"It’s like you’re an idiot savant."
I’m on the phone with Karen Leland, a branding and marketing strategist, discussing the particulars of my quote-unquote "personal brand." Admittedly, it’s a two-word concept I never paid much attention to, except when in the context of a joke, or maybe an inadvertent stumble into marketing Twitter, where hashtags are abundant and thinkfluencers speak Romulan. Leland is a strategy coach based in San Francisco who has helped CEOs, small business owners, and other entrepreneurs build a credible digital narrative foundation from which to advance their careers. (She says one of her triumphs was helping a LinkedIn executive build his LinkedIn profile.) As smart as she is unflinching, she’s one of two branding experts helping me hammer my personal brand into something vaguely coherent. Respectable, hopefully.
After all, what are reporters these days if not personal brands? I wanted a makeover. Think: Hitch, but in pixels, and probably with less Lil Jon and Usher. For the sake of the process, I agreed to approach the experiment seriously, partly to glean what the process was like, but also because I just left my 20s and it's time to give off an impression more "savant" than "idiot." I am an open book, a space cadet willing to try anything that was recommend to me, no matter how potentially embarrassing it would have been to Chris Gayomali, 1.0.
At the moment Leland is sifting through my Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to explain to me—gently, platform-by-platform—what I’m doing wrong.
Leland's analysis starts before she reads a single tweet, with my avatar. "Your Twitter is a freaking cat holding his hand up!" she said. "You’re part teenager, part accomplished journalist."
That last part is sort of an accident. After my first brain-atrophying office job out of college, I moved to New York in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis armed with a humanities degree, which went about as well as one might imagine. I landed a low-expectations temp gig, which afforded me enough freedom to blog on the side using a free WordPress template. Somehow, despite having zero journalism experience, this landed me an internship on the web side of Esquire, which led to more internships and eventually a web production job at Time. From there, I snuck my way into a reporting and blogging role covering technology for Time’s criminally underrated Techland (RIP), which led to an editor title at The Week, and now a full-time staff gig at Fast Company, a lovely place that has some of the smartest and most well-groomed bunch of humans I have ever had the pleasure of working around.
All the while, my personal brand remained more or less the same. "These are very heavy-hitting publications," said Leland, looking through my LinkedIn. "The way you present yourself it’s almost like, ‘How did this guy do this?’" Hence the idiot savant, which reflected my haphazard approach to social media more than any sort of willful curation. But it was time to grow up, which is why we were on the phone with Leland.
Almost immediately old colleagues noticed something was afoot:
Leland asked that I not reveal the specifics regarding her process. But I can relay a few of the the tips and tricks that she and my other coach, Mel Carson, a former evangelist at Microsoft and the founder of Delightful Communications, a boutique marketing, PR, and branding firm, offered me over the course of my digital retooling.
Leland recommended I start with a simple assessment, which consisted of two basic questions: What was my current brand? And what did I want it to be?
Once those two poles were plotted, the brand-mapping process from Point A to Point B could begin.
For me, Point A was the idiot savant/teenage journalist thing. Point B was to present myself as a real business journalist, someone who can write about muddy issues in (I hope!) an entertaining way.
Typically Leland, who is based in San Francisco, spends a whole day with CEOs remapping their personal brand. But since I was a charity case, we broke it up into three separate phone sessions, each about an hour. After diagnosing my social media accounts and asking me a series of questions about where I wanted my career to go, we arrived at something she calls the anchor statement.
An anchor statement can best be understood as a distillation of what you want your career to be about. It’s the thesis from which the rest of your brand originates. It can’t be disingenuous, either. Your anchor statement has to communicate what Ideal You wants to be seen as.
"When you meet someone at a cocktail party, you have to have something that people understand," Leland explained to me. "You may have specialties. Your main thing you’re focused on is a brand in and of itself." During the exercise, Leland and I arrived at an anchor statement. Here’s what she recommended I say about myself whenever I meet someone at a party:
I’m a user-friendly business journalist with Fast Company, but I write about it in an accessible and entertaining way.
This is... not something I would normally use on my own! At first, the marketing-speak sounded very foreign to my untrained ears, but I understood its value, providing wind in the sails for my otherwise rudderless personal brand. I had to ask: Why the user-friendly part? I would have settled for easy-to-understand. Or approachable. "You want to be able to take the conversation deeper," she said. You want to "engage people in a conversation with who you are and what you do."
My other main problem was inconsistency between my platforms. My Facebook was mostly stuff I found on Twitter to make me appear smart in front of my high school friends. My LinkedIn profile picture was a portrait of a wealthy dog. And my Twitter, in addition to my porcelain neko avi, was an inconsistent mix of Fast Company articles, insular journalism-isms, and retweets of Kanye selfies that I thought were funny. (Leland asked me to go through my last 100 tweets or so and delete anything "too teenager.")
Carson issued a similar edict. "Have some consistency," he told me. "Use the same photo as LinkedIn… Flesh out your Twitter bio. You have 160 characters. Use them. Add keywords, Twitter handles." The more you can cram into there, the better.
On the other hand, you don’t want people to think you are a bot. (Unless that’s your personal brand, I guess?) You still want to sound like a thinking, breathing, feeling human. "You want people to follow you because you’re personable but you also have some interesting content to share, not just your own but other content you focus on," said Carson. "I call it your social ratio. Mine’s 60/40. 60% of what I share and engage with people on is professional, the rest if personal. But not too personal. Decide what your standards are and your no-go areas and stick to them."
The apparent lesson: Think before you tweet, which is something I had rarely done. For me, Twitter was a valuable petri dishes for unshaped ideas and bad jokes.
"Become valuable and unfollowable!" he added.
A long time ago, when I was just getting my feet wet in media, I set up a Facebook fan page. Mostly this was to convince my mom that I was actually doing something with my life, and I’d venture that 90% of the likes come from high school and college acquaintances who indiscriminately like everything. Carson recommended I either update the page regularly or unpublish it. I chose the latter.
Instead I redirected any relevant links to my normal Facebook page, which I also streamlined with a new profile photo.
My bio on LinkedIn used to look like this:
In terms of social networks I think about on a daily basis, LinkedIn floats near the bottom, a few leagues above a long-neglected Xanga and an AsianAvenue account. LinkedIn is a space where people I don’t know can endorse me for skills and talents that I do not possess.
Not paying attention to LinkedIn, though, is a mistake from a personal branding perspective. What if, for instance, an MSNBC TV producer needs a mediocre-looking Asian man with lackluster speaking skills to opine about the new iPhone or something?
"Get a new headshot," recommended Carson. "You look terrible in that one! ;-) Seriously you’ll get 14 times more profile views if you have a photo and if you want to be taken seriously that’s not the way to go. Get a professional (or good amateur) photographer to take a bunch of photos and pick one that exudes your personal brand but is also recognizable as you." (Unrelated: I need a photographer.)
With Leland’s help, and with some bio advice from Carson, by LinkedIn page now looks like this:
There are a few changes worth noting, including the "job title" tagline, which is now stuffed with qualifications per Leland’s advice. And the extended bio is written now in third person, as if I had an assistant. She also advised that I use bullet points whenever feasible.
Leland also recommended that I quote myself and dropped it at the bottom of my bio. Did quoting myself feel weird? Sure. But Leland knows what she’s doing; I do not. I decided to give it a shot. Click. Updated.
Carson on the other hand recommended that I post content to LinkedIn as regularly as I would on Facebook, or maybe Twitter. "Start sharing content you find interesting," he said. "Engage in conversations in groups and follow influencers and engage on their posts. Every time you comment on a post, LinkedIn shares your comment and the post to your feed, so you can get a lot of visibility for a smart 30-word point of view."
Just kidding! From the outset, I was going to gauge the experiment’s success by whether Chris 2.0 accumulated an outsized amount of new followers on Twitter. More than 100: Personal branding success!
That plan ended up having a wrench thrown in it because I ended up accumulating new followers via another method: Writing something deeply reported and interesting. Who knew.
The most valuable lesson I learned, though, is that being authentic and putting your best foot forward are not mutually exclusive. Not being an idiot also helps. On the right platform, it’s okay to highlight your accomplishments from time to time. It sharpens you into focus.
That being said, a personal branding overhaul is not for everyone. On some level I think I understood what I may have already been doing wrong. But I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint what those things were, exactly, without some sort of impartial third party acting as my mirror. And, all the trend stories about journalists needing to #brand themselves aside, I may not be the target market of a brand makeover. Maybe my "authentic self" really is an idiot teen.
But I understand how CEOs and entrepreneurs who aren't digitally native would benefit immensely from Leland and Carson's services. I will not stick with all the recommended changes (especially the quoting myself thing) but overall I should mention that I am surprisingly pleased with how things turned out.
"That's my job, baby!" said Leland. "It’s what I spend all day doing."