Let’s say that you get an inquiry from a high-end client.
Who wants to set up a photoshoot in the venue of your dreams.
Woo-hoo! You schedule an appointment for an in-person consult. After over-ironing your favorite shirt and printing out your info sheets a few times (just in case), you head in for the big event.
And oh boy – it’s the consult of your life. You answer questions without hesitations, you highlight your strengths, you demonstrate your flawless attention to detail and have a beautiful philosophical moment expounding upon the importance of photography. You even crack a few jokes and the client laughs on cue. After you’re done you shake hands and get up from the table and – it happens.
Your chair rams into the table and you slosh your cup of raspberry tea all over your freshly-ironed shirt, which ricochets off your info sheets and dribbles down onto your shoes.
Gah! Blergh!! Nooooo!!!
You suddenly go from chic-photographer-to-be to a flurry of napkin-wielding apologies.
And you might think that’s the end of your great impression.
Actually, this kind of “mistake” probably INCREASES the chance that you’ll get the job.
Let’s back up. In the 1960s, a psychologist named Aronson asked a group of students to rate the likeability of a “contestant” who answered a series of quiz questions.
In one condition, the contestant answered the questions outstandingly well. In a second condition, Aronson used an identical recording of the outstanding answers, but added sound at the end to indicate that the contestant had accidentally sloshed their coffee all over at the end. (Just like you with your raspberry tea.)
The students rated the coffee-slosher as much more likeable.
This boost in social opinion is known as the Pratfall Effect:
When someone is perceived as cool or good at what they do, a blunder actually makes them more likeable.
This makes some sense. We like people we can relate to. We’re not perfect, so seemingly-perfect folks can get annoying. In fact, when we watch perfect people, we’d kinda rather see them mess up a little, so we know they’re actually not so different from us. (Exhibit A: The entire celeb-watching industry).
A fascinating example of this is President Kennedy. Guess when he was rated as most popular? It wasn’t after he navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis (you know, averting global nuclear war and all), but rather – when he admitted to screwing up the Bay of Pigs invasion.
One Welsh study confirmed this on a scale closer to home – they found that if someone is already doing well in an interview process, then admitting to past mistakes boosts opinions of them far more than if they covered up past mistakes.
Apparently, when we see someone we admire show a flash of human-ness and vulnerability, it makes them even more admirable.
Now, let’s be clear:
No one is suggesting that the way to get people to like and hire you is by bumbling around and messing up all the time.
If you look carefully, you’ll see that the Pratfall Effect has two key components: If someone is already seen as competent/great/awesome, then the blunder makes them likeable. You’ve got to have it together most of the time. If a person is seen as largely incompetent, then the blunder just confirms those assumptions of incompetency.
But showing a little human-ness every now and again is one of the best things you can do for business.
I bring this up because in our industry there’s a strange confluence of pressures. Our work is praised when it seems “real” and “genuine” and yet we’re supposed to be absolutely professional and keep everything sparkling Oxi-Clean at all times. We are the faces of our brands, and we should connect with people on a deep and personal level, but yet keep that business-appropriate distance from our clients.
It’s a tough line to walk. And in my non-scientific observation, a large number of photographers seem to err on the safe side of being overly-professional.
Because we do need to be absolutely professional. We’re preserving memories or showcasing businesses or capturing once-in-a-lifetime events. These are not trivial undertakings, and they require the absolute trust of our clients. They deserve to hire professionals who know how to do their jobs, have technical skills, back things up in triplicate, show up on time, etc.
But. Always portraying yourself as 110% professional may not make you as likeable, relateable, or even as trustworthy as you might think.
In fact, in the corporate world, one examination of employee blogs revealed that when posts were always positive and “our-company-rocks” in nature, the blog seemed less credible. In contrast, by allowing a limited number of posts (the study suggested 15-20%) that challenged the company or invited controversial discussion, the blogs increased readership, engagement, and appearance of credibility.
You’re probably not a faceless corporation, so you’ve got an easier task connecting with people. But showing a little vulnerability now and then can boost your business and blog, too.
The blog Sophistimom gives us an interesting example. This food and lifestyle blogger, whose self-proclaimed goal to raise “well-read, well-bred, well-fed” children, could easily come off as unrelatable or distant to some readers. After all, if you’re in the throes of raising small children, you might not always have the time or energy to teach your kids the proper way to break in a hardcover bookbinding or serve roasted shrimp with thai fusion succotash for dinner. (Just a guess.)
Yet when I discovered her blog, I felt bowled over and instantly connected when I read posts about how reading beloved books helped her get through her divorce, or about challenges in patience with picky eaters, or how even on her picture-perfect winter picnic she still had to round up the kids with a: “Mommy needs pictures of you—no don’t make that face.”
I wonder if she has ever hesitated to share these aspects of her life. Whether the line “I’m supposed to be Sophistimom” runs through her mind. Whether she worries about whether readers will judge her for pursuing this ‘perfect,’ sophisticated lifestyle while also going through challenging family situations. If she has, I’m glad she hasn’t caved to the pressure, because I think it is precisely those moments that set the tone of her blog.
Rather than coming off as setting an impossible standard of prim and proper family life, it seems to say “look, life isn’t perfect – I know firsthand – but you can still pursue things like good manners and awesome cooking if they are fun and important to you.”
The book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (one of my latest favorites) observed:
“A flawed protagonist is more compelling than a perfect protagonist.
“Inexperienced filmmakers may fail to imbue a protagonist with undesirable traits because they want him or her to appear likable and their cause noble. But a perfect, completely capable hero leads an audience to relax its attention: If he can handle anything, why worry?
“Audiences are usually fascinated by contradictions and shortcomings in a film’s characters. The idiosyncrasies and failings we all have are even more compelling in a character that is otherwise heroic.”
You are the protagonist in your business.
Your idiosyncracies – and yes, even a few failings – make you compelling.
Quick – think of a few well-known photographers, the ones whose blogs typically get heavy traffic and loads of comments.
I’ll bet many if not most of them have a healthy dose of their human side. Sometimes they might bring up serious issues, like Tara Whitney writing about the real-life personal challenges of raising a special-needs child, or Jamie Delaine sharing her past struggles with eating and perfectionism.
Other examples are more light-hearted, like Jasmine Star’s self-effacing quest to conquer meatloaf or Joe McNally joking about “blinking in bovine amazement” at the comparative web-savviness of colleagues (still one of my favorite blog lines – ever).
Part of what makes some popular photographers popular is their ability to have it together without eliminating all traces of real life.
Of course, be judicious.
“Human” doesn’t mean “unprofessional,” and some things are indeed unprofessional. There’s a difference between sharing to connect and unfiltered sharing. Whining about clients, bad-mouthing colleagues, and most forms of unedited ranting are not going to bring you closer to your audience.
But if you photograph small children, a mention of your own towering laundry pile and sticky-fingered little ones might help ease the fears of moms who hesitate to book you because their family isn’t “picture perfect” like the ones they think they see on your blog.
If you work with brides, telling a funny story about forgetting your husband’s ring on your wedding day (*cough*…I might have actually done that…) may take the pressure off and show how this beautiful, personal day can still be so even if lines are flubbed or a few details passed by.
“Real” or “vulnerable” stories don’t always have to be sad or heavy.
They can also be tiny and everyday-silly.
I had a photoshoot once with a client who had told me she didn’t feel “cool enough” to have a photoshoot. When I got home from our session, I saw in a mirror that I had a twig sticking out of my hair, probably from chasing the kids through the forest. I sent her a quick note to jokingly ask why she hadn’t told me about my “antler.” She cracked up. Some pressure seemed to melt away.
She loved her photos, and we’re still friends.
What you feel comfortable sharing is for you to decide.
We all have different personalities, different business goals, and different target clients. We have to figure out for ourselves what feels okay and what meshes with our business. (For more details and suggestions, I recommend reading this post: How Do You Write Personal Blog Posts When You’re A Private Person?)
One guideline I use personally is an idea I stole from a caterer I met once:
She told me when she serves foods like brie or cheesecakes, she’ll take a knife and make a small cut into it right when it goes on the table. “If it looks all beautiful and perfect, people will be afraid to eat it.”
The point is not to serve something that’s half-baked – the point is to make it approachable.
She doesn’t smash the cheesecake, or apologize for it, or say “nah, it didn’t turn out as good as I’d hoped.” She just makes one slice into it, so people know it’s okay to dig in and enjoy. And that’s the way I think about the Pratfall Effect – I’m not airing all my secret thoughts and shortcomings – I’m showing just a bit of imperfection so I stay relatable and approachable.
Whether you’re talking about past family difficulties or joking about a twig in your hair, you have to be the judge of your audience and your goals. But if you’ve ever wondered how to attract more interest and engagement in what you do, it may not be by polishing up and scrubbing clean every post you put out there.
It may be by taking a deep breath and showing something of who you really are – even if it feels imperfect.