As online business owners, we constantly hear advice about teaching what we know to our audiences. But, is it the best idea? Tara McMullin (formerly Tara Gentile) is here to talk to us about how she has changed her approach to social media in the last few years, and why teaching “what you know” isn’t always best.
Jessica: Hey, Tara. Thank you so much for joining me.
Tara McMullin: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
Jessica: Yes. To kick us off, I would love for you to share who you are and what your business is.
Tara McMullin: Sure. I am the founder and the host of What Works. What Works is all about fostering and facilitating candid conversations about what it actually takes to run and grow a small business today. Enough with the sugarcoating and enough with the magic formulas and really getting down to the brass tacks of what actually goes on in a business, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Tara McMullin: We do that really in three different ways. The first is through our podcast, which is simply called What Works. On that podcast, we bring on small business owners to give us the ins and outs of a particular area of their business. We really deep dive on what works for them on a particular area. The main way we do it is in our community called The What Works network, where we have a private platform for small business owners to come together and talk about whatever is on their mind when it comes to kind of the nitty-gritty of running a business, whether that’s mental, or logistical, or operational, or research-oriented, whatever it might be. Then, the third way is our What Works masterminds. Those are small group-facilitated conversations all about, again, the same stuff. It’s really just three different ways of helping small business owners actually think about what’s really going on under the surface of their businesses and coming up with their own plan for making it work in a way that works for them.
Jessica: I love it. I love your very fresh and real approach to business and how you’re fostering this conversation with people, which is exactly why I wanted you on the podcast.
Tara McMullin: Well, thank you.
Jessica: Let’s just dive in. How has your approach to social media changed in 2019, and what made you want to change your approach?
It really started to change even early as the middle of last year when I realized that while we had changed our entire business model to move away from business coaching and training and into this community-based model, I hadn’t changed the way I was marketing.
I was still very much marketing our products, our offers from sort of that expert space. I made the super conscious, super intentional strategic decision to say, “You know what? I have discovered that the answer to most business questions is it depends, and I’m tired of coming up with a specific answer and pretending that that’s the ‘real answer.'” That’s why we made this change to a community-based business model. But, it found that in social media or whether it was social media, or it was webinars, or it was live events, I was still kind of needing to put myself in the position of being an expert, being a guru, being a leader in the ways I didn’t want to be a leader, which is people looking up to me and the way I do things.
Tara McMullin: I realized I needed to start doing things differently. It took a long time to kind of peel back the layers on that. Because every time I thought, “Oh, okay. This is it. I’ve figured out why this isn’t working,” or, “I figured out how to show up in a way that’s not being an expert or not putting the spotlight on me but instead putting the spotlight on the people that we want to serve,” I would discover something else that was happening underneath the surface.
Tara McMullin: I feel like I really hit my stride with marketing this more community-based approach in 2018, definitely by the beginning of this year. What it really came down to was following a principle that we have in our community. In the What Works Network, we have a rule, well, a guideline, that is that we share our experiences. We don’t share advice. The reason for this is because advice tends to shut down a conversation. When you’re telling people what they should do, it’s hard to kind of continue that conversation without at least seeding that, “That is what I should do now. Can you explain that a little bit more?” That’s not the kind of conversation we want to have. We want people to ask about other business owners’ experience, whether it’s with developing a product, or marketing a service, or figuring out how to document their systems, whatever it might be. We want them to ask about other people’s experiences, and we want those people to share their personal experiences with those things, again, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and sometimes it’s very ugly.
Tara McMullin: When we do that, we kind of level the playing field. We say everyone’s experience here is valid. Everyone’s experience has something to contribute to the conversation. I realized this is exactly what I wasn’t doing in social media is I wasn’t actively sharing my experience as a business owner and largely because I had been taught and I had bought into the idea that I have to project myself as an expert, and an expert tells people what to do. They don’t say, “Oh, these are all the times I screwed up,” or, “This is a thing I realized I still have to learn,” or, “Hey, I did this thing. I don’t know if it’s going to work for you, but it worked for me. Let me tell you about it because I’m really excited about it.” That’s what I started to do.
Tara McMullin: It felt a little dangerous at first. It felt a little naughty, like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to be doing. But very quickly, I started to see results I had never seen before. I started to see … It should say that predominantly my platform for doing this has been Instagram, although I’ve also started doing it on LinkedIn as well and experiencing similar results there. But, I’ll talk about the metrics from Instagram. On Instagram, I started seeing people save posts when I’d never seen people saved posts before. Why would someone save one of my posts? Whether it was a personal post or business post, why would they save it? Well, now I got it. I understand why you want to save this. This story means something to you. There is something you’re learning in the story.
I saw people commenting at a rate I had never seen them commenting before.
I saw them sharing those posts to their stories and saying that it meant something to them, or they learned something, or they just wanted their followers to check it out. I started to realize, “If I’m sharing my experience, and not sharing my advice, and I’m doing so honestly and from a place of just wanting to kind of process out loud what I’m doing, that has a lot of value for people.” It was like, “Oh, Tara, duh. Of course it has value. That’s what your whole business is based on.”
Tara McMullin: But at the same time, it was almost a surprising realization to say like, “This doesn’t just work for the way we have the business set up. This also works for me personally, and it works from a marketing perspective because we could start to see that momentum build.” That’s how things have kind of changed. I know I went a few different places there, but I’m happy to share any more on that. But, that’s been the main gist of how things have evolved for my social media use.
Jessica: I love it. You mentioned you’ve also kind of been approaching this in webinars and other kinds of things. So I’m curious, how do you balance that with … I mean, you talked about we’ve always had this advice. Something I hear all the time and even I’ve told some of my clients is provide value on social media and in your blogs, your videos, your podcast. Be teaching and providing value to your potential clients. I know you said even sharing your experience can still be valuable, so kind of how do you balance that with I want to teach you and be valuable, but also share my experience?
Tara McMullin: I am not against teaching. I have chosen to stop teaching personally because we want to be all in and super focused on what our value proposition is, which is all about providing access to other people. But, I absolutely think that there’s a time and a place for teaching people something. I think, though, that a lot of the things we want to teach are stories that have been told over, and over, and over again. That doesn’t make them not valuable stories. They’re stories that absolutely deserve to be told over, and over, and over again. But, I think they start to lose their impact over time.
Tara McMullin: I actually just in the last few days read a really brilliant article that kind of sums up this idea. It’s by a woman named Ann Handley who is sort of … I told my husband last night. She’s the sort of the godmother of content marketing, right up there with Brian Clark from Copyblogger, just a little bit more on the B2B side of things. Ann Handley in this article talks about how, yes, there are these things that we want to teach. There are these concepts that we wanted to share with people, things that are super valuable, super important to them. They’ve heard them before, and they haven’t stuck before or they’ve just gotten tired of them. So what do we do with that? We need to tell smaller stories is what she said.
I think this tracks perfectly with this idea of sharing your experience as opposed to sharing your advice.
Because when you share your experience, when you say, “This is how I experienced this thing. This is something I struggled with,” or, “This was something I learned 20 years ago, and here’s how it served me. Here’s a snapshot of one thing that happened today that’s based on a lesson I learned 20 years ago,” that takes that story from something really big that people have heard before or a concept that feels really tired and shrinks it down to something that feels human. So much of what we’re lacking in content marketing and social media marketing, on our social media platforms in general, is that human element. We say these are social media platforms, but they’ve gotten less and less social, less and less human as time has gone on.
Tara McMullin: So when you start to share a very, very personal story … And when I say very personal, I don’t mean that you have to drag out all of your personal garbage for everyone to see. Make it something that’s true. That’s all I’m saying. Something that’s true for you, something that has details in it, something that takes a tiny snapshot of your day, what you are thinking about, something that you experienced, and you use it to tell a bigger story. That, I think, is how you maintain something that is incredibly valuable with your social media or with your content marketing, but you do it in a way that makes people pay attention so that you get those comments, so that you get people savings, so you get direct messages back to you that are like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe you just shared that. That’s exactly what’s been on my mind. Can we talk more about this?” That kind of thing. That’s what I want out of things. I think that that’s something that we can bring to any kind of media, too. We can bring it to webinars. We can bring it to podcasts. We can bring it to our blog, any kind of media platform.
Tara McMullin: The other thing that we talk about inside the What Works Network having people share their observations. It may not be adjust your experience. It may also be your observation as a professional. This is what I’ve seen work or this is what I haven’t seen work, and let me describe that to you. Again, in the details, you’re telling a story as opposed to trying to teach a big concept that people have heard before or that … Or even if they haven’t heard it before, they’re just not kind of completely grasp it. I think we need to kind of develop our storytelling skills as educators, as service providers, and as people who use these new media tools.
Jessica: Yes. I love that you … We’re focusing so much on our experience and observations because in the health and wellness industry there are so many different approaches.
Tara McMullin: Yes.
Jessica: I mean, I’ve worked with a handful of dietitians just in the last month or so. I have one who is all plant-based and vegan. I have another who’s intuitive eating. I have another one that’s low carb. So many different approaches. I mean, that’s how the health industry is as a whole. We’re always seeing on the news like, “Oh, well, this is the new diet for 2019,” and like, “No, to really lose weight, you have to stand on your head. That’s the new thing.” There’s always something different and it’s … I know people are always like, “Well, I don’t know what to follow.”
Tara McMullin: Right. It’s exactly the same thing in business support, business coaching, business training. There are so many different people out there telling you so many different ways for how to build your business online, how to [inaudible 00:13:38] your business in person. You should do online courses. No, you should have an agency. No, you should do webinars. No, you need to have a sales funnel. That’s what I got so tired of. It’s like, “Okay, all of those things can be true. Can we please stop telling people or making it like marketing ourselves on the idea that we have the one true path?” That’s ludicrous.
Tara McMullin: I think that’s what I love about the health industry. What I’ve learned from the health industry, the health and fitness industry, to apply to my own work, too, is that all of these things can be true. A vegan diet can be amazing, and so can a diet high in animal protein. Both of those things can be true. You may say, “Oh, that other way isn’t the way that I choose to do it. Here’s why,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not good and we’re not valid. I think that when we share from experience and observations, we have a much better platform for saying, “This is why I do what I do. This is why I coach my clients this way. This is why this is what I teach,” but we don’t have to say nothing else works or this is the only way.
Tara McMullin: I think that for most of us, that’s in integrity with what we actually believe. When we start going that direction of like, “Nope, this is the only thing. This is the only way. I am the light, the truth, [inaudible 00:15:06],” you know? That is out of integrity with how we actually see the world, and it starts to feel harder than it has to be and it starts to feel yucky. We’re always looking for ways to make marketing and sales feel less yucky, right?
I think one way to do that is to just be true to the reality of all these different ways to do things while still saying, “This is what works for me. This is what works for my clients. Here’s why.”
Jessica: Yes, yes, yes. I would love to hear kind of an example or two of how you have … Maybe from two years ago how you would’ve posted something on social media and how you’ve would post that now to share that experience.
Tara McMullin: Yes. That’s a great question. I love the compare and contrast. I pulled a couple of examples off of my Instagram so I was fully prepared for today. One of them, one that recently did well for me and that was a story I liked telling was about … I’ll start with how I told it today, and then I’ll tell you how I would have told it a couple of years ago. There was a day that … So often, I start my day with a workout. I put in my work day, and then I do kind of cross training or active recovery stuff in the evening. And on Thursdays, that’s climbing. I’m a big climber, big boulder. I really, really love that. I just love it. It defines me. Still new for me, but it’s such a huge part of my life.
Tara McMullin: Anyhow, my husband and I were on the way to the climbing gym. Sometimes we like to stop by Starbucks on the way to get a little bit of a pick-me-up. But generally, that pick-me-up is more mental than physical. I rarely order caffeine after 4:00 PM because I know that I wake up in the early morning hours before I want to. That day, I forgot to order a decaf or at least half caff. I’d taken the first couple sips of the latte. It tasted so good. This was shortly after we’d finished our Whole30, and so the Starbucks latte was still super novel again. I was just I was on cloud nine. Then, it hit at me. “Oh, crap. Tara, you forgot to order decaf.” I set it out loud, and he said, “Well, you know you don’t have to drink it.” I was like, “Screw that. I paid for this latte. I am drinking it.”
Tara McMullin: Then, what happens? Well, at 3:00 in the morning, I could not sleep. I was wide awake, eyes wide open, could not get back to sleep. What the whole story to me with this perfect illustration of sunk cost fallacy, the idea that because we’ve paid for something or because we put time into it that we must follow through on it or else we lose that stuff. It’s like no. You’ve lost that stuff already. That $4 that I spent on that latte was gone regardless of whether I drank it or not. But I knew that in drinking it I was going to get this other nasty side effect, and I chose that nasty side effect because I couldn’t let go of that $4 investment.
Tara McMullin: I told this story on Instagram, and I talked about sunk cost fallacy and all the ways that sunk cost fallacy can derail us as a small business owner. It got a great response. Lots of people were like, “Oh my gosh. I totally know what you mean. I also wake up in the middle of the night when I have caffeine and also I do this to myself and my business all the time, too.” So lots of connecting, lots of relating going on there.
Tara McMullin: But a couple of years ago, I might have seen someone dealing with some cost fallacy at a coaching program or something like that, or even a friend, or even maybe something in my own business where I was dealing with sunk cost, and I probably would have made a post or written a blog post that explained what sunk cost fallacy is and all the negative side effects of it, and it would have done fine. People would’ve been like, “Oh, that’s really interesting,” or, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that before,” or, “Oh, I didn’t know there was a phrase for that thing.” But, it wouldn’t have had that immediate connection that people had with me when I said, “This is the stupid thing that I did. Here is why I was up at 3:00 AM. Here’s why I had a hard time letting go of that $4.” That connection, that relating would have been missing from that blog post. That’s sort of the filter that I see everything through now.
In the past, I was really focused on the lessons that I wanted to teach people. I’m still focused on that. I still see so many opportunities to teach or to showcase other different ways of doing things.
But instead of fixating on those things, I kind of let that stuff percolate in the back of my mind. And instead, I really pay attention to the stories that are happening in my life on a daily basis because there’s always stories. I don’t live that interesting of a life-
Jessica: Same, same.
Tara McMullin: … and I still have … Right? And I still have stories that I can share on social media every single day because my life doesn’t look that different from everybody else’s. So if I share those stories, the things that make us really similar, but I put a spin on it so that at the end I’m sharing something business related or mindset related, it creates a different kind of connection and it gives me a different kind of approach to the content that I’m sharing.
Tara McMullin: I should add, too, that I try to avoid the explicit, now, first I tell your personal story, and now I’m going to teach you a lesson about your business. I do do that, but I try to avoid it. I really like to make it implied, and that sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t work the way I want it to. But, I think that it helps to create that connection and create a lot of openness where, again, like I said, in the past when I would’ve shared advice or teaching on that kind of thing, it would have shut that potential connection down a lot sooner. That’s sort of the compare and contrast of how I did things in the past and how I do things now.
Jessica: That is a beautiful example, and I love … I feel like a lot of people just in the last year, maybe it’s been more than a year, but I feel like the last year it’s been a heavier dose of storytelling is important. It’s not just content. We need to tell stories. But, I have tried … I mean, I did checked out a few different books about “storytelling” and they were boring, as I’ll get out-
Tara McMullin: Yes.
Jessica: … and didn’t actually kind of teach me how to tell better stories and content. I feel like this is a really tangible example of storytelling that’s not cliche but actually like, “Hey, we all kind of have things in common. Most of us don’t live that glamorous of a life.” Our Instagram feed may make it seem like, “Oh my gosh. She just has it all going on,” and I’m like, “Nope. Really, this is just me in my office and it’s not that glamorous.” But I’m curious, how do you decide, or is there any kind of filter, but how do you decide how much to share? Because I know that’s something a lot of people when I’m like, “Hey, we have to be personal on social media. Share parts of you,” and people are like, “But, how much do I share? Because how much is too much?”
Tara McMullin: I think everyone has their own personal filter. I certainly have my own. My filter is probably a lot more open than a lot out of other people’s filters. Also, that doesn’t mean that what we’re talking about here can’t also work for you if your filter is a lot more closed. What I think about when I’m considering content for social media or when I’m considering the stories that I want to tell on social media is simply what stuck out from my day that I could turn into something meaningful? And what stuck out from my day that I would tell my husband, or my girlfriend, or a friend, or even a rando stranger that I strike up a conversation with? If I would pass that story on to someone else, why wouldn’t I pass it on in social media, too?
Tara McMullin: I think you absolutely can create very specific filters around things like, do you want to show her stories about your kids? Do you want to share your kid’s name or not, even if you say my daughter did this or my son did that? Do you want to share photos? Do you want to … How messy do you want to get with things that are in process for you? As a rule of thumb for me, for instance, I like to talk about things after I’ve made at least a few steps in the … in what I would consider the right direction with a problem.
Tara McMullin: It’s not that I won’t share something that’s actually happening now or something that I’m working through, and that’s something that I’ve actually worked on in the last few months is being willing to share a little sooner. But, I’m not going to share in the messiest part of it. I’m going to let them mess happen. I’m going to process that mess. And for me, often writing and storytelling is a way to process that. So I might draft something or I might make a note to myself for the future. Hey, this is something you’re going to want to share, and maybe here’s an angle that you might want to share it with. But then, I make sure I make a few more steps because that’s going to give me the best perspective for actually being able to tell that story effectively. I don’t think we tell very good stories when we’re in the middle of the mess, right?
Tara McMullin: You can think about the conversations you might have with your partner or a friend. And when you’re in the middle of it, those conversations are weird. They’re important and they’re good, but they’re important and good in particular containers. This is a more public container, and so you just want to be thinking about what is … What perspective do I need to bring to this to make this valuable? And that, it does, I think, kind of circle back to the question you asked earlier about how do we make sure that these stories and sharing from experience still relates value, and I think perspective has a lot to do with that. I’m willing to share just about anything, but I want to make sure I have the right perspective on it first. Or I shouldn’t say the right perspective because that makes it sound like there’s a right and a wrong. I want to make sure I have a valuable perspective-
Tara McMullin: … on that story or on that thing that I went through in order to tell that story in a way that can be meaningful and helpful to people.
Jessica: I feel like I’m about to start using my notes app to just write down little stories.
Tara McMullin: That’s literally what I do. That’s literally what I do. It used to be Evernote. Now, we’re running our whole business in Notion, and which is great because now I have systems and content in the same place.
Tara McMullin: That’s literally what I’ll do. I’ll open the app, something’ll across my mind, or I’ll just … I’ll recognize like, “I’m going to want to come back to this moment and tell a story about it later.” So I open it up, jot myself a note so I don’t forget it, stick it back in my bag, and go back to living that story.
Tara McMullin: But, I’m constantly jotting things down like that. That’s been true for a really long time, but that’s a real key to how I kind of … how I operate and how I create so much content like this.
Jessica: I love it. I love it. This has been really enlightening. Because as someone who creates content … I have podcasts, YouTube, all my social media. Lots of content, and I’ve been trying to get better at storytelling, and this has totally opened my eyes to like how I can be better at it. So, thank you so much for sharing all of this, and your first time.
Tara McMullin: You’re welcome.
Jessica: To wrap up, I would love to have you share where people can connect with you, what you’re up to, what’s coming up.
Tara McMullin: The best place to connect with me is probably on Instagram. You can find me there. I’m @Tara_McMullin. So if you want to shoot me a message or share your story with me, I’d love to connect with you on Instagram. You can listen to our podcast. We have the same philosophy on the podcast that we have on social media and with all of our content marketing. It’s all about sharing, in this case, other people’s experiences, although I weave my own stories in there, too. You can find the What Works podcasts on whatever app you like to listen to podcasts on. Then, we also have the What Works Network. And of course, we would love to connect with you inside of our membership as well. You can find that at explorewhatworks.com/network.
Jessica: Awesome. I will make sure and put all the links in the show notes. But, thank you again so much, Tara, for being here.
Tara McMullin: Thank you. It was such a great conversation.