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Turning Vulnerabilities into Authentic Connections at Madison+ Ruby 2014

One of the themes of Madison+ Ruby 2014 was, essentially, “Get over yourself.” At a conference that celebrates diversity and shared humanity over perfection, speakers Sharon Steed and Ben Bleything impressed attendees by sharing their personal experiences with stuttering and ADHD.

“There is so much disruption and innovation in the tech industry,” Steed began. “Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of disruption on the communication side of things.”

Steed explained that her stuttering made a lot of her choices for her. She chose to be a writer because she was more comfortable with the written word than with the spoken word. She chose to be a freelancer because job interviews gave her so much anxiety. She also chose to be silent even when she knew she could add value to a conversation.

After ten years as a writer, Steed said, with about seven of those being in a marketing capacity, she learned a thing or two about what companies think they need to get eyes on their product. They talk about mobile strategy and SEO, social impact and hashtags. Whatever the next big thing is in the social space.

“They also talk about another thing, which is probably the most important: branding,” Steed says. “But the problem with using that word is companies are afraid to truly be themselves, flaws and all.”

She challenged listeners to abandon their strengths and explore their weaknesses. “You should aim to stand out by being unequivocally and imperfectly you. My disruption was speaking. I decided to just jump in the deep end and put myself in front of room of people and face the fear. Once I put myself out there, my biggest fears, my strongest doubts, I realized that I was connecting with people in a real way.”

It’s a lot easier to connect to your audience as a business when they know that you are flawed just like them, Steed says. So what’s your disruption? What makes you the most vulnerable? What challenges you to the point of being afraid? That’s where your sweet spot is. That is what will capture your target audience and make you stand out.

“People will tell you that you need to be the strongest communicator, marketer, salesperson in order to succeed,” Steed concluded. “But the truth is you need to be the most transparent one.”

Ben Bleything took the stage toward the end of Friday’s session and gave listeners insight into how the mind of a person with ADHD functions. “I have an atrocious memory. I can’t tell you my parents’ birthdays. The worst thing about this for me is that sometimes I’ll be talking with someone and parts of that conversation will just disappear. Often, I’ll be talking, in the middle of a sentence and realize I don’t know where I’m going.”

Bleything said that in high school he didn’t do my homework at all, ever. His parents and teachers thought he was lazy. When he began working, things got better, but as his career progressed problems cropped up.

“I found I was losing track of my tasks and letting people down,” he said. “I started to reach out to people in the Ruby community about these issues and started to have conversations about what kept them working and what kept them successful. One person in particular saw what I was actually talking about and recommended the book Delivered from Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell. It really did change my life. I highlighted 40% of the book. This is a big part of the inspiration for coming to do this talk. If this stuff sounds familiar, it’s not just you.”

Bleything shared some of the symptoms of ADHD, which include having a hard time following sequential tasks and managing time, the tendency to lose things and miss appointments, and talking excessively or over other people. He also shared tips for managing ADHD, including exercising, knowing the things that distract you, pursuing therapy, and taking medication.

“There are strong similarities between ADHD and depression and ADHD and addiction,” Bleything said. “Stimulants can help—what it really does is it speeds your brain up to keep up with your attention. Treatment is very different for different people and it’s very complex.”

Bleything shared the good stuff that comes with having ADHD, including hyper-focus, better nonlinear thinking skills, a lack of inhibition in expressing creativity, and the tendency those with ADHD have to be especially passionate in their interests. “There are a lot of things I’m really good at that are at least in part because of my ADHD,” he says.

“The point is I want you all to know these things are normal, these feelings exist. You can’t fix it yourself. You need someone who is trained to get to the center of what needs to happen in order to treat your specific situation.”