by: Dorie Clark
Self-promotion can be uncomfortable for many people. That’s certainly true for foreign professionals in America, who have to navigate different cultural mores in the most bullish nation on earth when it comes to personal branding. But even for many Americans, it’s a tricky prospect: how can you ensure that your talent is recognized without alienating your colleagues and looking like a jerk?
The first step is understanding the true value of self-promotion. Of course, you can get better job offers or assignments if you’re viewed as a star performer. But it’s not all about you – a helpful reminder for people who are turned off by the caricature of personal branding (like networking) as baldly transactional. Instead, when you promote yourself in the right way, it’s a win-win. Your colleagues and managers probably don’t have the time to fully understand your interests, talents, and skill set. If you can make it clear to them where you can contribute the most, you’re making their lives easier and helping the company overall.
The next step is to focus on facts, not interpretation. No one can argue if you say that you’re passionate about social media, or that you’ve been blogging for more than a decade, or that you have X number of Twitter followers. But they can argue plenty if you call yourself a “social media expert” (or, heaven help us, a “guru” or “ninja”). Whatever your field, it’s fine if other people want to christen you an expert – and in my own bio, I gladly cite several magazines that have given me the appellation. But it’s presumptuous to do it yourself, and you risk a great deal of blowback. (Well-known author Gary Vaynerchuk famously told TechCrunch, “99.5 percent of social media experts are clowns.”)
It’s important to demonstrate your expertise with stories, not words. Saying “I’m great at pitching investors” sounds pretty egotistical. But sharing a compelling tale of how you rounded up seed funding allows others to deduce your skill without having to make it explicit. Also, research has shown that when listeners are exposed to stories, many more sections of their brains light up; they’re literally immersed in the moment with you, making a far deeper impression. They may hear your words if you say you’re awesome, but telling them a story allows them to feel it for themselves.
You’ll also want to ensure that those stories are relevant. If you’re at a cocktail party and the talk turns to startups, it’s perfectly appropriate to mention that you’ve launched one and share the story of your successful pitch. But if you’re visibly straining to steer the conversation in your direction (“Speaking of basketball, have I told you about my new cloud computing venture?”), people will be turned off by the ham-handedness of the approach. Self-promotion works best when it’s natural and unforced; you want to contribute to the conversation organically, not hog the spotlight. (As I discuss in my book Reinventing You, it’s even better if you can recruit a like-minded wingman to interject on your behalf and mention your relevant accomplishments.)
Finally, even when you’re promoting yourself, it’s essential to express humility. That doesn’t in any way mean hiding your abilities. However, it does require being sensitive to the fact that some accomplishments may make others feel jealous or inadequate, and you don’t want to appear glib or self-congratulatory. It’s also a great opportunity to give credit to others when it’s due. If you’ve been working in China, someone might ask about your language skills. You could certainly say, “I’m fluent in Mandarin” and leave it at that. But it’s a lot more gracious to provide context. “I’m really fortunate my high school offered classes in Mandarin,” you could say, “so I studied it for a number of years and was able to become fluent.” Your accomplishment is still impressive, but you’ve highlighted your skills without making the other person feel bad about themselves. It’s also important to remember that humility isn’t the same as self-deprecation. Downplaying your skills may be a good self-promotion strategy in a number of countries, especially in Asia. But in the U.S., you risk looking either incompetent (“if he says he’s not good at Mandarin, he’s probably not”) or disingenuous and patronizing. Instead, be humble, but be real.
Often, people shy away from self-promotion for fear that they’ll alienate their colleagues and develop a reputation as a braggart. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, personal branding can benefit you and your company by helping others understand where you excel, and ensuring that your talents are put to use in the best way possible.
About the Author
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and the forthcoming Stand Out.
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