Six years ago, when I started my company, FinePoint, I could never have predicted what it would become. What began as a way to avoid another desk job morphed into a PR shop, and then something quite different — and much bigger.
I never thought I’d be spending my days helping to teach people, particularly women, how to brag better. I never thought that I’d be in a position to help women in positions of power (also dudes, and also up-and-comers of all genders) do a better job talking about their accomplishments and feeling good about what they’ve done. And I never thought I’d get to help these women learn how to promote their companies, brands, or products by getting them onto stages around the world and in print and on TV to discuss what they do well.
I had discovered another use for public relations: It could be a tool for professional confidence. But I quickly found that women, in particular — regardless of age, level of seniority, or industry — felt “weird,” “silly,” or “icky” about promoting their accomplishments for professional and personal gain. Even now, I talk to powerful women every day, and each one I’ve encountered has, at some point, felt this way. To be fair, how could we feel otherwise, when we don’t know how to brag, let alone brag well? There’s really no vocabulary to talk positively about professional accomplishment; and it’s not as if most of us are taught to boast about ourselves. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.
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Bragging feels shitty for a number of different reasons — and for women, it’s about 100 times more complex. We’re constantly afraid of judgment, or doing it wrong. We live in an era where there’s an inverse relationship between volume and merit. We have people online, on TV, or in our workplaces shrieking “I’m great!” with no experience or discernible talent to back it up. On the other side, we have people with all the goods — the years of experience, the know-how — but they don’t know how to talk about it.
For women, historically, positive attributes have been associated with passive behaviors, being “demure” or “coy” or “understated” was the goal. So how can you get out there and talk about yourself in a way that feels good, when also as a woman, you’re judged from your ankles to your vocal fry?
Research supports that the more you talk positively about yourself, the more it actually elevates your career. In a study by Psychology Women’s Quarterly, researchers found a link between “norm violation” and “the ability to self-promote” — a.k.a., staying stuck in proscribed gender roles at work is hindering women from bragging.
The more you get used to bragging about yourself, the better a position you put yourself in to land a new job or big assignment, or to get a promotion or a raise. Really, there’s no limit.
A mistake I often see people make is prefacing their accomplishments with things like “shameless self promotion alert!” or “I hate to brag, but…” But these modifiers actually do you a disservice: Research shows that the anxiety you feel about promoting or talking about your accomplishments translates to a reader, and makes that reader not want to engage with you.
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More simply put: If you don’t feel good about what you’re doing, how am I supposed to? What you’re saying is, “I accomplished something, but I feel like a dick for talking about it. Therefore, I’m going to insult myself before you can.” If you’re not proud of your accomplishments, or at least faking, how is anyone else going to promote you and support you?
You have to promote yourself and support yourself first. It takes time and practice — but think about this the next time you share something you did. How can you phrase it in a way that feels OK to you? For example, instead of saying “this is a shameless plug for a new article I wrote,” try saying, “I’m really proud of this article I wrote for The New York Times (we can all have goals), I would love it if you gave it a share or sent me feedback.” Help others bolster you.
At a networking function or when you meet someone new:
I often insert myself into conversations when I hear a friend at a networking event or conference introduce herself without actually emphasizing how amazing she is. Sometimes it’s appreciated, and well… sometimes I should butt out.
If you don’t want me (or a beloved coworker) singing your praises for you at your next networking event, you should give a few minutes of thought to how your first impression in a professional scenario can help you. Of course, there’s a firm handshake and eye contact — but don’t forget to consider your tone of voice.
And make sure to get into the specifics: Talk about a project you’re working on that you’re really passionate about. “I work in marketing for x company” can easily become “I run marketing at x company and I manage a team of seven. I’m currently working on a project for our new product, x. It’s really exciting, here’s my card.” Big difference. Not to mention, whether you passionately swept the floors at an internship or rang the opening bell at the NYSE, that passion translates and will get other people excited about you, too.
If you frame it that way, then the networking event you’re going to or the panel you’re attending is actually an opportunity for you to advance your goals. It’s about being prepared. And we prepare for everything else in life, so why shouldn’t we prepare for this, as well?
On social media:
Let’s take some steps, right off the bat, to make sure you’re putting what you want out there on Twitter (and Instagram and LinkedIn-verse) — that you’re announcing your accomplishments as they happen, without couching them in humility.
Do all of your bios match up on your various social media profiles? It might sound obvious, but there are a lot of people out there, some of whom might share a name with you — so it has to be dead obvious for a recruiter, conference booker, or anyone to tell exactly who you are across interfaces. Brag your bio! Say what you’ve done! Don’t be timid, be proud.
In the place you never thought about:
What’s in your email signature? Sure, you might just think it’s what you get when you scroll down. I see many missed opportunities to insert asks or more information about your accomplishments in email signatures. Use that space. You should always link to your personal site if you have one. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone doesn’t click it. Also — don’t use a funky font. Not only does it not show up well, but nobody wants to see Comic Sans or Papyrus.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. It can feel so intimidating to even acknowledge yourself and what you’ve done in any direction when there’s a fear of insane scrutiny. Being proud of what you’ve done can feel like there should be shame associated with it, when there shouldn’t be. I’ve been called every name in the book for bragging, both behind my back and in front of it.
Online, it’s so easy to hide behind a screen. It’s easy to read the nasty comments that people make and to internalize them (I purposely don’t read mine). But there is no escaping people who say mean things. They come with the territory. So, if people are saying not-so-nice things to you for bragging, take it as a positive: At least you’re out there and giving them something to talk about.