The delicate art of self-promotion

It's important to be vocal about your unique value propositions, but how you say it is critical

Man shouting with a megaphone

Vipul was in his final semester of an MBA programme at a prominent university. As he prepared to leverage his graduate credentials, he was brimming with potential and ready to embark upon a promising career.

Perfect GPA from a top-ranked school? Check

International internship? Check

Glowing recommendations? Check

No wonder Vipul seemed to carry himself with quiet confidence. As soon as he had that diploma in his hand, the employment offers would surely be pouring in. Or at least that was his theory. Perhaps there was a hitch. Vipul had always believed that it was impolite to ‘toot his own horn’. Verbally promoting his strengths to others felt undignified. His accomplishments were impressive. Period. Really, what’s left to discuss?

Another MBA candidate—Dheeraj, was a high-energy student armed with big credentials and an effervescent personality to match. Like Vipul, Dheeraj sported a jaunty resume, but clearly had a different outlook on the concept of self promotion. Unabashedly, he took advantage of every opportunity to tell anyone who would listen about his latest achievements. Dheeraj celebrated every personal success with a no-holds-barred mission to spread the good news. We’re talking about effusive e-mail blasts, Facebook posts, and enthusiastic recaps for co-workers during elevator rides.

Inevitably, Dheeraj’s self-promotion became a running joke for many of his fellow students.

Perception disconnect

Vipul and Dheeraj may have vastly different personalities, but they share the same professional problem. They have what I call Faulty Volume Control. Essentially, they are both struggling to find the optimal sound level for their own self-promotion. Vipul’s volume is soft enough to mimic the mute button, while Dheeraj’s volume is cranked up to the level of full-throttle eardrum bursting. Fabulous resumes aside, these gentlemen won’t be able to reach their full potential until they tune in and find just the right volume level for communicating their unique value propositions.

If you think about the volume control on your radio or iPod, the dial offers you a full range of sound levels—not an on/off switch limited to two choices. So if your current self-promotion is at Level 1, the solution isn’t automatically jumping up to 10. The goal is to find the right level for your specific situation. Most of the time, that perfect balance is somewhere in the middle.

Faulty Volume Control isn’t simply a blind spot that hinders MBA students but also affects entry-level workers, mid-level managers and senior executives who are angling for that next promotion or lucrative stock option package. In fact, this blind spot might be even more problematic if you are hoping to move up within the same company. Since you are not submitting new resumes to the decision makers, your perceived value is graded solely on your ability to share your strengths and accomplishments with the right people in a tactful, appropriate way.

You won’t be able to reach your full potential until you tune in and find just the right volume level for communicating your unique strengths

Volume too low

If you are among those who prefer to whisper rather than scream your value, can you identify a specific incident in your past when self-promotion generated a negative response? Or were there important people in your life who influenced you to adopt this pattern of communication?

Sometimes analysing the cause of a particular behaviour can give you the facts [and permission] you need to make important changes.

To be distinct, we have to show people exactly how we bring those skills to the table and display the passion behind what we do. To turn up the volume on your self-promotion, try moving beyond ‘what’ to ‘how’ as you share your value. Your resume may list what you’ve done, but people really want to know how you did it. How did you generate your results? How do you relate to other people on your team? How do you perform in leadership roles? How do you respond to adversity?

Remember that self-promotion is an on-going task, even if you work in the same office for years. Long ago, it was fairly common to have the same boss for decades. Today, managers come and go—and with each one, we face the task of educating that new supervisor about our work and our areas of specialisation.

Each of us has unique features and benefits that employers could leverage for a competitive advantage. If we don’t actively ‘sell’ those distinctions, we disappear into the endless line of indistinguishable people with impressive resumes who are vying for the same title or corner office.

Despite realising the need for louder self-promotion, some ‘Volume too low’ people still find it difficult to venture out of their introverted comfort zones. It takes time to move in that direction, so keep trying and celebrate the small steps forward. You also have another option. Find a mentor or advocate who clearly knows your strengths and is willing to champion you in the right circles. An influential supporter can nominate you for awards or make sure your name is included when promotions or bonuses are being considered. You still want to grow in terms of communicating your value, but a persuasive mentor can supplement your efforts in a significant way.

Volume too high

Man watching outside from his office window
No matter how impressive your resume and your accomplishments, you still need to ‘sell’ your strengths

If you fall into the ‘Volume too high’ group, you probably feel comfortable pointing out your own assets. Is that just your personality? Have you been rewarded for ‘selling your value’ in the past? Or were you overlooked for a major promotion by remaining silent? If you are continually attacking people with your value message, they likely have one goal: getting out of your way. Listening to you ceases to be an option. Chances are, this habit is deeply embedded, and you may not even realise you are doing it.

Your first task is to raise your awareness. Think before you speak, and try to evaluate how your words will be perceived. Are you sharing important information or calling unnecessary attention to your latest corporate victory?

As a gentle reminder, you might want to leave yourself some unobtrusive signs to help jog your memory. Try writing the word ‘volume’ on several post-it notes and placing them on your desk or in your wallet. It’s a simple signal, but it might prevent you from falling into old patterns of blaring your benefits.

Self-promotion is not disgraceful; it is necessary. You have to be pro-active in seizing opportunities to showcase your value is you want to succeed

The volume intervention

I became acquainted with Vipul and Dheeraj when I was hired by their university to coach its MBA students. The contrast between their approaches was particularly striking. My goal was to provide strategies that would help each of these students reach a more successful level of self-promotion. With Vipul, I knew my challenge would be recalibrating his thought process about sharing his value with others.

As we talked, I discovered that his mother and grandmother had told him for years that it was inappropriate and unacceptable to ‘toot your own horn’. Anything that even remotely sounded like bragging was a punishable offence in his house. To compensate, he invested countless hours in building a resume that would presumably remove all doubt about his qualifications without requiring him to utter a single word. I reminded him that people from older generations were not faced with the same challenges we have today. It’s a different world now, with a brand new set of rules. I encouraged him to give up the idea that self-promotion is disgraceful. It’s necessary. You have to be proactive in seizing opportunities to showcase your value if you want to succeed, and there are plenty of graceful ways to go about it. Once he accepted the evolution of self-promotion and the new requirements, he stopped feeling guilty about the idea of verbally communicating his value.

I encouraged him to give up the idea that self-promotion is disgraceful. It’s necessary.

Vipul also mentioned that he had been working closely with a particular professor in his MBA programme. I suggested that he should continue forging that bond and tap into the relationship for brainstorming about additional ways to enhance his marketability. That professor ultimately recommended him for a prestigious achievement award and wrote him a stellar recommendation after he graduated.

During my time working with Dheeraj, we discussed the ramifications of overzealous self-promotion. We explored whether his approach might stem from a scarcity mentality and a sense of desperation—the fear that there might not be enough success or work to go around. That seemed to strike a nerve.

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We talked about using tact and diplomacy when sharing information, and we used some role-playing exercises to experiment with different scenarios. He quickly learned that he needed to stick to the script and be cautious about his timing.

One of the most important things I pointed out to him was based on my favourite quote from poet Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I asked Dheeraj, above all else, to pay close attention to the way he makes other people feel when he is in their presence. This was a new perspective for him, but I hoped it would prompt him to ask himself some tough questions: Am I making these people feel comfortable and appreciated? Or do they seem to be apathetic? Worse yet, annoyed?

Since completing their MBAs, Vipul and Dheeraj have both become quite successful in corporate America. With practice, they each learned how to counteract their natural self-promotion tendencies and found the optimal volume level for communicating their equally impressive value propositions.

“If you don’t get noticed, you don’t have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the art is in getting noticed naturally, without screaming or without tricks.”
LEO BURNETT [World-Famous Advertising Executive]


A version of this was first published in the February 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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