Tuesday, December 18, 2012

0 Looking Back to Look Forward: A Really Honest Post, Part 2


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This is a continuation of the previous post about much things have changed over the years with regard to those of us who first started blogging about running way back when (i.e., around 2007 or so):

To give you an idea of how much things had changed from the start, I'll use my blog as an example: At one point, my readership ballooned to over 550 readers. Several people wrote positive reviews of it, graced it with a plethora of awards (it made several "best blog" and "top blog" lists, ranking as high as #5 on some lists), and then the PR companies came calling. Would I be interested in interviewing elite athletes? Would I review or promote their products, etc., etc.? I said no to the product promotion offers (I was adamant about maintaining an independent voice) and turned down almost all of the product review offers save one, but did say yes to interviewing two elite athletes. The latter was truly what I was interested in doing; I wanted to speak with these amazing athletes to find out what they were truly like and discover what made them tick.

As for the product review requests, the fact of the matter was I was so busy that I just didn't have the time to take them on, and in some cases, simply lacked the interest. In truth, I don't exactly love writing product reviews, and especially not at the behest of others. I prefer to do what I want and review products freely, without incentives or prompting. And, if I do accept a request to review a product, companies need to know that no amount of incentives (i.e., read "swag") is going to sway me. For me, it comes down to preserving the integrity of this blog and my own personal integrity as well. I will not be bought or sold. People who say that everyone has a price apparently haven't yet met the likes of me. :)

And then there were the interviews with Meb Keflezighi and Dean Karnazes: although I had almost no experience interviewing people, save a brief interview with Blaine Moore and an interview I'd conducted back in college, I didn't really think about that factor much at the time I'd said "yes." :) I was so over the moon to be granted such extraordinary opportunities that I focused upon other aspects: I did my best to learn everything I could about these athletes and prepare questions that would yield insightful answers. During the interviews, I tried very hard to calm my nerves and simply focus upon the experience and let our interactions unfold as naturally as possible. However, the truth is that, due to my inexperience and nervousness, my alto speaking voice felt like it'd been raised by about two octaves and then sped up to hyperwarp speed; and I just couldn't seem to get control of some verbal tics I never even knew that I had. ;) I tried my best to be myself and do what I do best -- inject humor and levity into situations, even ones in which I felt highly uncomfortable. You see, humor makes people relax and not be so self-conscious. It takes the edge off for both the interviewer and the interviewee. Some people use alcohol as a social lubricant; I use humor. :)

My first interview with Meb wasn't so bad. In fact, it actually went pretty well, all things considered. Sure, I was nervous and the interview was far from perfect, but I could live with the results. Overall, it was a very pleasant experience: Meb was very friendly, liked to laugh, and we had a good rapport. And that was also reflected in the positive feedback others had given me with regard to the interview.

My second interview with Dean Karnazes went a bit differently, mostly due to the fact that, for some reason, I was even more nervous than when I did my previous interview with Meb. Please understand, this had nothing to do with Dean himself: Dean was friendly and had a good sense of humor. He clearly had a lot of experience in front of the camera and was very used to being interviewed. And of course, it was great to get the chance to speak with him. You'd think I would've relaxed more this time, especially given that I'd already gotten one interview with an elite athlete under my belt. However, that wasn't the case at all, and here's why: I was unexpectedly thrown by the video format of the interview itself. You see, I made the mistake of assuming that it would be similar to the previous interview I'd done with Meb, i.e., a two-way video feed showing both of our faces. In fact, before the interview began, I'd inquired about the mode of video telecommunication, but didn't think to ask if the video feed would be one-way or two. However, during the technical setup process, only seconds before the camera began to roll, I saw from the live feed that his face and the face of the Motorola rep would be the only ones that people would see. Viewers would only hear my voice, and that was all they'd have to go by. So all that time I'd spent trying to memorize the questions I'd so carefully prepared -- in order to maintain eye contact on camera instead of looking down too often at my printed notes -- had been for naught. Looking back on it, that time probably would've been better spent taking deep breaths and thinking more about my approach. ;)

I tried to regain composure before the recording began, but to me, it felt like my on-air voice had somehow become tinny, unnatural, and completely foreign to me, like someone had stolen my voice and replaced it with someone else's. What was going on?! Where was my usual spark?! What the heck had happened?!

Also, just the fact that it wouldn't be a two-way feed made the interview feel different, and in truth, a bit more awkward, like there was more of a sense of distance and inequality about it. In contrast, the Meb interview had felt cozy, like two people just having a casual conversation. Sure, Meb peppered our conversation with a few mentions of his sponsor (i.e., Subway) -- that was to be expected -- but the format still felt comfortable to me. For Dean's interview, I understood that the format would be more "corporate," because I knew that both the Motorola rep and Dean would be present, but what I didn't expect was the stark differences created by the video format itself.

Then I saw the footage, which only confirmed my fears: I cringed once while watching it, and then after it'd finished, cringed a second time upon realizing that I would have to post it on YouTube. ;) In fact, not long after I'd posted it, some really nasty person wrote, "Shut UP!" in the comments, and so I'd deleted the comment and then turned off the commenting for video posts after that. It didn't help that I was already feeling rather raw and a bit unsteady about the interview itself, and this person's attempt to make me feel even worse about the video only compounded how I'd already felt about my own "vocal performance" in the video myself. ;)

However, when people try to tear you down, you can do one of two things: you can either stew in it and lose confidence in your abilities or get over it and try to improve your skill set. I chose the latter option. As someone once said, "You pinch yourself, get a grip on reality, and then move on." Really, these sorts of situations test you to see how strong you really are on the inside. Are you going to buckle or are you going to get up and show how strong you really are? As runners, we all know something about that. We know a lot about developing mental toughness and perseverance, whatever obstacles might come our way.

Of course, I'm not going to pretend that that unhelpful comment didn't initially sting -- after all, I'm not a robot -- but I told myself that this person didn't know the real me or what I was capable of doing, nor did they have my best interests at heart. That person's sole intent was clearly to inflict hurt, and really, in the final analysis, their remarks had nothing to do with me. It was really all about that unhappy person and their desire to take their frustrations out on others, no doubt due to the lack of positive feelings they'd internalized about themselves. As my mother always says, "Consider the source." And so I did. :) Thankfully, there were others who could see past the cracks and squeaks in my voice to the content of the interview itself; a few people had told me that they'd learned something and one person added that I'd asked some insightful questions as well. So, I licked my wounds and felt grateful for their support. :) (Commenters need to remember that there are always people behind social media content. Your words have great power to hurt or to heal, so be conscious of your intent and use them wisely.)

Also, there was something else about the Motorola interview footage that didn't sit right with me: The initial portion in which I'd briefly introduced myself had been almost entirely cut out, including my mention of my then recent contribution to one of Brett Stewart's 7 Weeks to Fitness books. I understood why they did it -- maybe they'd edited for time or because they wanted to keep the focus on their product -- but frankly, it was such a small segment of the footage and didn't really take away from the interview that they could've just left it in. A lot of times, vehicles like this are understood to be cross-promotional to some extent. Sure, the big corporation gets most of the airtime for their product, but it's often understood that, as a courtesy, you will be allowed to briefly mention your own endeavors. That particular editing decision also quite literally made the interview feel like a one-way feed in more ways than one. ;) At any rate, it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

I get that, from their point of view, the thrust of the interview was primarily to promote a Motorola product, and my interview with Dean was just the icing on the cake. However, when companies deal with bloggers and other figures in the social media sphere, the (unwritten) etiquette isn't the same as a face-to-face interview or standard business interaction. You don't excise our identities in order to press your agenda via our blogs; you make them part of the narrative.

The internet has become The Great Equalizer, and it's profoundly changed the way that businesses interact with their social media "constituents." And the hoi polloi is largely responsible for that paradigm shift. We, the People, have become the great democratizing force behind the internet, and businesses are now expected to not only be transparent and well-versed in the social media culture but also real and approachable in their interactions. Also, as part of the social media culture, we know that, as "constituents," our voices carry power because we can project them across the internet; they are no longer limited to just our own small corners of the world. The smart companies know how to listen to the meaning behind our words; they understand that they need to pay attention to us, and that now, as a collective force, we, as social media constituents, have more power than ever to make or break their business. So, if you want your business to not just survive but thrive, you'll need to learn how to navigate the waters of social media and how to treat its constituents with the proper respect and consideration: acknowledge our presence, talk to us as equals, respect our intelligence, own up to problems versus trying to brush them under the carpet, and when you fall short of the mark, do your best to make amends. This is what we expect from you. We also expected it before the existence of social media, but apparently now that we're all online and can now be heard across the internet, some of you are finally starting to take us more seriously. ;) Smart businesses are the ones who are continually paying attention, learning, and adapting to their environment, and that now includes the social media environment as well.

I realize that many companies are still learning how to interact in social media; some are still trying to gain what could best be described as "social media cultural literacy," while others seem to have gotten the basics down but are still trying to figure out how to finesse the finer points. My intent in mentioning the above isn't to shame or embarrass any particular company, but rather to share my perspective and insights to help them learn from the experience. I know I sure did. If this post helps just one business see things from a social media constituent's perspective, then that'll be satisfaction enough.

For the record, I think it's important that you know that I'd previously been advised not to reveal a lot of the above, as if revealing my true feelings about the above experiences would somehow make me "less than" in the eyes of others. However, I wholeheartedly disagree. First of all, honesty requires courage, and there's a certain release and freedom that comes with it. Furthermore, integrity comes from an internal place and not from focusing upon what others think. I think that honesty actually enhances one's image in the minds of those who matter most to you rather than detracting from it. Note that I said "those who matter most to you," and not "the entire world." :) I'm talking about those people whom you respect and trust. And if others should judge you or change their opinions of you after you share honestly and openly with them, then those people were never really meant to be your true friends or supporters in the first place. Deep down inside, I think that people with character, wisdom, and grounding in their own identity know that, from a larger, long-term perspective, image is truly not as important as substance, even if image does matter in the short-term to many in our often image-obsessed society. And second, the other lesson is that it's OK to share your struggles and failures; we can all learn from each other by communing with each other on this very real and human level.

(Since I'm not done sharing my observations about social media and the running community, those thoughts will be continued in the form of yet another blog post. So, to be continued.... Yes, again. :) )

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