How to Self-Promote Without Being a ‘Self-Promoter’

Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

WWe’re often told that success is not about what you know but who you know. The implication there, of course, is that we should all get to know more of the right people — so we should all get busy building our personal brands, expanding our networks, and leveraging our contacts.

Of course, that’s all easier said than done. It can be difficult to strike the right balance between highlighting your abilities and bragging, and uncomfortable to try. Why do we find it so hard to promote ourselves, even when we need to?

“There’s a pervasive stereotype of this pushy, over the top, slightly arrogant type that comes to mind when we think of self-promotion,” says Evelyn Cotter, the founder of SEVEN Career Coaching. The more introverted, she adds, may be especially wary of seeming that way: “Those of us who aren’t extroverts cringe at the thought of pushing ourselves to the front and ensuring we’re seen and heard.”

Gender can be a factor: Self-promotion can been seen as a negative for women, who are expected to appear modest, research has shown. Women are more likely to deny credit for their successes, in part because they are more likely to experience backlash and social and economic penalties for doing otherwise.

Cultural norms play a role, too, says John Arnold, a professor of organizational behavior at Loughborough University in the U.K. “In the U.K., there is a general expectation that people will not come across as ‘big headed,’ and awareness of this makes many of us reluctant to risk any statement or action that might be interpreted that way,” he says.

In any area where you’re not already brimming with confidence, he adds, talking yourself up can be especially intimidating: “Many people are inclined to self-doubt, so self-promotion feels extra-risky because you might claim something about yourself that you think it would be hard to live up to if challenged.”

At some point, however, we all need to advertise our skills. Fortunately, Cotter says, “there are ways we can do this without being obnoxious.” Here’s how.

Remember why you want to promote yourself

“First things first, get clear on who you’re trying to reach and what you want to achieve,” says Caroline Joynson, a PR strategist and founder of Cheerleader PR. “Once you are clear on your audience and objectives, making a plan for self-promotion becomes much easier.” Ideally, she says, that plan would include who you’re trying to reach, what you want to communicate, and where and when you want to say it.

Keep track of your achievements

Taking note of your skills and accomplishments can help you feel more comfortable and confident when it comes to promoting yourself, too.

“Block one hour every Friday after lunch, or when you have space to think, and clarify what you did well that week, what you achieved, any positive feedback or compliments you received, what you were most proud of and make that a weekly ritual of yours,” Cotter advises.

Keeping a “good shit board” where you write down big and small wins, as well as praise, can help you keep track of it. And reading the list over can be a handy confidence boost when you need one.

Back up your claims

If you do talk up your achievements to others (and you should), it’s important to make sure you believe and can support what you’re saying. Recent research published in the Journal of Self and Identity found that people react more favorably to boasting when it is supported by evidence.

“When it comes to self-promotion, concentrate on show, not tell,” says Joynson. “Show your audience what you can do, rather than just broadcasting to them. Show them examples of your work and the results you’ve achieved.”

Your narrative doesn’t need to be all high points, Arnold says. “People generally like others who are competent but not perfect,” he says. “So don’t be afraid to mention something you are less proud of occasionally — as long as it’s not a mega-important thing, of course.”

Use social media — wisely

Social media can be a useful tool for promoting your work and successes. Find the networks that others in your industry frequent, and build your presence on them.

“Write for your company blog or try LinkedIn Blogs — share your passion or expertise in areas and work you’re doing,” Cotter says. “On Twitter, chime in and share opinions on workplace trends.”

And as everyone should know by now, social media is not the place for your off-color jokes, political provocations, or personal attacks. (In fact, it’s best to keep those to yourself generally.) If you’re presenting yourself as a professional, make sure you consistently walk the walk.

Demonstrate generosity of spirit

Celebrating the achievements of others is a good way to feel — and come across as — positive when networking.

“Be willing to talk up others as well as yourself, so that you come across as a generally positive person, not an egotist,” Arnold says. “Don’t talk others down, especially behind their backs.”

Besides, the best way to prepare for a time when you need to call upon your network for help is every day. People are more than just “connections,” and at work and in life, developing genuine relationships will pay off.

Get over yourself

Ultimately, the key is to stop judging yourself and others for self promotion. These days, avoiding it completely is simply not an option for most of us.

“I understand the reluctance of some people and the fear around self-promotion,” says career coach Meg Burton. “But we have to do it.” If you don’t, nobody else will.

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