“Let me tell you about something that happened to me the other day…”

How much does this sentence at the start of an article make you look away immediately? If the answer is ‘a lot’, it’s probably because you have been exposed to too much vulnerability in the search for authenticity.

We talk a lot about the importance of being authentic and making a personal connection with readers. However, much less is said about what this means in practice. Do you have to bare your soul to the world? Fortunately for most of us, especially the introverts, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. You can be personal and authentic without sharing too much of yourself. Consider the story at the start of this article. It is personal, it mentions an emotional reaction—but it doesn’t overshare. This is a fine line to walk, but it is possible.

The nature of ‘personal’

In a recent post on LinkedIn, David J Fisher nailed this issue in a single line: Be personal, not intimate. 

He noted that we understand this in person. When we meet someone at a conference or business meeting, we make small talk. We chat about the weather, or about our journey to the meeting. We certainly don’t immediately launch into details about our mental health problems, or our children’s exam successes or difficulties at school. However, neither do we talk like a corporate brochure, all sales-speak and jargon.

When you write something to publish online, especially on a professional platform like LinkedIn, you need to find the same ‘sweet spot’. Readers may be encountering you for the first time. Unlike Facebook, posts on LinkedIn can be read by people who have never met you in real life. You need and want to build a personal connection with your writing—but you also want to steer clear of intimacy.

Defining personal and intimate

How do we define personal and intimate?

“Show people who you are without veering into TMI.”

“It’s a matter of being human but not being too human.”  

In other words, enough but not too much. This is useful, but doesn’t really provide a clear boundary. How much is ‘too much’?

The science of proxemics provides a useful distinction. Proxemics is the study of the human use of space, especially the space around each of us. It defines ‘intimate space’ as the space immediately around us, up to about 45cm away. This space is reserved for people to whom we are very close, usually lovers and family. It is very upsetting when someone gets into your intimate space uninvited. ‘Personal space’ is the next distance, from 45cm to about 1.2cm. This is the usual distance for interactions such as handshakes and conversation. 

If we apply that to writing or sharing information, it suggests that ‘personal’ means anything that we would be happy to discuss in conversation with a casual acquaintance. Intimate should be reserved for close relationships. This chimes with David’s description of personal as small talk at a business meeting. We know how to do this in person, so why do we find it so hard online?

The impact of personal and intimate on readers

Oversharing—getting too close to ‘intimate’—can also have other impacts. For some readers, it is a very definite no-no. One commenter on David Fisher’s post wished that people would keep the “trenchcoats of their souls a bit more buttoned up”: a lovely phrase. Another noted that her immediate reaction to oversharing is that the writer does not have a professional opinion on the topic. There may also be career ramifications to oversharing online, especially on a professional platform.

Oversharing may also be the result of looking for ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, perhaps connected to the impact of so-called ‘influencers’ on the practices of thought leadership. Likes and shares are of course gratifying. However, they do not necessarily translate into action, especially not on a professional platform. Ultimately, the issue for content marketing and thought leadership is whether it helps the business. 

Are you being consistent?

The bottom line is that we understand the distinction between personal and intimate in person. We know that we can share something of ourselves, but not too much—and we know where the boundary is for us. Here’s a good tip: consider whether what you are writing would be appropriate when meeting someone at a conference. If not, don’t publish.