Before you dig into my last column of the year, I want to express my appreciation and gratitude for you. I won’t be sorry to see 2023 move to the rear-view mirror, but I have a special place in my heart for this column and all the delightful feedback you shared this year. It’s, honestly, one of the things that’s kept me going for some months.
My parents used to say if I didn’t maintain my status on Santa’s nice list, he would leave rocks in my stocking. I realize the standard is coal, but I grew up in the suburbs. You got what you got.
This proclamation — usually delivered a few weeks before Christmas — would stress me out. Would I get a rock? Did I do something bad? What’s considered bad? The uncertainty freaked me out.
Marketers often go into this holiday season feeling unfinished or uncertain. Many big projects are on hold — undecided — or won’t begin until the new year. That almost certainly means you go through the end of the year with a gnawing feeling: Shouldn’t you do or complete something on this project?
Get over the not-no and not-yes rocks
I recently worked with a senior director of marketing at a large software company that’s relatively new to the world of content marketing. He needed to figure out the best way to roll out a new content-based approach to generating more engaged leads.
He spent the last few months of the year socializing the proposed changes throughout his company. But he didn’t get a no or a yes in any stakeholder meeting. The inevitable “but-what-about-this-problem?” got in the way.
For example, he proposed a new business case for a modern content marketing platform to the vice president of brand marketing. She said it was “interesting” but wasn’t sure the whole organization understood content marketing.
Then, he talked to product marketing about optimizing their content for thought leadership. They appreciated the offer but didn’t think their amazing content needed further work.
Finally, he talked to the demand generation team leader and outlined how they might integrate the new thought leadership platform with the lead-generation technology. The manager said they’d need to wait until the new software gets an upgrade, which was due early in the year.
This marketing senior director’s confidence and presentation suffered. He wanted the gift of a definitive answer. He only got rocks — vague responses without a clear yes or no.
He tried to placate those rock givers, but that increased his frustration. His boss said his attitude came across as, “Don’t you get it?!”
Then, he had a breakthrough. And it resulted in his receiving firm commitments from almost all the company’s stakeholders. He shared with me what he did, and it has become a core part of my processing when thinking about the uncertainty associated with larger change initiatives.
The senior director of marketing realized that his frustration wasn’t with the people who didn’t get it. He felt frustrated with his inability to share his vision.
He could see how his vision would benefit the stakeholders, but the stakeholders couldn’t. Therefore, all his ideas came across as asks instead of solutions. The stakeholders didn’t have an answer to all those asks, so they would always reply with, “Not no, but what about this problem?”
What did he do? He created a list of the uncertainty objections they gave him and those he could imagine them saying. He wrote down the positive futures that he could create. In other words, he wrote down the possibilities that would exist when all the rocks were gone.
This map helped him formulate new business cases. Each presentation still encountered plenty of rocks, but he delivered his vision in a way that addressed each of those frustrations. His pitch became personal. It enticed people.
Turn uncertainty rocks into good gifts
You deal with all kinds of uncertainty when you get answers that aren’t no and aren’t yes. It might arise from that new job you applied for, that client you pitched, or your 2024 budget requests.
Those uncertainty rocks — the ones you bring and the ones you are given — are precious gifts when they give insight into other people’s frustrations. They encourage you to focus on the issue people can’t see or don’t know how to get around. They can help you deliver solutions that matter.
But they can also hang over you and get in the way of enjoying the time between busting those rocks.
Now, I don’t suggest you work over the holiday. I suggest if you’re in a situation where the new year already feels unsettled, consider these ideas:
1. Get them out of your head
Take 30 minutes to list your uncertainty rocks so you can stop mentally playing out or worrying about every scenario. Then, put them into two buckets — things under your control and things you can’t control.
For the first bucket, you can, like the marketing director did, plan or take actions to create positive futures. Focus on controlling the things that are under your control.
The second bucket includes things you can’t act on but can challenge the uncertainty. People often respond to uncertainty by trying to get reassuring opinions from others. This looks like repeatedly checking inboxes for approval and putting off any decision.
Here’s a better way: Challenge the uncertainty.
Ask, “What are the advantages of this being uncertain?” Write down and acknowledge the good things that could happen because things are uncertain. Waiting for that job offer? A better opportunity could arise before that one is complete. Worried about budget approval? Think about all the cool things you’ll plan if it’s approved.
2. Accept the uncertainty
Accepting the uncertainty can be difficult. It is for me. But give yourself permission to feel the uncertainty instead of pushing that discomfort away. Feel it. Acknowledge it. Then, accept it and move on. You’ve been responsible, but you don’t have to let it linger.
3. Focus on the present
Research from the University of London in 2016 found uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain. Humans would rather be certain a bad thing will happen than uncertain whether something good or bad will happen.
You can change that. Avoid worrying or stressing about the future by focusing on the present. Be present with your family, your friends, your pets, and your community. If you can fully connect in the here and now, you can calm your mind and ease your stress.
Balancing this strange time
You can spend time with your families and friends and celebrate the holidays of giving. But it’s also the time of year when you mentally and emotionally prepare to tackle the new year.
Isn’t it weird to do both of those things in such a short span? It’s the perfect environment to brew an emotional storm.
When you recognize you can’t avoid uncertainty, the challenge becomes accepting it. It’s only then you can be certain about all the things you’ll change in the future.
It’s your story. Tell it well.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute