Ten Personal Branding Mistakes to Avoid

by on March 7th, 2015
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I never liked the idea of a canned elevator speech for use in networking situations. I want people — including you — to be spontaneous and to respond in the moment when someone asks them “So, what do you do?” But I also understand that people feel better if they have a few words prepared ahead of time. They want to be able to answer the question “What kind of work do you do?” quickly and without stumbling. That’s a reasonable thing to aspire to. So, I help people compose elevator speeches all the time. (I make them promise not to recite the elevator speech as though they were reading a script, but to become so comfortable with it that the speech trips off the tongue.)

Apart from face-to-face verbal branding, we’ve got to compose a LinkedIn headline, and we’ve got to brand ourselves in other places, too. If you chat in online forums or Yahoo!groups, you’ve got to be able to tell people what you do. When you update your resume, you need some kind of description of what you’ve done and what you’re looking to do next. Most people do that in the form of a resume Summary.

So, what’s your resume Summary going to say? The Summary at the top of your resume may be the most critical part of the whole document, because it tells the reader what you think about your own career thus far, and what you’re aiming for. In any of these personal branding scenarios, you’re likely to veer in the direction of these ten unfortunate branding habits (on our list, below). Don’t do it! Once you learn how each of these branding tendencies is a less-than-sensational branding choice, and read our “here’s how to fix the branding problem” examples, perhaps you’ll find the task of branding yourself in words a bit easier. I hope so!

No Brand at All
Choosing no brand at all is the most common personal branding mistake that people make. Here’s what that sounds like:

SOMEONE: So, what do you do?
YOU: Oh, I’ve done a bunch of things. I write press releases, and I’ve been an Office Manager and an HR person at one point, too. I can do anything.

If you have no brand, it means you don’t know where you’re going. Your no-brand branding is saying “I have a bunch of skills, and I hope someone can use some of them.” We need to do more work than that. We need to decide what we want to do next. Then, when someone asks “So, what do you do?” we can say “I’m looking for a Public Relations job” or “I’m looking for an HR job” or “I’m a writer, and I’ve had a lot of fun writing press releases as well as HR materials for employees. I love communicating in writing – that’s my thing.”

We need to create a frame that encompasses our past experience and whatever we’ve decided we want to do next. (We can have more than one direction, for a job search for instance, but in any given networking conversation, we’ll only pull out one elevator speech. That’s why we need to ask a few questions of our conversational partner before dumping our speech on him or her. Without learning something about the person we’re speaking to, we won’t know which variation of our elevator speech to use!).

Brand is Too Broad
It’s not a good idea to try to be all things to all people, branding-wise. Here’s how that sounds:

SOMEONE: So, what do you do professionally?
YOU: I’m a Marketing person. I also do PR, and a little bit of Sales and Operations. Also Customer Service.

It is normal to want to squeeze everything you’ve ever done into the short “Who am I?” intro, but it’s not a good idea. It’s almost like having no brand at all, because people don’t know what to do with the information you’re giving them when it’s too broad. They need to be able to mentally roll through the Rolodex in their heads and think about people they know who might be looking for someone with your skill set. Unless you’re looking to be the number two hire in a fledgling startup, a too-broad functional brand is a liability, not an asset. (If you were looking to be the number two hire in a startup, you wouldn’t say “I do Sales and Marketing and Operations.” You’d say, “I’m the person who comes into a startup very early and pulls together the back-office and customer-facing infrastructure, lands the first customers and gets the business up and running.”)

Branding for Industries We Don’t Care About
Here’s another personal-branding mistake people make. They make this one in their LinkedIn profiles and their resumes every day. They tell us (the reader of the resume or LinkedIn profile, or the person hearing their elevator speech for the first time) the industries they’ve worked in, although they may not be an industry-specific player. Why would we do that? It’s because we’ve been trained to list our industries, as though they’re important to our branding, even when they’re not! Here’s what this personal branding mistake looks like on paper:

Results-oriented PR professional with experience in Telecom, Legal Services and Apparel industries.

Here’s the problem: this is a PR person. A PR person could work in any industry. If you don’t care about working specifically in telecom, law or apparel again, why would you make that part of your brand? All you’re going to do with this branding is push non-telecom/non-legal/non-apparel people away from you. That’s a terrible branding move! If you do care about staying in a certain industry (not sure why you would) then tell us which industry you’re focused on — and I’m sure in that case it won’t be the random mix of telecom, legal and apparel. Those just happen to be the employers who’ve hired you earlier in your career. Don’t let their industries define your future trajectory!

Using Corporatespeak Boilerplate
Lots of people use boring, robotic corporatespeak language to brand themselves. They say and write things like:

“End-to-end problem-solver who provides bottom-line results.”

Oh, please! This is a horrible brand. What does it mean? This kind of general filler language impresses no one, because it’s nearly content-free. All the boilerplate language we’ve been taught to use in our resumes can only hurt us. It screams “I am afraid to actually talk about myself, so I’ll use all the done-to-death resume words and phrases I’ve heard a million times before.” Here’s a list (it could be much longer, if space allowed) of words and phrases to take out of your resume, your LinkedIn profile and your brain right now:

Results-oriented professional
Bottom-line orientation
Meets or exceeds expectations
Managing cross-functional teams
Proven track record of success
Progressively more responsible positions
Motivated self-starter

Your brand will be stronger – and will sound like it belongs to a living person – when you use a human voice in your branding, and leave the robot language out of it.

Praising Ourselves
Here’s another common personal branding mistake. People say, or write “I’m a sales guru” or “I’m the best marketer in Connecticut.” This is grasp-y and grovelly. It’s horrible personal branding, because it says “I have to praise myself, in a lame attempt to get you to think I’m good at what I do.” Ever notice that the people who really are gurus and mavens, never brand themselves that way? We don’t need to praise ourselves in our branding. What we can do instead is tell the reader or listener what we love to do – what we care about. That’s a lot more interesting for the reader or listener than hearing us trumpet our own fabulousness.

Listing The Tasks We’ve Performed
People are complex. They are multi-faceted. We don’t want to brand ourselves by listing the things we’ve done in our past jobs, or the things we intend to do at future jobs. Here’s what it looks like when people do that:

I type, answer the phone, handle customer service calls, set up databases, create reports and schedule appointments.

When we offer lists of tasks and duties, we minimize our own accomplishments. If we can get a little altitude on our own careers, we can say:

“I’m an Office Manager who loves to keep an overbooked CEO sane, and serve as the air-traffic controller for a busy office.”

Now we see this Office Manager in action. We see that s/he understands what the job entails and has fun talking about. This job-seeker is using imagery (‘air traffic controller”) in her branding — s/he could even use it in his or her LinkedIn headline. This person isn’t listing the tasks that he or she has performed — rather, s/he’s giving us a feel for how s/he perceives the job. Much stronger branding!

Making Your Brand About the Trophies
Very smart and accomplished people fall victim to this branding mishap all the time. They say things like

Accomplished Marketer with an MBA and Director-level experience in top aerospace firms.

This is an unfortunate branding move, because it says “Look! Look at my MBA! A real university conferred that on me – I must be awesome, right?” We don’t want to send that message. If you have an MBA, that’s great. Your MBA doesn’t make you powerful. If you are awesome, it’s because you are an amazing person. You don’t need to hold the MBA or the director-level experience or a certification or any other trophy — that is, an honor or accolade conferred by some other person or body – to make you fabulous. You can talk in your branding about why you do what you do, or how you do it. That shows the reader that you have a passion for your work. In that case, you’re not saying “Look at the awards I’ve won, and the diplomas I’ve received!” You’re saying “I am me. I’m not perfect for every employer or every client, but I have a take on my work which is mine alone. It works for some people. Maybe you are one of them.”

Branding is something that pulls the right people closer to you and pushes the rest of them away. We don’t need to go to the consulting or job-search marketplace with the message “Please find me acceptable.” Your branding task is to decide which audiences you want to reach, and then to create a brand that speaks to those audiences — not to every person alive on the planet.

Making Your Brand About the Years of Experience

If I had a nickel for every LinkedIn profile I’ve read that says “Seven years of experience in Marketing, and four in Product Management” I’d be a rich person. This is an awful way to brand yourself. The time that has elapsed as you’ve performed your various assignments is the least important thing about those gigs. We want to tell people how you think, how you view the world and how you’ve made a difference for your past employers and clients. We want them to know what gets you excited. Who cares how many years you’ve spent in one industry or function, or another? That is not as significant as what you’ve accomplished in your career so far.

Avoiding the Word “I” in Your Branding
This isn’t likely to trip you up in your face-to-face conversations, but most of us have been trained to avoid using the word “I” in our resume and LinkedIn branding, and that is a crazy thing to do. After all, these documents are about you. Of course you’ll use the word “I!” If you don’t, you’ll sound like a robot — and that’s what we are trying to avoid. Instead of “Results-oriented professional” you can say “I’m a Marketer who loves to conduct as much research as it takes to convert product, pricing and promotion decisions from trial balloons to low-risk exercises.” You’re telling us how you approach your job. You can use “I” in the Summary of your resume, and again in the bullets that describe your accomplishments (not tasks and duties!) for the jobs you’ve held.

Meandering
The last personal branding mistake on our list is one that often befalls people who have thought about their personal branding. They want to tell the reader or listener something about how they operate, so they write something like this:

Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by complex problems and the range of solutions that might apply. I love to solve Sudoku and logic puzzles, and find customer-relationship and process-improvement conundrums especially satisfying.

People send me resumes and LinkedIn profile urls with this kind of language in them every day. I love the fact that the writer is trying to get him- or herself across on the page. The problem here is that we don’t get the punchline. We’re not willing to keep reading, because we don’t have a frame for the conversation. Okay, you love puzzles — are you an engineer? We need that information right up front. We’re not willing to wait for it.

If you’re saying that you’re a problem-solver but you don’t know whether you want to be in IT or Sales, we can’t help you. It is frustrating for the reader to encounter this kind of branding. It tells us something about the interior life of the writer – but nothing that we, as a listener or reader, can grab hold of as we think about the person in front of us and opportunities we may have heard about. Imagine that you met someone in a social setting — a block party, for instance. Imagine that you asked the person “So, tell me what you do in the daytime” and your new acquaintance said “I’m a problem-solver” or something else just as general. You’d think “Really? Six-month-old babies solve problems. What does that tell me?”

What To Do Instead: Examples of Personal Brands That Work
Here are a few examples of personal branding statements that bring the person across on the page; use a human voice; get the chosen direction out right away; don’t stoop to praise the author; and aren’t meandering:

I came up through the Accounting ranks and switched to Sales mid-career; now, I manage Fortune 50 account relationships for enterprise software vendors, helping my clients make smart strategic decisions about automating their internal processes (and maximizing their IT investments, hard and soft).

I’m a CFO focused on startups, who’s closed funding rounds for my last three employers and built flexible finance and accounting systems that supported our rapid growth on modest back-office budgets. I love mentoring up-and-comers and to be involved in the product mix, marketing strategy and production decisions.

As a kid I dug for dinosaur bones in the back yard (if indeed there were ever dinosaurs in Baltimore). Now I dig for hard-to-find business information as a research librarian in Fortune 500 companies, specializing in international law and commerce regulations.

I write training materials and scripts for call-center agents, and deliver stand-up and online training to newbie reps as they build their confidence and skills handling simple or tricky customer calls. I love to construct nimble call-escalation processes and make the call center reps an extension of the Sales department, turning customer-service interactions into new opportunities to sell our products.

Personal branding isn’t something most of us learn in school, but it isn’t rocket science either. We can get good at telling our story verbally or on paper. Try it!


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