Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

More Doing, Less Promoting: The Key To Creating Great Work

The author and designer still doesn't have social media "follow me" icons on his website. Yet, he's been booked for work months in advance for over 15 years. Why?

I feel like I’m drowning in self-promotion on social media. Links to buy digital products, e-courses, tickets to conferences (on the topic of social media promotion) all fill my social streams.

Self-promotion has become as ubiquitous as banner ads or "Keep Calm and Carry On" memes, and with that, just as ignored.

Without the traditional barriers for promotion, like getting a record deal, landing a job writing for a newspaper/magazine, having enough money to hire a publicist or getting a major book deal, we are all able to promote whatever we want, whenever we want.

The problem is that we’re now all publicists and promoters, constantly talking at others in an attempt to sell what we’ve made. Social media has become an echo chamber of "buy now," while offering little reason or value as to why someone else should.

Few of us stop to consider why what we’ve made will help someone else’s life; we just want to sell it to as many people as possible. And that’s what happening on social media—an endless stream of selling at each other.

So how do we break through the barrage of promotion to get our own work noticed?

The answer I've found and lived by since before social media even existed is deceptively simple: by doing great and valuable work.

By great, I don't mean some ego-centric belief that what I do is better than anyone else. I am talking about doing great work that is both meaningful to me and valuable to whomever's paying me to do it.

The balance I've always taken with promoting vs. doing is to err completely on the side of the latter. I don't focus much on promoting what I do, I focus on doing the actual work.

Promotion is necessary, but for the most part, it feels like I'm looking backward at what I've already made. I'd rather be looking forward, at what I've yet to create.

This focus leads to me getting better at what I do because I spend more time perfecting my craft than talking about it, which in turn has led to the people that have hired me telling others about the work.

My clients are better sales people and promoters than real sales people and promoters could ever be. I don't need to pitch my work because they do it for me (this is great because I'm an introvert who's horrible at sales). The reason they do this isn't because I ask (I don't), but because I'm entirely focused on doing great work for them. It may seem passive at the surface, but it involves quite a bit of effort—making sure every client is so totally happy with the end result they shout it from the rooftop (or at least the digital equivalent of a rooftop—being Twitter and Facebook).

I've changed my domain name, my company name, and probably broken every marketing, promotion, and branding rule there is. I don't even have a logo that I've kept for more than a few months. There was a space of 10 years when I had a single-page website with two sentences and a client list (and I do web design professionally). And I still don't have social media "follow me" icons.

And yet, I've been booked months in advance for over 15 years. Why? Because I put all I've got into doing better work and helping my clients succeed.

Twitter could break tomorrow and I wouldn't worry. It doesn't serve the people paying me to promote myself on social media when I could just be doing their work instead.

Why am I even on social media then? It's not just to complain about it (I'm not hipster enough to be that meta). I use it to connect with other people I find interesting and to test ideas.

If an idea I tweet is popular, it's likely that I'll turn it into a blog post. If that blog post is then popular, I may use the idea as a chapter in a book. This is where I've found the most use for social media—free market research. As well, I've found that people would rather retweet and share my ideas than blatant "buy my [thing] now!" status updates.

I actually love using social media. I get to talk to lots of interesting people, around the world, whenever I want—mostly while sitting in my underwear. Sometimes I share photos of my hairless rat. But I never log on and think, "Today I need to promote myself six times at the hours best for peak audience conversion."

If the work you're promoting on social media isn't getting enough traction to build a customer base, the answer is seldom that you need to promote it more. What it probably means is that you need to do better work—or at least refocus that work to be more valuable to its intended audience.

Social media is an amplifier, so it can only amplify value in the work you do. It can't create value that isn't present in the work itself.

Promoting yourself doesn't make you better at the work you do. Doing more of that work is what makes you better. I don't think promotion is wrong or even evil, I just think it's a definite second place in where we should all focus our energy and attention.

The world doesn't need more promotion, but it always needs more great and valuable work.

Paul Jarvis is a Gentleman of Adventure. He's also a web designer and author. If he's not in nature, on some Thoreau-esque tangent (but with Wi-Fi), you can find him on Twitter at @pjrvs.

[Image: Flickr user Mislav Marohnić]

Add New Comment


  • Bill James

    It is refreshing to read this take on not only social media but also the value of adding value.

    I confess to not being a social media beastie, albeit that I have a high ranking linkedin sight (and not much else). I am concious that the reason so many are asking to jump on there is becasue of the good work, value and results I bring in the real world work I do.

    I am classified as a professional speaker and my nest advertisement is standing in front of a crowd and blowing their socks off. It is more common than not to have sseveral attendees approach and ask about how I could help them in their organisations - why? Because I delivered value on the day + relevance + being real and relatable. It is also great for more business from the companies already doing business with you. Results lead to opportunity.

    I say I am classified as a speaker because the speaker bit is unimportant. I help people find business, open the door and make the connection. How I help others do that is less important. It needs to be done the way they want it done - that is simply being customer centric.

    I believe that if we are value driven abd 'customer first' focussed, we will gain business. Thanks Paul, a great bit of thought leadership.

  • Georgia Taylor

    Thank you for writing this! I agree wholeheartedly that the focus should be doing first, then promoting. I will be passing this along to my artist friends who need to read this too.

  • Johanna Scott

    Great article Paul. I think there's a lot of value to what you've written here. However there's a disconnect between what you say and what you do. I mean, if you were *really* just concerned with doing good work for clients and not promoting your own business - why bother contributing an article to Fast Company? Be careful of demonizing something you're already doing...

    I think it's completely acceptable for brands and people to use social media as a tool for building their businesses - it's just unlikely to be successful if too salesy.

  • The Art In Article

    If you're over 30, you should probably get off social media.  Young people self-promote because there's no one there to promote for you.  If you're older and still have no one to promote FOR you, then give up.  

  • Melanie Biehle

    This is the second article I've read by you today and they were both excellent. As someone who helps people market themselves for a living, thanks for writing this. Too many people look at social media as a magic pill that will change their business overnight. You can trick some people into buying crap once, but the only way to have any longevity is to create and offer something valuable. 

  • markadamdouglass

    This is exactly why I don't use Facebook anymore, and hardly use twitter. It's so overwhelming.

    I love the way you use it, and I think I will begin to use it the same way myself, and only follow people that do the same.

    Thanks for your insights Paul.

  • Michelle DeSpain

    You are a breath of fresh cyber-air, Paul.  You are actually using social media in the way it was intended:  to be social through media.  Go figure! I often compare over-promoters to the "Me-Me's" I used to teach in Kindergarten.  You know, the kids that would raise their hands (or not) and shout "Me!  Me!  Me, Ms. Michelle!" to get my attention.  I would tell them, "My ears don't hear Me-Me's" and then respond to them as soon as they showed politeness.  And that's probably what's happening right now in the great big cyber-classroom of social media.  We're officially tuning out the over-promoting Me-Me's because the authentic communicators stand out from the noise.  Thank you for sharing this powerful reminder/message.  


    Great observation but there is nothing new or profound about this idea. It's been going on for years and is referred to as "thought leadership."

  • BraandLife

    Spot On... Social Media, for Value Creators, should be a platform that encourages the promotion of established value, far more than the potential of some fleeting thought (idea). In simple terms, we leverage social media to maintain our voice, and when "Ready", we promote a concrete value or concept.... A value or concept that is measurable at hand... A value or concept that potential clients or champions may experience and say "Hey. They get it!"

  • Todd Hannula

    Spot on! Wake up people. Social media is just a tool to expose your great work, not a replacement for it.