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In order to succeed in social media, be it as a tool to build your own personal brand or as part of a marketing strategy for your own interest or for your employer, you will need to get over yourself and deal with some very primal fears you may have that feel a lot like your fear of public speaking. In order to make the first step, you’re going to have to trust yourself as a professional, as a communicator, and maybe even as the person who was chosen by your company as the best person to represent your professional interests, whether you think so or not.

The biggest barrier I find before the first-time social media curious is performance anxiety — stage fright. I just listened to a wonderful episode of On Being with Krista Tippett that featured an interview with Brené Brown on the topic of Vulnerability. According to Brené Brown, being vulnerable is one of the bravest things one can do on our society, a society that may well honor those of us who let their freak flag fly while — at the same time — warning us not to put our neck out, to avoid possible shame and embarrassment traps. We live in a world where public speaking ranks among death and snakes as the top things that people fear more than anything.

I really need to join Toastmasters because while I probably don’t suck as I think I do when it comes to public speaking, I, Chris Abraham, have stage fright. At least for the most awkward couple minutes imaginable — until the first smile, the first laugh. Until then, I am stiff and awkward. I probably lick my lips a lot and hug the dais in white-knuckled fingers. After a spell, I loosen up, speak around whatever PowerPoint presentation I am giving, and let myself show through. The courage and bravery in even getting up there has nothing at all to do with courage or bravery, it has to do with my willingness to be exposed, vulnerable, and naked, in a way (and never really, except in those nightmares).

So, don’t worry. We’re all stiff, awkward, too formal, and a little detached when we start. I love podcasts that keep their entire archive online. Recently, Adam Curry and John C. Dvorak were talking about their 5 years of hosting No Agenda. These two men are both world-class hosts and entertainers and they were even amazed how terrible, stiff, and poorly-produced their show was 1,825 days and 468 episodes ago.

Start slow, get a feel. Go ahead and suck for a while. Do what folks tell you to do when you’re going in for an interview with someone you don’t know, for a job or whatnot: keep it light, maybe make some notes or a script in advance, maybe spend some time writing some “if, then” flow charts to help you visualize situations, maybe even run some of your tweets, blogs, and Facebook posts past someone you respect or your manager, to get a feel for how casual, open, revealing, and vulnerable is within the comfort zone of your profession or your bosses.

And don’t worry if you’re like a middle-schooler standing up against the wall at your first dance, afraid not only the adorable person across the room with whom you’d really love to dance but also how you’ll dance, how you people will judge your dancing, how your friends will tease you mercilessly whether you get shot-down for asking or even if you’re accepted and dance, how your body will react to dancing with someone for the first time, and even what you’ll say to this person that you’re suddenly touching and smelling and seeing at very close quarter. Eeek!

And while these are very real fears, one must remember that to the victor goes the spoils, the victor is brave, only the brave risk, and taking risks requires huge amounts of vulnerability — even though heroes almost never appear vulnerable, they almost always look heroic, right?

What a Catch-22. If you play it safe, you’ll never be teased, mocked, or judged by your mates; however, any risk-taking behavior at all — all of it — will surely result in receiving attention, getting teasing, being spoken of, gossiped about, and possibly being criticized, judge, and even rejected. Sucks, right?

Well, not really. However much we hate it, being teased, mocked, judged, criticized, receiving attention, being spoken of, gossiped about, rejected — and accepted, adored, lionized, embraced, and admired, too. Strangely, being teased can mean being accepted; being lionized results in gossip and conjecture. And all of it results in being spoken op, being kept in the mind.

Remember, like all things business, especially when it comes to manager-oversight, it’s better to err on the side of being overly-professional and professionally detached (insouciance, our word-of-the-day) than having your nascent social media campaign shut down. That said, you need to boil this in a pan of cold water both from the perspective of your own comfort and finding your own voice and the level of vulnerability that both works for you and resonates the most with your friends and followers — your community — as well as is acceptable and within the bounds of your company’s expectations — and even those loosen and change over time as management sees your successes and trusts the medium more and more, over time.

As P.T. Barnum used to say, “I don’t care what they say about me, just make sure they spell my name right.”

While I am not encouraging you to bait folks into taking up pitch forks and torches against you, this is surely one way to do it; another more constructive and productive way is allowing yourself to care less about what other people think and move forward with the bravery and courage from allowing your own personal passion, character, personality, humor, insecurities, fears, hopes, dreams, and emotions to filter through a drip at a time, over time (there really is no reason to dump buckets of emotion on people’s heads unless you’re running an Emo resource site or that’s your shtick.)

In the end, as you become more and more comfortable in your role, you will feel less and less threatened of school dances, so to speak, and your ability to dance, if you will. And that’s awesome. But before I release you into the wild, I need to remind you:

CAVEAT: After you will have been doing social media engagement and marketing for a while, after you will have become as comfortable and safe in your community as a bug in a rug, you must remain professional, vigilant, and respectful! Being close and intimate with a community means always being vulnerable — not just you but your community of friends, circles, and followers. It is essential that no matter how relaxed you are in your role as social media brand ambassador for yourself or your company, you must always show the utmost respect, deference, and love for your members. You must always be professional at all time and never brandish a weapon either defensively or offensively. I used to say to my blogger engagement team “hugs not horns” which is OK but nothing as good as the sage words of Howard Rheingold, the Godfather of virtual online community, “assume good intent.”

So, go into the world and be fruitful — and just do your best, be consistent, be yourself, and remember that you’re going to look back at your early work and hate it — but that’s OK because we’re all like that. Just start it now and keep on working towards connecting with those around you (reminder: they’re all flesh and blood people with hopes and dreams and insecurities themselves, just like you) and keep on working on allowing them to know you and your company better and better, more and more.

And if you’re trying your best, that’s really all you or anyone can hope for; however, if you really hate it well past initial jitters, you need to pass it on to someone who loves it already — or is willing to work past the heebie jeebies to where they can learn to love it. If you’ll hate it, you’ll end up sabotaging it and that will surely result in something terrible happened, both to your own reputation and the reputation of your overlords.

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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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