Why we connect with others better when they're vulnerable, and what that means for your content

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I often use personal stories to introduce my content. Usually I'm writing about topics that I'm interested in, so there's some kind of personal connection for me—even if it's just that it's a topic I'm curious about.

When I worked with Leo Widrich at Buffer, he taught me a technique I still use today. Taking the personal story one step further, Leo told me readers seem to connect well with a story that shows vulnerability.

This could be an example of a time when you've failed or made a mistake related to the topic at hand, or just simply admitting you had the wrong idea about this topic before researching it.

For some reason, admitting straight off the bat that you're fallible helps readers connect to you, and get more out of your content. I know this works empirically, but I wanted to dig in further and see what research has to say about vulnerability helping us to connect with other people.

Why does vulnerability work so well?

Research shows we feel more comfortable around people who are vulnerable, because they seem authentic. When we recognise someone as being inauthentic or "putting on airs", it makes us uncomfortable and we feel less connected to them.

But why is this?

It seems to come from a basis of trust. We're particularly sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders, for instance. When we feel trust in our leader, we tend to perform better at work. This might be related to the fact that we regard social connection and happiness at work as being more important than having a high salary.

One study showed recalling an old boss who resonated with us tends to increase activation in areas of the brain related to positive emotions and social connection. Remembering a boss who didn't resonate with us does the opposite.

This all comes from the way we're naturally inclined to "internally echo what others do and feel". For instance, when we see someone else in pain, as tested in a study where participants watched a hand being injected and having a biopsy taken, our brain's own pain centre activates.

hands

We also tend to mimic other people's facial expressions subconsciously. So if someone's giving us a fake smile, we feel it because we're mimicking it to some degree ourselves.

real and fake smile

Can you spot the fake smile?

It's not just other people's inauthenticity that we don't like. We actually get exhausted from the effort of hiding our true feelings when we're not authentic. We're also more prone to making mistakes when we spend energy on acting cheerful if we're actually tired or frustrated.

But what does all this failed social connection have to do with vulnerability? Well, according to researcher Brené Brown, vulnerability is at the very core of our ability to connect with others. In Brené's studies, she's found that the people who are most able to create and maintain connections do so because they see vulnerability as a pragmatic necessity. They don't necessarily find it comfortable, but they believe being vulnerable is necessary for them to connect with others.

I would argue more than ever that vulnerability is still just absolutely essential. That we can’t know things like love and belonging and creativity and joy without vulnerability... — Brené Brown

Part of what holds us back from being vulnerable in front of others, says Michael Simmons in an article for Harvard Business Review, is that we worry people won't like us if they know "the real us". Research tells a different story, though. Michael explains how one study that had pairs of people answer questions that got more and more personal over 45 minutes (the last question was "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing?") formed close bonds. So close, in fact, that from a survey of people who didn't participate in the exercise, 30% of them rated their closest relationships as being less close than those who completed the 45-minute partner activity.

Some pairs in the study were assigned more superficial and factual questions to discuss, like "What's your favourite TV show?", and these pairs didn't form bonds as close as those with the questions requiring more vulnerability.

The study showed that being vulnerable with someone improves our ability to connect. (Some of the pairs even started ongoing friendships.)

The results that we see at TED, and the innovation, and the incredible music and the art is an expected outcome, in my opinion, of human potential when people are willing to be brave and vulnerable. The reason why this is so rare is not because of the human potential that’s here. It’s because of the willingness of the people who are here to be brave and vulnerable. — Brené Brown

Using vulnerability in your content

My aim throughout all my content is to connect with my reader. I want them to remember me, and feel like they're getting to know me as they read more of my work. I want to develop bonds with my readers, as we would if each blog posts was a 1:1 discussion.

Part of the way I do that is through being vulnerable.

The willingness to be vulnerable isn’t driven by the desire for exposure, but by the possibility of what that exposure might lead to — be it a meaningful role, the possibility to affect change, and, of course, greater financial gain. — Anthony K. Tjan

Let's look at some examples of how I've used vulnerability in my work, and how other writers do the same.

From 5 Ways to Get Through Writer’s Block or Content Marketing Fatigue:

This is actually the method that inspired this post. I was working on a post about Google Analytics recently and I was struggling to get started. After a few false starts, I finally decided to just write my concerns into the post. It turned out well, and made me think that sharing this method, and others I use, could be helpful to others.

In this post I made myself quite vulnerable, by exposing how much trouble I'd had when writing a previous post. That might have made my readers see the Google Analytics post in a different light, but it also gave those readers who are writers themselves a chance to see that I struggle sometimes. Being vulnerable is a way to make yourself seem more human, which makes it easier to connect with others.

From 22 Tips To Better Care for Introverts and Extroverts:

For a long time I had a certain idea about what makes an introvert or an extrovert. I had always thought that it works something like this:

  • Extroversion relates to how outgoing someone is
  • Introversion is the same as being shy.

That was kind of my general perception. Doing just a little bit of reading made it clear very quickly – my thinking was way off!

Recently I dug into some of the full-on research about introverts vs extroverts and I think I’m much closer to understanding what the terms introvert and extrovert actually mean. When we briefly discussed this topic internally here at Buffer, a lot of people got very excited. So I hope what I’ve learned might be helpful to you, as well.

This is a perfect example of the kind of vulnerability I often employ in an introduction. I take the heat off the reader, who likely is in the same boat as me, by admitting I didn't know this stuff before, either. I frame the research as myself realising I'm wrong and learning something new, so the reader doesn't need to feel vulnerable about their own misguided thinking, and can get more out of the content.

From I wrote an article no one wanted by Paul Jarvis:

I wrote an article.

No, not this one, a different one (that’d be too meta).

I thought the article was awesome. On point with a point. Totally valuable to the people who would read it. Written in a voice I felt was honest.

...

I waited a few hours, checking email every few minutes. No response.

Then I waited a few days. No response.

Paul Jarvis gets really vulnerable here. He doesn't shy away from admitting that he thought his work was great. And he doesn't shy away from the big fat nothing he got in response when he pitched it to other publications.

He takes a hard situation many writers face and takes it on the chin for all of us.

From 6 Lessons Learned Sleeping On The Floor For a Year by Steve Corona:

I got kicked out of college when I was 19. My GPA was 0.33. I was broke and too ashamed to ask for help. It was the end of the year and everyone was packing up for the summer. I was packing up forever.

I gave away most of my stuff. I was too lazy to move. I was almost too lazy to be alive.

Have you ever noticed how it's much easier to take advice from someone who's not pushing it on you? Using vulnerability in your content lets you share lessons learned rather than prescribing advice to your readers. This makes the advice easier to take, as it's coming from a more humble perspective.

Steve does this perfectly with this post. He tells an incredibly vulnerable story about his past, with ruthless scrutiny of his own actions. When he finishes the piece with some of the lessons he's learned, the reader is more inclined to appreciate them than they might have been if he'd introduced them at the start of his story.

From The ethical guide to growing your audience by Jason Zook:

Over the years, I’ve tried every tip, trick, and growth hack out there.

I paid for fans on a Facebook Page (when that was a thing) and bought followers on Twitter (I was a big deal in Malaysia for 24hrs).

I’ve even bribed people with giveaways of iPads, MacBooks, heck even cash!

But I’ve learned that all those efforts were a complete waste of time.

Similar to my example in the piece I wrote about introversion and extroversion, Jason sets up this piece by admitting to a mistake. He admits to having used some of the techniques for building an audience that he knows his readers won't look kindly on (anyone drawn in by this title probably thinks buying followers is abhorrent).

Jason also admits to the fact that his time was wasted on those approaches. This vulnerable introduction helps the reader connect with Jason so they're primed to pay attention when he shares the techniques that have worked for him.


Whether you're writing content or just chatting with a friend, vulnerability is scary. It takes guts to be open with your audience. After all, there's every possibility it could backfire.

But my experience, combined with the research I mentioned above, shows that vulnerability is actually more likely to draw people to us than turn them off. If you really want to connect with your audience, try being a little bit vulnerable and allowing a true human connection to develop.

Image credits: Hands via PLOS ONE. Smiles via The Guardian. (P.S. the fake one is on the right.)