11 Rules of Self-Promotion

It’s no secret: to get ahead, you have to promote yourself. But for most people, the thought of promoting themselves is slightly shady. Images of glad-handing insurance salesmen or arrogant know-it-alls run through our heads.

The reality is that we all rely on some degree of self-promotion. Whether you want to start your own business, sell your novel to a publisher, start a group for your favorite hobby, or get a promotion at work, you need to make people aware of you and your abilities. While we’d like to think that our work speaks for itself, the fact is that usually our work needs us to put in some work to attract attention before our work can have anything to say.

The good news is that self-promotion doesn’t have to be shady — in fact, real self-promotion almost by definition can’t be shady. The reason we get a bad feeling from overt self-promoters is that, most of the time, their efforts are insincere and their inauthenticity shows. It’s clear that they’re not building a relationship with us but only shooting for the quick payoff, whether that’s a sale, a vote, or a positive performance evaluation. They are pretending to be our friend to get something they want. And it shows.

Real self-promotion extends beyond the initial payoff — and may bypass the payoff entirely. It gives people a reason to associate themselves with us, for the long term. It’s genuine and authentic — more like making friends than selling something. Of course, if you’re on the make, that kind of authenticity makes you vulnerable, which is why the claims of false self-promoters ring hollow: they are hollow.

The main rule of self-promotion is to be the best version of yourself. That is, of course, a little vague and is bound to mean something different to everyone. But here’s a few more specific things to keep in mind when working to get the word out about you and your work:

  1. Add value: What separates you from everyone else who does what you do is the particular value you bring to your clients, customers, or users. The same applies to your marketing efforts — people tune out if you’re just blathering on about how great you are. Instead, apply your particular expertise in demonstrable ways — by adding insightful points to a discussion or blog post comments, by creating entertaining and informative promotional spots, etc.
  2. Be confident: If you are telling people something that adds value to their lives, there’s no reason to feel as if you’re intruding. Stand up tall and show that you have faith in yourself, your abilities, and your work. After all, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, why should anyone else?
  3. Be sensitive to context: Always be aware of and responsive to the person or people you’re talking to right now, and the conditions in which you’re relating to them. You can’t just write a pitch and deliver it by rote every time you meet someone — you need to adapt to changing environments (are you at a cocktail party or a boardroom meeting?) and the knowledge levels and personalities of the people you’re talking to (are you describing your invention to an engineer or a stay-at-home dad?). The idea of talking points is useful here, because you have an outline to draw on but the level of “fleshing out” is based on where you are and to whom you’re talking.
  4. Be on target: Direct your message towards people who most need or want to hear it. You know how annoying it is to see someone plugging their unrelated website in a site’s comments or in your email inbox — if we only got legitimate offers for things we had an immediate need for, it wouldn’t be “spam”. Seek out and find the people who most need to know about what you do; for everyone else, a simple one-line description is sufficient.
  5. Have permission: Make sure the people you talk to have given you “permission” to promote yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to start every conversation with “Can I take a few minutes of your time to tell you about…” (though that’s not a bad opening in some circumstances); what it means is that you should make sure the other they’re receptive to your message. You don’t want to be bothered when you’re eating dinner with your family, in a hurry to get to work, or enjoying a movie, right? In those moments, you aren’t giving anyone permission to talk to you. Don’t interrupt other people or make your pitch when it’s inconvenient for them — that’s almost guaranteed to backfire.
  6. Don’t waste my time: If you’re on target, sensitive to context, and have permission, you’re halfway there on this one; but make sure to take no more time than you have to, and don’t beat around the bush. Once you have my attention, get to the point; be brief, be clear, and be passionate.
  7. Explain what you do: Have you ever come across a website or promotional brochure that looked like this:
    Advanced Enterprise Solutions Group has refactored the conceptualization of power shifts. We will rev up our ability to facilitate without depreciating our power to engineer. We believe we know that it is better to iterate macro-micro-cyber-transparently than to matrix wirelessly. A company that can syndicate fiercely will be able to e-enable faithfully.
    (With thanks to the Andrew Davidson’s Corporate Gibberish Generator)

    Some people (and corporations too) have a hard time telling people what they do. They hide behind jargon and generalities.

    Don’t you be one of them! Explain clearly what it is you actually do and, following #7 below, what value you offer your audience.

  8. Tell me what you offer me: Clearly explain what’s in it for your audience — why they should choose you over some other freelancer, business partner, employee, or product. How is what you have to say going to enrich their life or business?
  9. Tell me what you want from me: You’ve made your pitch, now what? What do you want your audience to do? Tell them to visit your site, read your book, but your product, set up a meeting with you, promote you, or whatever other action you want them to take. This is rule #1 for salespeople — be sure to ask for the sale. It applies just as well if what you’re selling is your talents, your capabilities, or your knowledge.
  10. Give me a reason to care: Be personal. Explain not only what you do but why what you do will make my life better. Both iPods and swapmeet knock-off mp3 players play music; but iPods make people’s lives better, by being easier to use, more stylish, and more likely to attract attention and make their users look “cool”. Part of this is showing that you care about the people you’re marketing to — responding to their questions, meeting and surpassing their needs, making them feel good about themselves. With few exceptions, this can’t be faked; even when it can, it’s far easier to just genuinely care.
  11. Maintain relationships: Self-promotion doesn’t end once you’ve delivered your message. Re-contact people periodically. Let people know what you’re up to, and show a genuine interest in what they’re up to. Don’t drop a connection because they don’t show any immediate need for whatever you do — you never know when they will, and you never know who they know who will. More importantly, these personal connections add more value than just a file full of prospective clients, customers, or voters.

Self-promotion that doesn’t follow these rules comes off as false, forced, and ultimately forgettable. Or worse, it leaves such a bad taste in the mouths of your victims that the opposite of promotion is achieved — people actively avoid working with you.

In the end, promoting yourself and your work isn’t that hard, as long as you a) are genuinely interested in other people and their needs and b) stay true to yourself and your work. Seek out the people who want — no, need — what you have to offer and put it in front of them. That’s not so hard, is it?

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