Social Minefield: How To Self-Promote Without Being A Jerk

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No matter what field you work in or aspire to, you've probably been told you need to self-promote to get ahead. But how do you do that without coming off like a jerk? Never fear — we have tips.


"Self-promotion" is kind of an ugly word, but it's also a necessity. If you're an artist, writer, or filmmaker, you have to get the word out about your work. If you freelance in any capacity, you need to pound the pavement for jobs. Even if you have a relatively steady job, you still need to make sure your accomplishments aren't being overlooked. So how can you do that without being That Person Who Sends All The Annoying Emails? Here's how:

Know your audience.

Lindsey Pollak, career and workplace expert and author of Getting From College to Career, gave me this tip for letting people in your life know about something cool you're doing:

When you're determining a distribution list for this kind of thing, make sure you're not just blasting it to everybody you've ever met in your life. Think about who would actually want this information. Your mom probably wants it, your boss may not. Your friend who just got rejected from a job may not want to hear it.

We all have that one Facebook friend or email contact who's constantly sending us updates on projects or events, regardless of whether we have any interest or even live in the city where they're taking place — this isn't just annoying, it also makes us less likely to pay attention if and when that friend is actually involved in something we might be interested in. Relatedly, says Pollak,

Couch it in language that's interesting to the other person — "I thought you might be interested in watching this," or "In the past, you've expressed interest in my work, you might be interested in my upcoming gallery show. Explain why you're sending it.

And if you are sending mass emails, be sure to close with a thank-you and a way to opt out of future mailings, should your recipients feel like doing so.

Inform, don't brag.

Career coach and artist advocate Caroll Michels, author of How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul, told me,


I believe in low-key. [...] The things that turn me off when they come across my computer very often are talking about yourself in a braggy way [...] To counteract that I like a low-key approach with facts and information and not a lot of bravado.


This doesn't mean you can't talk about your strengths or successes, but it does mean that instead of going on about "how great I am," you may want to present concrete examples of your greatness. Pollak agrees — she says forwarding along an admiring email from a client can be a good tactic, as can sharing numbers that quantify your high performance. She notes that "using others' words" — whether that means quoting kudos you got from a critic, a customer, or a former employer (if, say, you're writing a cover letter) — can be more effective than simply praising yourself. It can also be a good tactic for people who are shy about tooting their own horns — start by letting other people toot them for you!

Be clear about what you want, and what you're asking for.

I talked to Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power, who gave me this self-promoting lesson:

Be clear about what it is that you want in your own mind, and in your own mind, get yourself to that place where you know you're entitled to it, that it's legitimate for you to ask for whatever it is. What we tell ourselves in our own mind is of critical importance. And a part of this is to be able to identify it crisply to yourself in one or two words — "I want a 10% raise," "I want that job, and here's why."


Often what you want is pretty simple — you want people to take notice of your recent achievement, or to go to your show, or to buy your book — but if you don't articulate it clearly to yourself, you may not really know how to go about getting it. Figuring out what you want can help you tailor your pitch, and it can also help you with that first step of knowing your audience. If you want people to go to your show, for instance, it doesn't help to email people who don't live in your area. But if you want to build your reputation so you'll be asked to perform somewhere else, it might. Also, a little clarity can make the concept of self-promotion less scary. You don't have to go around constantly yelling about how great you are — you just have to set goals and figure out how to meet them.

Another note on clarity: don't mix messages. Michels says she finds it very annoying when artists send "Happy New Year" emails that also include plugs for their work. So be upfront when you're talking about your professional life, and don't try to disguise it as personal well-wishing.


Use all media.

Says Feldt,

What I try to do is not to send out too many emails, but rather to perhaps do an email, a few tweets, a posting on Facebook, and [...] occasionally I'll do a few private messages on Facebook or Twitter, and I'll sometimes ask them to help send out the information. So I feel that employing every medium is a good tip, because each of us has different ways that we receive information.


This will not only help you reach people more effectively — it'll also help keep you from pissing them off. Even people who live on the internet check all their media with different frequency, and spreading your message around a little will be less likely to feel like a barrage. Michels also notes that individual messages aren't everything — if you're an artist or anybody with something specific to promote, "a really tight website" is also key. And in that realm, straightforward and easy to navigate trumps complex and over-designed every time.

Think about self-promoting as sharing.

Says Pollak,

Don't say "I'm self-promoting," say "I'm speaking up for msyelf" or "I'm sharing information." [...] If the word self-promotion gives you an "ick" — and it is kind of icky — don't use it. Characterize it in a different way, as sharing, or as providing information that people don't otherwise have. And think about how you feel on the other end of it — you want to hear that your friends are in a play, you want to know that the people who work for you are doing a great job. [...] When you think about the other person more than yourself you can really couch what you're saying in a way that it's valuable to them and not just all about you.


Thinking more about the other person in an interaction has been a bit of a Social Minefield theme lately, but it makes sense in self-promotion as it does in flirting and socializing — if you can get outside your own head and consider the person or people you're dealing with, both you and they will ultimately be more satisfied.


Pay it forward.

I don't mean this in a creepy, quid pro quo kind of way — rather, if you're in a position to promote people or work you think are great, take a minute to do so. Go to the show, go to the reading, give praise where praise is due. Yes, doing so may build goodwill for you in whatever community you run with, but more importantly, it will show you how it feels to be that other person Pollak mentions, the one who wants to know about good stuff. This will make you more comfortable with self-promotion in the future, and it will remind you that it's not all a dog-eat-dog competition to get noticed. Ideally, self-promotion should be making people aware of things they want to know about — and if what you're working at is worth all your blood, sweat, and tears, odds are other people will want to hear about it too.


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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Getting From College To Career
How To Survive And Prosper As An Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul
No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power


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From my own personal experience a lot of this is really helpful. I hate, hate, hate, the idea of being "braggy" but I still need to promote my work and get the word out if I want to be able to, you know, do it. I'm not a natural self-promoter, so I've had to develop a kind of self-deprecating style that let's me talk about my work without veering into fakeville or the dreaded bragging.

I work on a lot of projects by other people which helps, so I'm naturally promoting their work all the time. Which makes me feels less weird when it's something of mine. Things like Twitter have become essential because it's easier to link and suggest something without being in your face or obnoxious about it.

I've also found being part of communities is wonderful not only for promotion, but for information and comraderie. You can talk about your work AND other people's and have a kind of mutual appreciation thing a good way. Being generous with others not only feels good, but it helps everyone. If you can help your industry thrive, it's good for you and everyone else involved in it.

The last thing I'd add: when you are doing self-promotion, no matter how casual or low-key you keep it, when you have visibility you will get some negativity. Hopefully not a lot, but, it does happen. I've been lucky for the most part, but I'd had a run in or two with someone who is either sour graping or just awful.

Example: My Twitter is both personal and professional, so I often talk about projects I'm working on, post links to reviews, talk about the great creators and their projects, and sometimes things I've done myself. My job encourages this as everyone across the industry does it and it's good for promotion. But I still got a pretty horrible troll one time who called me names, accused me of "bragging" for talking about being busy, and then actually tried to contact my employer to say I was wasting company time (joke was on him, my boss tweets and we all use it for our projects so it's something we're actually expected to do).

The few times I've experienced this it's been from people of a very particular type who mostly just resent that you're doing something they aren't. But still, it's not pleasant, and I worried for awhile that maybe I was being some awful braggart. In the end I knew I wasn't, and you aren't either. Being proud of what you've accomplished and sharing it/promoting it is not bragging. So don't let negativity get you down!