How to write about mistakes without sounding like a phony
Jan. 27, 2016
Owning that you made a mistake and that you’ve learned something from it is top-notch personal growth. But doing all of that and then writing about it for your business is about paying it forward, both to your biz and to the audience you’re building.
It’s tempting to kick some dirt on top of that “oops” moment or monumental crisis and pretend it never happened. I know, I’ve been there and tried that. The thing of it is, mistakes haunt you. Learning how to write about mistakes, and not just in a confessional way, gives you the courage to own it. After all, everybody already knows you bit it, so what to do you have to lose?
Being able to say, “This is where I was, this was my bottom, and this is where I am now and this is how I got here,” is empowering. It’s not navel-grazing. Navel-grazing is saying, “Oh man, here I am at my bottom and it sucks and this is why it sucks so hard.”
Owning a mistake you’ve made and growing into a better place is how you transform from a person who needs advice (which we all are, always) into a person who is qualified to give advice (and we all want to be that kind of person, right?). You don’t get to be Dear Sugar by living perfectly. You don’t get to be king of the hill without a fight. And you don’t get to take your business from monster debt to earning thousands by crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.
Today, I want to talk about how to write about mistakes. But first, I want you to read the blog post that got me off my butt and writing about this topic way earlier than I’d planned. Head over to Wonderlass and read Allison’s retrospect on plagiarism. I keep this one bookmarked, guys, it’s that good. Go on and read it. I’ll be here waiting for you when you get back.
As I write this, Allison’s post has 62 comments. It’s rare for a blog post these days to get that much engagement. These readers are interacting! NONE of the comments are the “nice post!” high fives you usually find. Readers are sharing their own experiences here. That’s what you want your blog posts to do.
And this isn’t just Allison being the cool cat that she is. This is true of many blog posts in which business owners share confessions. Let’s review the evidence:
So, why does writing about your mistakes get so much play in a comment section that, by all accounts, is on its way to extinction? This is exactly why:
What’s the best way to get a new friend to tell you his secrets? Simple: Spill one of your own. Not a stupid secret, like, “in high school, I sent my friend fake love letters every Monday afternoon to make sure she had a good week.” Not a TMI secret, like “I didn’t do the laundry last weekend so I’m wearing the rattiest undies ever.” A real secret that affects you on a deeply personal level. When you share that sort of secret, you communicate that you’re the sort of person who wants to exchange trust. You want them to listen to you, and you want to listen to them. And people like being listened to. Want to be known as the person who really “gets” your clients? Start here by sharing a piece of yourself.
The Internet can often resemble a high school cafeteria. People like to talk about other people—particularly when they can fill an information void. When you tell all there is to tell, the things these other people start saying morph from “Did you hear that Suzie was caught lying about her stats?” to “Suzie’s talking about how she misread her stats on her blog, and it’s really interesting.” You don’t want your business or your personal brand to be associated with conjecture and negative conversation. You can stop that from happening by getting the story out, completely and objectively, by yourself, before someone (like a client) asks you what the heck is going on.
We all like a good character arc; what would our favorite books be without them? I know you’re not exactly a pen-and-ink heroine, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a business character, a persona that you build through all of your Instagram pictures and Twitter updates and, yes, blog posts. Add more dimension to that character you’ve created by coloring it with mistakes. Then, deepen those shades of light and dark by telling not how you Hulk smash!-ed your way through those weaknesses, but about how you adapted your methods to work with them.
Chances are a cyborg isn’t the mastermind behind your business. But hey, we all like to be reminded that the blog we’ve subscribed to, the newsletter we read every week, and the business owner we’re thinking about working with is a human. And, just like us, that human makes mistakes. Best of all, that human knows how to take mistakes and channel them into something productive. They’re not just sitting around in a nest of pillows and used tissues moaning about how stupid they are or how mean that person was to them. They’re moving forward and being better because of it. That’s boss, baby!
Do readers want to know all of your secrets? No, no we do not. We want to know the secret that is relevant to you and your business and to the reason we’re all here, reading this thing that you’re writing. Here are the four circumstances in which you shouldn’t write about a mistake on your business blog:
You’ve settled on your faux pas. You’ve steeled your nerves and grit your teeth. Now it’s time to make your whoops moment a winner. How do you do just that? Follow these five principles to share your mistake in a way that will gain you fans, shares, and maybe even clients.
Don’t leave room for people to barge into your comments or take up the tale on social media to add bits and pieces that you left out. Because you’re sharing a mistake that you’ve learned from, chances are it happened awhile back. God knows memory isn’t what it used to be! For these sorts of posts, give yourself time to think on the topic so that you can pull together as many aspects of it as you can.
If you’re going to go there, really go there. Don’t polish it up. Don’t put lipstick on it. Conversely, don’t darken that black eye. Write every side of the story rather than focusing on just the good or just the bad. That’s how your honesty shines through.
Make your point clear, guys. Sometimes, making readers do the work is a good thing—that’s why we so often include worksheets, checklists, and exercises in our posts. That’s why this post is billed as a “how to” article! But your readers aren’t the ones who should be making connections in your blog post. That’s your job as the writer.
After all, this is the whole point! The focus of your post isn’t “Oops! I did this bad thing,” it’s, “I did this bad thing but A, B, and C came out of it.” Boom. That’s a power post that adds value to your personal story.
If you really want to make this mistake post work for your business, add some meat to the story. Don’t just say that now your email list is getting subscribes. Say that your email list is getting 300 subscribes a week and your open rate is 61 percent. Pull out your numbers and use them to back up your “I’ve really learned from this mistake!” claim.
Writing about mistakes can be a very powerful plus for your business blog, but I don’t want you to think that it’s something you have to do, right now or in the future. It’s not. Mistakes are inherently personal. They cost us something, whether it’s pride or money or friendships. Sharing them costs us something, too, and sometimes, we’re not ready to pay that price—not yet, anyway.
Making a choice not to share is absolutely OK. This is not an opportunity that will expire at the end of the week.
To write about a mistake, you need both time and distance. And those, too, are personal. Take your time. Get the distance you need. And when you have them both, revisit the “should I write about it?” question for yourself. And feel free to answer “no” if you need to.