What the heck is a Personal Branding Illusion? That’s a good question, but it begs the question “What is a Personal Brand?”, so let’s start there.
A personal brand is nothing complicated or smarmy. It’s just a way of describing yourself to people who don’t already know you. People protest “Oh, I don’t have a personal brand, and I don’t want one” but that’s like saying “I choose not to cast a shadow when I walk in the sun.”
You’ve got a personal brand, whether you like it or not. Sometimes, people talk about you when you’re not there. That’s not a bad thing. It’s been this way since men evolved from apes (no cracks about how that process is ongoing, ladies).
You’ve got a brand. Newborn babies have their own brands (“Ooh, have you seen Amanda’s little Dexter? He’s so strong, he can hold his head up already and he has the cutest mop of curls!”)!
People form opinions about us, the same way we form opinions about people and organizations and things every day. So if the term ‘personal branding’ makes you want to hurl, and I sympathize completely, keep in mind that ‘personal branding’ is just a newish term for self-description and reputation, two phenomena that have existed for millennia. The only thing modern about personal branding is its name.
Personal branding is a combination of the way you describe yourself to other people – in your resume for instance, and in conversation – and the way other people describe you. That’s pretty much the whole show, personal-branding-wise. A personal brand includes your social media presence, any content you produce (or curate, on a site like scoop.it) and even your style of dress, the way you wear your hair, your accent and the vehicle you drive. All of it is part of your brand.
If it makes you queasy to think that people would judge or classify you based on your clothes or your accent, then ask yourself “Have I ever made a snap decision about someone just by looking at them, without conversation?” Most of have to answer “Yes” to that question.
We evolved to do just that, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Human beings form mental models for people, things and situations, called frames. Once we set a frame, it is hard to shake it, so if you believe, for instance, that IT people are unhelpful snobs or that HR people are useless profit-suckers, it may take a lot of evidence to the contrary to shake you out of that frame.
Why all this talk about frames and stereotyping? I touch on that topic whenever I talk about branding, because in order to understand personal branding we have to accept the idea that people form opinions organically and instantly. Personal branding, in person or in writing, hits an observer viscerally, not analytically. We react to people not as collections of skills and experiences but as whole entities.
When we meet a person for the first time, we usually get a quick gut reaction: “This guy seems pretty chill” or “Get me away from this jerk.” It’s the same way when we encounter a new person from his or her online presence. We get a bead right away.
That’s why these Five Deadly Personal-Branding Illusions are so important. When you write about yourself on a resume or anywhere, you want to convey something real about you, not something boring and dead and zombie-like. These five illusions, all common and all regrettable as branding choices, may seem at first like good branding solutions. But they are booby traips, because each of them manages to talk about something way less cool and interesting than you are. Do any of these Five Deadly Personal-Branding Illusions sound familiar?:
The Five Deadly Personal-Branding Illusions
When we think about branding ourselves in writing, our minds usually go to Tasks first. “I write, I edit, I proofread,” we think. “That’s my personal brand.” But a list of tasks doesn’t say anything important about you. This is a low-power branding strategy. It conveys “I spin, I weave and I sew, your Majesty!” There is something way more elemental and powerful about you than a list of the tasks you typically perform. You may have to dig a bit to figure out what it is.
It’s tempting to brand ourselves as a product of a great school and a veteran of hot-brand-name companies, and figure that our personal branding task is done. But trophy-type personal branding is another power-less strategy. So, you went to Yale – that’s awesome. Lots of people have gone there over the years. What makes you who you are, apart from your alma mater? It’s kind of pathetic to broadcast that the coolest thing about you is the set of schools and employers that chose to accept you. Isn’t your own story way more significant?
We can fall into the trap of branding ourselves using Zombie Language a la “Results-oriented professional with a bottom-line orientation.” If I had a Tic Tac for every time I’ve read that exact phrase on a resume, I’d be crushed by a mountain of Tic Tacs right now. You are not a zombie, so don’t brand yourself like one.
Countless horrifying resume-writing and personal-branding books advise readers to use self-praising adjectives like Savvy, Seasoned and Strategic when they describe themselves. This is the lowest-power branding strategy going – who praises himself or herself, in polite society? That’s just another form of grovelling. “Look how highly I value myself!” is a push-away message for people who aren’t impressed by words that anyone could borrow from the dictionary. Why don’t you tell us a story about some of your accomplishments and let us decide which adjectives apply?
Some folks’ personal branding statements are so abstract that we have no idea what’s being discussed. “I solve complicated, high-stakes problems” is an example of this type of branding. Toddlers and preschoolers solve problems that are high-stakes and complicated to them, as we all do every day. We don’t want to read your assessment of the gravity of your good deeds. Lay out the deets instead, and let us make the call.
So what do you do for a personal brand, avoiding the five booby traps listed above? You simply tell your story. Use the first person, and write a paragraph or two that lays out where you came from and what you care about. Skip the corporate-speak jargon and sound like a human being. It’s amazing how freeing it is to write about yourself without buzzwords, without stooping to praise yourself, and without reducing yourself to a bundle of disembodied Skills and Competencies. Brand yourself as a human being with a point of view, a history and a voice. Write your story and then distill it down into a summary that any human being could relate to. There’s your personal brand.
If the human voice in your branding turns off a weenified amoeba or two, rejoice: you’ve dodged a bullet! My Buddhist friends say life is long, but it still isn’t long enough to spend a minute more than necessary working among people who don’t get (and therefore don’t deserve) your gifts.