The special hell that is self-promotion
Updated: Jun 6, 2019
At today’s French class, I struck up a conversation with a classmate. He is a certified yoga instructor from India and wanted to start teaching in Montréal. He told me that he had a contact that could help him get into teaching yoga in a downtown office. After talking about how yoga was in high demand for IT folks, I asked if he was interested in providing personal instruction. Then I asked if he had ever posted flyers with tear-off tabs at cafés, bakeries or anywhere there was a cork board where people post notices for the community.
He said, “I hadn’t thought of that.” Then he thanked me and said he would give it a shot. After a while I caught myself thinking, how could I effortlessly think of how to promote my friend’s business but frequently come up blank when it came to promoting myself? Why was I already thinking of how I could introduce him to friends when I could barely muster the courage to ask my friends to follow me on Twitter or to even like my Facebook page? It seems I have no problem endorsing my peers, but get all tongue-tied and uncomfortable when it comes to talking about myself.
I have no problem endorsing my peers, but get all tongue-tied when it comes to talking about myself.
A lot of it has to do with cultural norms. My parents did not hesitate to point out that from the moment I could talk, I was rather full of myself. No one likes braggarts or tall poppies, and anyone who stuck their head out was basically asking to get mowed down like so much grass. And yet conversely, everyone (your parents, your teachers, your peers) expects you to be a high achiever. While there's nothing wrong with high achievement, there's a huge taboo against bringing them up. So instead of tooting your own horn, you wait to be recognized.
But that’s only part of the reason. After my youthful braggadocio, I became extremely awkward and introverted in my teens. There has been research about how our personalities are not constant throughout life, and in my case I went from a fairly confident young girl to the most painfully shy teen imaginable. And getting a poodle perm certainly did not help. Today I am something in between. I can talk to anybody, and I mean ANYBODY from all walks of life. But ask me to talk myself up and I would rather hit my head with a rock.
Where does this deep discomfort come from? And for people like me who still struggle with deeply-ingrained cultural norms, how do we navigate the modern workplace where if our achievements are not seen, then we may as well have done nothing?
In my case, most of the discomfort is rooted in a profound aversion to noise. And by noise I mean useless, repetitive messaging that tries to fight for our increasingly limited attention span. Put it this way - if everyone is great, then nobody is. If I just add to the noise, then how am I any different from everyone else? If I get lumped in with the rest of the noisemakers, then how could I hope to get noticed if they've put me on mute?
Put it this way - if everyone is great, then nobody is.
This is how it goes: if an ad turns up on Youtube, I always skip the ad. Always. If an ad turns up in my Facebook feed I just scroll past, because to me it's just noise. However as my French teacher says, there are always exceptions.
Now why on earth would I want to click on Wealthsimple's Money Diaries? Because for the most part, it's not pestering me to buy anything. And because I’m insatiably curious about how moderately famous people struggled to manage their finances before they made it big. Reading about someone stealing apples from their gym speaks my inner striver, while confirming that playing catch up with neighbours from the NBA is never a good idea is just plain compelling because schadenfreude.
I love this kind of content because I find it useful and very well-written. And because I’ve had such a positive experience, the stories stay in my head long after I’ve closed my browser or app. I may not know anything about investing, but I am already positively predisposed, so much so that if I had money to invest, they would be the first company I would consider.
The point I’m trying to make is that self-promotion doesn’t have to be awkward and distasteful if you are willing to give your audience something in return - or what in marketing parlance is called offering value. For me, the main value of these articles was the sound financial advice or dire warnings from people who have actually lived through events as they had described. The fact that I find them endlessly entertaining just happens to be a bonus.
Self-promotion doesn’t have to be awkward and distasteful if you offer your audience something of value.
Another thing to note about these articles is their subject - money - which is of course what Wealthsimple is all about. There are other diaries out there, but it would be bizarre if the same company were to publish, I don’t know, Food diaries or Sex diaries. I would still probably read them, but I would wonder what the hell was going on with their editorial board.
While not all of us have the same resources that would allows us to regularly produce articles that are even on the same level, we can try to create good, decent, relevant content for our audience on a small scale. Let’s say my yoga teacher friend decided to start a blog, I would recommend that he write about different yoga positions can benefit the body. Because it is a subject he is knowledgeable in and it is something that his potential students will find interesting. Then it would be perfectly reasonable to see a short sentence at the bottom informing readers that, by the way, he is available to instruct groups and feel free to contact him if you’re interested.
If let’s say, my friend were to say that that knowledge was best reserved for his yoga class, I would then suggest that he ask me or one of his other friends to write a post in the form of an interview with questions that he doesn't mind answering. The title can be, Chatting about chakras: An interview with (friend’s name), and it can start with, “Today, I’m talking to (friend) who teaches yoga. Tell me (friend), what brings you to Montréal?”
For those of us who aren't too keen on writing, there are other ways to get the word out. You can make and distribute samples of your work, or find ways to demonstrate your skill in a way that will let your oeuvre speak for itself. You have to be smart with where and when you do this because your samples/time/resources are limited and you want them accessible to people who can make decisions. And don't forget to include your contact details!
To review, here are some key points that can reduce the hellishness of self-promotion:
Don't make noise. Instead, offer value and build trust.
Find out which of your audience’s interests align with your skills and talk about it.
Lean on your friends.
The last one is true, not just for the interview example. If you find self-promotion distasteful, or you don’t have time, or you really, really suck at it, there’s no harm in finding out which of your friends might be interested in getting the word out about you and what you do. And if you know how to pick good friends, are yourself an excellent friend and are reliably great at what you do, then your friends should be willing to help.
Lean on your friends.
There are other ways that friends can provide support. Ask them what they honestly think about your skills or your new venture or your LinkedIn resumé. If you're lucky enough to have several who can offer you unique insights that can help you navigate your next move in life then make them your brain trust. However, you have to be prepared for their honesty because a good friend will tell you even the things you don't want to hear. And for Pete's sake at least pay for their lunch or coffee because they are offering you their advice and their time for free.
So after all that, I now have no problem saying I want you to do me a favour. I want you to tell all your friends about me.
Lee-Yan Marquez is an artist and writer who works in web design, graphics and technical writing. Ask her to design your logo, business cards, social media avatar or website.