your personality, how much you can stomach sharing, whether you use a pen name, etc.), so please explain your answer a little.

I’m actually torn on the right answer myself. For Think Traffic, I haven’t talked much about who I am, or tried to convey my full personality here. My focus has been on providing you with as much valuable traffic-building information as possible.

On the other hand, at my other blog Free Pursuits, I just bared my soul in an epic post that took quite a bit of courage to publish. It actually felt really good though, and I hope it will lead to a breakthrough.

I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on this question.

The fact is that people want to connect with other real human beings. We identify with flaws and quirks and depth of personality. We’re drawn to people who are passionate, gutsy, funny, provocative, dynamic and vibrant.

How much of your self do you have to reveal to get all of that across?

My Favorite from the Last “Ask the Readers”

And, getting back to our last “ask the readers” post, (can you believe it was 6 weeks ago already?) I asked: how do you make blogging easier for yourself?

Thanks everyone who answered. Among the awesome comments, I think my favorite tip came from both Srinivas Rao and Betsy Talbot. Here’s what Betsy said about it:

Srinivas and I have the same method – I keep a small notebook with me all the time and write my blog post ideas in it. These come from everyday life, and you have to have something handy to write on or the idea will fade away before you get back to your computer.

We’ve become pretty transparent on our blog, so my mind has become trained to think of everything in terms of how I would share that thought/feeling/experience with others. It makes it much easier to come up with blog post ideas.

One last point is that writing those blog post ideas down must activate a subconscious writer’s gene, because by the time I sit down to write the post (sometimes weeks later) I find most of the content has already formed in my mind and it is fairly easy to write.

I agree, the list of post ideas is a great way to make blogging easier and speed up the writing process. Thanks for the awesome tip, Srini and Betsy.

Self Expression and Your Voice

Thanks for playing along in these “ask the readers” segments. I love getting your perspectives on important topics. Now it’s your turn again.

How much of your self do you have to reveal to succeed? How much of that self are you currently revealing? What’s keeping you from expressing yourself like you want to?

photo by alexdecarvalho

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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John July 20, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this lately. I’m in the process of starting a blog that is very seperate from my “work” life, even contrarian to work in general. I’m in a somewhat visible job in the consulting industry. I’m stuck on two points:
1. I’m nervous that people who know me from the consulting world will get the wrong idea. I love my job, but I’m working my way toward generating my income passively from other sources. I risk losing projects if clients don’t think I’m invested in the work. Then again, if I’m not authentic on my blog, what good am I to readers?
2. I’m considering being totally honest…except about my name. I don’t like the idea of being anonymous and impersonal, but it’s still on the table.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what others have to say about your post.

By the way, your post on FP was inspiring, especially the comments.

Shuchi July 21, 2010 at 1:43 am

Hi Corbett

I’ve recently discovered your site and think it is fantastic.

I write a blog about cryptic crosswords. I don’t reveal much about myself outside of the domain of crosswords, but perhaps a long-time reader will know a few things of my personality even if I don’t say them out loud. How we frame our sentences, what we recommend, how we respond to comments or deal with conflict tell a lot about who we are. People are transparent creatures!

There isn’t a “right” answer, is there? Among the blogs that appeal to me, some are intensely personal others not at all. As long as I get something of value from the blog, it is good either way.

Eric Pratum July 21, 2010 at 4:42 am

Funny thing…I posted essentially the same question yesterday on EricPratum.com. Of course, the answer completely depends on what your goals are, what the value of your product is, and more, but it is without a doubt a question that must be answered.

You can’t just wear your opinions and beliefs on your sleeve and then wonder why you don’t have a bigger audience. Nor can you keep that all bottled up and wonder why you might have a large audience, but very few devotees.

Ask yourself this question early and often, and reevaluate your position when you see people’s responses to you either letting something slip or holding more back than usual.

Corbett Barr July 21, 2010 at 10:05 am

Hey Eric, sorry I wasn’t poaching your question, I promise! Great minds just think alike ;)

Marios July 21, 2010 at 5:11 am

Great question, especially if you 16-17 years old writhing about making money online and business who will listen to you, maybe its good not to reveal yourself too much, or even at all. I believe this is personal choice and how comfortable you feel about yourself at any given time.

Marios

Srinivas Rao July 21, 2010 at 5:55 am

Corbett,

Thanks for the shoutout. I didn’t even know I was included in this post before I read it, but I still have some stuff to add to it :) . I always say “if you are afraid to push publish, then it’s likely you’ve just written you first masterpiece.” Personally, your post that you wrote on Freepursuits recently was one of my personal favorites because we got to know you. The fact is we are all human beings, we are all flawed, and that’s what makes us interesting. My post I wrote about all my failures really resonated with people and I realized in that moment that letting people know who I was and what I’ve been through in my life was going to be the key to really taking things to the next level. That’s my two cents :) .

Evan July 21, 2010 at 6:01 am

I’m so glad to see other people are thinking about this issue. I really want to start a blog but my wife doesn’t like the idea of everyone knowing all our personal details (i’m fine with talking about pretty much anything about me). She suggested using a pen name. Do bloggers do this? It makes me uncomfortable since the whole point of a blog is to have people trust your voice, and a pen-name seems to be starting off on the wrong foot.
What’s your opinion on a pen name (with or without full disclosure?).

Corbett Barr July 21, 2010 at 10:08 am

Hey Evan, pen names are perfectly acceptable in my book. They’ve been used by authors for centuries. A couple of my favorite bloggers use them (James at Men with Pens and Johnny B. Truant). Neither of them started out by disclosing they were using a pen name, but later revealed it (in one case was “outed”). A pen name can give you the freedom to write as boldly as you want to without the burden of feeling like all your personal details are out there.

Niall Doherty July 21, 2010 at 6:28 am

“How much of your self do you have to reveal to succeed?” Great question. I’d say, as much as you’re comfortable with, and then some. I’m holding back right now because of my day job; not that I’m worried I’d get fired for writing some things, but my employer has been good to me and I don’t want to be the cause of any potential embarrassment for them in my last few months on the job.

But when I quit at the end of the year and go out on my own, I’ll be writing more about taboo subjects, testing the limits. People respond to personal stories and strong opinions. They might not always agree with you, but I believe they at least come to respect the fact that you’re expressing your true self, for better or worse. Very few people do that.

Rob July 21, 2010 at 6:34 am

I think it’s almost a necessity to be authentic with people, exactly how transparent is tricky though, isn’t it? When you reveal something, like failures, or that maybe that you like to moon people from moving cars, you’re creating a view point. Our initial impressions of people are always the most important, especially when they can leave in a “click”…what if that post on Free Pursuits was post number one?

With that said, I’ve experienced people really connect when you let them see a more of your regrets, vulnerabilities or crazy side. I’d like to shine my personality through more, what’s holding me back? The feeling that I have no basepoint, that people will use that intimate expression as their first impression and leave, and it’s just scary to reveal things people can use to judge you like you play Nintendo DS, love watching Sci Fi shows on Hulu, and am slightly addicted to diet soda…because I’m not any of those!

I think after some volume of interaction, and establishing some sort of familiarity, you can and should venture out to tell your audience some “real” stuff about you. An on earnest post here and there, infusions into your regular posts. When exactly…I don’t know…I think “every so often” works. Probably more often than you are now…really interested to see what else people think.

Betsy Talbot July 21, 2010 at 7:40 am

I think people want to know that you are real. It’s not like we’re at a party and people can see that you are the guy in the blue shirt doing the worm, and I’m the woman in the orange jacket with the big laugh. We’re online, and people are only reading the words we choose to write. In order for them to differentiate us from the tons of people out here on the interwebs, we have to let them in to our lives a little bit, even when it has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

It might be easier for you to do it at Free Pursuits than here since the blog is about lifestyle design, and it is the same for me at Married with Luggage.

In my previous business blogs I didn’t let nearly as many of my personal details come through, but in hindsight I wish I had. Look at Chris Brogan or Danielle LaPorte. I really want to hang out with them in real life because of the bits of personality they let through in their writing. Or Roger Ebert. Man, that guy really knows how to connect.

Oh yeah, and you Corbett Barr. I have a feeling you were the inspiration behind The Hangover, and one day I’ll prove it. (Calling Mike Tyson now…)

Corbett Barr July 22, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Haha Betsy, there’s no way I could hang with those guys. I draw partying the line at losing teeth or getting tigers involved.

Dave Doolin July 21, 2010 at 8:21 am

Hrm.

Looks like Westfield Mall on a typical San Fran Sunday afternoon.

Except for the dude in the suit. That makes no sense. So it might be NYC.

Since you asked, sure, reveal lots. But not all, and not all at once. Save something, peel back the onion one layer at a time.

On the other hand, who *I* really am takes a real dim view of people telling *me* what to do.

So I’m liable to reply to exhortations about “You have to reveal yourself!!!” with TMF. Which is an expression of what I like to call “extreme authenticity.”

Stewart Gandolf July 21, 2010 at 9:18 am

This topic has always intrigued me. Early in my career when I had my first meetings I always tried to act super “professional,” which turned out to be more like a robot. I eventually learned that face to face, people buy people, not robots.

It turns out writing works the same way.

My firm publishes an instructional marketing newsletter, but I really love my blog (GandolfsMarketingMagic.com) because I can let more of my unique voice shine through on the latter. Still, both my groups of readers feel like they know me.

However, I don’t get too personal about issues like my family. While I am sure most of our 10,000 readers are nice, upright people, statistically there are people in there who are not. That’s why I don’t accept Facebook friend requests from people I don’t know. I don’t want strangers seeing photos of my vacation with my kids, for example. I have plenty of other outlets for business stuff.

To summarize, my recommendation is to write with a voice that lets your personality shine through, but that doesn’t mean you have to share things that you wouldn’t want thousands of people to know.

Naked Girl in a Dress July 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

I understand what you are talking about in this post. It is important to not cross the line and regret it later.

My blog’s tagline is “Rediscovering Life at 40 (something).” The impetus for finding myself and writing about it is my separation and upcoming divorce. How do I bare my soul and protect privacy at the same time? I have had a lot of comments that I have done a good job sharing enough to draw people in, but not too much to compromise myself. I hope to keep the focus on discovery, share a bit of who I am, but not at the sake of my privacy or anyone else’s.

It is hard to step out though; I still don’t list my last name in my About page and have yet to add a photo. I am just not ready yet.

Mike Ziarko musing July 21, 2010 at 10:12 am

I used to be really shy about revealing anything about myself online. I think its the anonymous nature of the internet which is what made the internet so spammy. People hide behind their computers. Seth Godin said an incredible idea would be to develop a whole new internet where everyone was forced to give their real name and email. It would result in a whole new level of authenticity.

I often struggled with separating business and personal life. Then I realized my business was my personal life. If I wanted clients, blog readers or subscribers, there’s no sense in identifying with a particular company name because people buy from people, not from companies. Referrals work based on people, not products. As soon as I started thinking about it as Mike Inc. it opened up a world that I didn’t imagine existed.

I always tell people, do as much or as little as you’re comfortable with. Start out with a blog, open up your facebook profile, put up your picture here and there. As soon as I started using my REAL name on forums – low and behold I started getting more clients and visitors to my blog. Why? People like authenticity. They will not trust a pseudonym. Leave those for the guys who have something to hide.

I try to reveal as much about myself as I can without going TOO personal on my blog, the reason being is that it strays from the point of the blog. Which is why I’m thinking of separating my personal blog and creating a niche blog.

James Chartrand - Men with Pens July 21, 2010 at 5:10 pm

How much of yourself you should reveal depends on your personal comfort zone.

In my case, I want a separation between my online fame and my offline, personal life. My kids live normal lives as equals to their peers, not the children of some celebrity who made top news and who owns a famous site. I don’t share personal details with strangers, and I don’t expect them to share their details with me. I feel no obligation to give out more than I’m given, or to compromise my life and beliefs for strangers.

Do I reveal my full personality regardless? You betcha. People know exactly who I am. They don’t know what my dog looks like or my kid’s name, but they know plenty about me and everyone feels they know me well.

I personally don’t enjoy reading material from bloggers who bare souls or who share too much info. Personal boundaries are important – why are we all so focused on ripping our shirts off and exposing intimate details like they weren’t intimate? Where are the limits? What do we get from exposing this?

You mention we want to connect with others. Sure! I agree! But when I go out for a night to the local bar to watch a show, I don’t tell the guy next to me about what I ate for breakfast, my financial situation, the four diseases and 12 mental issues I might have and whether my mother wears pink or green underwear, you know?

Why is this acceptable online?

We live with clear boundaries offline in the “real” world. We need to remember that we owe online people no more than that, and that THIS IS OKAY and doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us reserved, careful, and more genuine – because when we DO choose to share, doesn’t it make it that much more impactful and important to listen to?

At least… that’s the way I see it :)

King J July 22, 2010 at 8:06 am

It is a definite necessity to give the readers a piece of you….ultimately they are buying in to your knowledge and wisdom so they have to know who is advising them. Reveal what is relevant. as a blogger you are the most relevant subject on your blog. Peace.

Jason Rukus July 22, 2010 at 8:33 am

This really comes down to a matter of personal preference and knowing your audience. The very nature of social media is to be social and people expect you to share a little of who you are in order to build trust with you. How in depth your exposure should be really comes down to what your comfortable with, because that in itself is an honesty that gets passed down to your audience. With that said it should be noted that too much information (TMI for you younger folks) can dilute your business message and undermine your goals for the medium. So I think the two defining statements that can be made on the subject are “Know your audience” and “Engage in a way most in line with your goals and comfort level”.

Andrew July 22, 2010 at 8:04 pm

I think people enjoy the feeling of connecting to a group rather than an individual and blogs are an outlet for like minded people. It took me a while to express my true personality and identity in my blog. I speak as if there is a staff behind the posts to give the feel of there being a collective voice rather than my own. I want readers to see themselves in my writings and not connect it with “Andrew” speaking to them. Deep personal posts are great reads and very engaging but I feel too many of them can turn off readers, especially if they know the blogger’s true identity.

Asatar Bair | University of the Heart July 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I had this post brewing for a while, but as it so happened, I was inspired to post it after reading this article, and especially the linked piece of Free Pursuits. In it I tell my story, which gets pretty personal. Enough so that I had to check with my wife before I posted it… I think the key is, does what you reveal have some value to your readers? It’s tough to tell with your own story. Particularly if it’s emotional (isn’t it always?)

Adam August 21, 2010 at 9:17 am

Hi Corbett

I have a self named blog up and running currently, which I think is more about branding than attracting search engine traffic.

I terms of personal brand, what’s your opinion of taking things further in terms of a more universally identifiable image ( i.e. Jennifer Lopez becoming J – Lo, or Lady Gaga ) ?

Adam Beckett

Evan July 21, 2010 at 10:11 am

Thanks Corbett, that’s great to know. In your opinion is it better to start out disclosing (and risk being ‘outed’) or just decide later on if it’s appropriate to tell people?
Do readers feel somewhat betrayed when they find out this person they’ve been following and listening to hasn’t told the whole truth?

Betsy Talbot July 21, 2010 at 1:01 pm

You make a really good point with this one, Corbett. Both James Chartrand and Johnnie B. Truant have distinct personalities and are pretty full expressed in their writing.

The mistake we made when we started out (due to worrying about what Warren’s employer would think) was to mask too much of ourselves. We called ourselves Husband and Wife (only marginally better than Admin) and basically whitewashed every remotely interesting detail about ourselves. Picking a name/personality trait and going with that will give you the freedom to express yourself fully and not feel so constrained. Believe me, the constraint comes across to readers.

And if you’re outed later (or out yourself) it is only for your name being different, not your attitude, experience, and knowledge. After the initial hubbub at being outed (which was more about sex than name), James Chartrand seems to be doing just fine.

Eric Pratum July 21, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Hey, Corbett. No, not at all. No worries. Sorry if it sounded like I was saying that. I think there are definitely waves of themes that pass through online communities as a result of mass media topics, popular bloggers espousing one point or another, etc, so I’m sure that, for every 1 person we find that just happens to write about a similar topic on the same day, there are probably 5 or 10 that we never hear of.

Incidentally, I think you put the point much better than I did.

Corbett Barr July 21, 2010 at 1:25 pm

As Betsy points out below, being outed later won’t really hurt you. If anything, it will make people more curious. I think if you disclose your pen name to begin with, it would lose it’s effectiveness. The whole point of a pen name isn’t just to hide your identity, but to enable you to become a different person. One that’s bolder and more interesting than you could be in your own skin.

James Chartrand - Men with Pens July 21, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Going to go scatter my thoughts around the comment thread, but I’ll answer this one first:

In my opinion, trust is do you uphold the values and beliefs you say you uphold? Is your word good? Do you deliver on your promises, and can I trust you to do so? Yes, yes and yes, in my case.

For those people who felt that my using a pen name was a breach of trust, I found that it revealed a great deal more about their values and beliefs than it did mine – and it was a real eye opener to find out who REALLY had my back… and who didn’t.

@Betsy – There was a train wreck of hubbub during the reveal. I handled it just fine (and am doing very well, thanks) because of one simple reason:

My life, my terms. When I found out what was happening, I grabbed the biggest mic I could find, stepped up to the plate and outed myself with full responsibility for my actions. I didn’t quaver and fall apart, I didn’t beg for forgiveness, and I owned the moment with confidence.

Corbett Barr July 22, 2010 at 10:36 pm

James, thanks so much for popping by and replying. I know we were using you as an example, so it’s nice to hear it from the source. Your story might make a good book some day. I think a lot of people can relate to your desire for privacy AND to have a successful online business.

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