I’ve Heard Great Things About You – A nondouchey guide to personal branding and self promotion

This is a multi-part series on Sales, Marketing and Persuasion. To see the blog post that inspired this series, click here. To see a list of all the blog posts on this topic: How to Sell Market and Self Promote.

I recently gave a talk at the Stanford Marketing Group on building a personal brand and doing self-promotion without being a douchebag. As this is part of my grand “how to sell” program, I’m including the presentation here along with some presentation notes.

The Definition and Purpose of Building a Personal Brand

When you think about traditional marketing, there are three major elements – identification of user/customer needs, building a remarkable product that fulfills those needs, and finding ways to communicate your products value at scale. Your product’s brand plays a huge role in how people talk about, buy and use the product.

All you have to do is swap product/service for person and you’ve got a system for doing personal branding.

At the end of the day, your personal brand is one of many tools (others being skills, location, network, knowledge, experience, technology) that you can develop to achieve your goals. Your brand is never the goal, it is the vehicle for getting to your destination, whether that’s finding a job where you can be successful, or spreading an important message via your blog or improving your child’s school as PTO president.

Seven Ideas

I also discussed seven strategies to help you build that personal brand with integrity. Here are the highlights (I’ve adjusted the titles a little since the talk):

[1. Work on Interesting Projects]

This is the heart of it. It’s difficult for me to overstate the value of working on interesting projects — in general, but particularly for building your personal brand. When you work on interesting projects, you develop your interests, your passions while gaining great experience, learning new skills and interacting with the right kinds of people.

Follow your nose and you will be amazed to see where it takes you. Many of my projects –  the nonprofit I founded at Stanford, the videos I made for my gymnastics team, this blog even – these things have been invaluable to my career and my happiness. I use the things I’ve learned and network I’ve built from these projects everyday at Ridejoy.

[2. Build Relationships with Great People]

This is a natural extension of working on interesting projects, but it deserves its own section. Building a personal brand necessitates having relationships with people. By working with smart, passionate, nice, ambitious and innovative people, you gain so much. Their awesomeness rubs off on you, and your awesomeness will be shared with others through them.

If you run into someone you think is really awesome, find a way to work with them. Create a reason for you two to do something mutually interesting/beneficial together. It’s worth being proactive here – the payoff is enormous.

[3. Discover Your Mission]

This might sound cliche, but understanding what your deeper mission is is essential for building your personal brand. Great brands stand for something. Nike. Apple. Starbucks. Target. They all stand for something — they have a mission that is beyond profit, and their businesses are aligned to work toward that mission.

Similarly, when you understand your mission (which can and will change over time) you can better orient your activities and your network to help you move toward it. Remember – your brand is a tool for helping you achieve your goals. What is the larger purpose behind your goals? That is where you find your mission.

[4. Give Freely]

Perhaps you wish to be seen as an aloof,  disinterested mogul. This guide is not for you. This might be a little normative but I believe that you want to be known as someone who is a valuable resource who gives freely. Someone who has a great deal of knowledge, skill, experience, contacts and wisdom – and is willing to share that with the world.

This is the natural way to spread word of mouth. When you help someone do something with no direct compensation asked, not only will they think more highly of you, but they will spread the good word. “So-and-so is amazing – she totally saved my butt when I needed help with Project X”. This works both internally (inside a department/company/organization) and externally (helping people who don’t directly work with you).

This doesn’t mean you can’t charge for things or make money or ask for help/favors to be repaid. But always try to keep a positive balance – give more than you get back, all the time. It’s like a magic bank account, the more you spend on others, the more you’ll get back for yourself. Keep sending good stuff out into the world.

Of course, the danger is that you get taken advantage of. Be mindful of that, but don’t let a few leechers ruin it for everyone else. Protect yourself, but err on the side compassion and forgiveness. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of

[5. Be a People Hub]

Again, I find myself repeating the people things. One of the most valuable things you can do for someone is connect them with the right person. But there’s a huge difference between handing Person A the contact info of the business card you have of Person B — and gracefully facilitating a mutually beneficial connection / relationship. The former is almost worthless, the latter is priceless.

I’ve written about how I do email introductions and how carefully I craft them. I do this because I think it’s worth the time and effort. Nurture your relationships (you know, the ones you’ve earned from working with great people on interesting projects) and look for opportunities to connect those people together when it makes sense. This is an incredibly powerful way to build your personal brand.

[6. Build a Distribution Platform]

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. You need build a platform. To really scale your personal brand, you need to be attached to something greater than yourself. Whether it is an important company initiative, a blog or email newsletter, a senior executive (careful on this one, can be dangerous) or a YouTube channel, Twitter feed, interesting project, SOMETHING.

What you have to remember here is to be careful what you attach yourself to. Ideally it’s something in your control. My blog is my public face to the world and if I post something horribly offensive here, my brand goes with it. On the other hand, with work and diligence, I’ve been able to nurture the community here and blogging benefitted me enormously. This is my distribution platform, but for others it could be Twitter, it could be a private newsletter or something else. Find your channel to scaleably add value to the world in a visible way.

[7. Present Strong]

Presenting strong is two things – it’s standing up for yourself and it’s caring about how you come across. Let’s start with the first:

At the end of the day, it is no one’s job to make sure you get credit for the work you do, get paid what you should or meet the people you want to meet. (Unless you have a publicist, in which case you are not reading this guide). YOU have to stand up for yourself and sometimes that means being a bit more aggressive than you normally are. This is the way of the world. You don’t have to be overbearing or disrespectful, but if someone attacks you/your work or tries to dismiss what you’re doing, you have to to stand up.

The second point is on the presentation. Take some time to review fashion literature and try to dress at least somewhat nicely. Get haircuts, trim your nails, shower regularly. Smile, say their name, be polite and be interested in others. These details matter a lot more than you think when you are interacting with people.

This focus on presentation spills over to your platform. Make sure your business cards are nicely designed, your blog has an attractive theme, your emails are formatted with headlines for readability, your resume is impeccable and subtly stands out with its formatting. Human beings judge books by their cover all the time – so make sure yours looks as good as it can be.

Case Study on Amit

A big part of my talk was devoted to Amit Gupta and his campaign to find a bone marrow transplant. I think this is a great example why it’s important to develop your personal brand. It just might save your life someday.

Amit has built up a great personal brand over the years through his great work at Jelly, ChangeThis and Photojojo. He’s worked with some amazing people like Seth Godin and by all accounts is a kind and thoughtful person. He’s got a great sense of design and a wonderful online voice as well.

All these things have contributed to the outpouring of support for him during this crisis. People are going out of their way to help him because they’ve been touched by something he’s said, done or built and not because he’s paying them or begging them for help.

The final point about the troll is basically that you can’t please everyone. No matter what you do, when you start standing up for yourself, there will be people who will tear you down. You have to ignore them. Treat others with respect and act with integrity and you can sleep soundly at night no matter how much the critics howl.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. Giving freely is probably the best advice you can get. If all you do is talk about your own products, people who might be interested in you would get turned off. It doesn’t even need to cost you money: just pick one of your Twitter or Facebook followers and say something nice about them. A little praise can go a long way. A lot of businesses can easily use one of the companies listed at http://www.buyfacebookfansreviews.com to easily gain more Facebook/Twitter followers, but they don’t always know how to manage their social media accounts and present the best possible face for their brand. It doesn’t matter if you’re an individual or business: giving freely to people is the best thing you can do IMO. If you can combine that with a solid feeling of authenticity (making some mistakes at times, talking like a human, etc) you can really benefit in the long run.

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  2. Building great relationships is very important, especially with good people. 

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