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How to Craft a Cringe-Free Personal Brand


Spelling out why you’re awesome may feel crass, but it can help you stand out to employers, peers and clients

Composite image of a diverse group of people superimposed on a woman's side profile.
Photo: iStock/PeopleImages

Professional story strategist Stephania Varalli is not coy about her personal brand: She helps experts, executives and entrepreneurs (that’s who she works with) to express their value proposition to their audience (that’s what she does best) in a way that facilitates conversion (that’s why people choose to hire her).

A riff on that sentence sits at the top of her LinkedIn profile. A snappier version is the first thing that greets visitors to the website of the storytelling consultancy she started last year. She leads with it during keynotes, workshops and meetings with new clients. She doesn’t feel weird about summing up her special sauce in a snappy sentence or two — but she gets why you might.

Anyone familiar with the aggressively self-promotional treatises of certain LinkedIn-fluencers (or the hyper-manufactured vibe of certain Instagram celebrities) will get why many people distrust the idea of a personal brand — a concept comedian and writer Viv Groskop once dubbed “the only expression in working life guaranteed to make anyone cringe even more than ‘networking.’ ”

Perhaps you find the idea of writing a personal brand daunting or overwhelming. Maybe it feels restrictive, performative, or, as brand designer Debbie Millman told the New York Times, a hollow exercise that “takes all of the sort of glorious humanity out of being human.” Maybe you find the whole thing embarrassing, or crass, or even a bit icky.

As someone who has been helping people talk about themselves for more than two decades, Varalli has heard every objection — and offers a counterpoint: “The way that I look at it, we each have a story,” she reasons. “In the context of business, that story explains who we are, what we do, who we’re doing it for, and why they should be choosing us. I don’t think there’s anything inauthentic or tacky in talking about your story.”

Besides, the research is pretty unequivocal: Taking the time to define your personal brand can boost your confidence, make you more self-aware and help you get ahead in your career.

With all that in mind: Is it possible for skeptics to ease their discomfort with personal branding? Can it start to feel productive — good, even? Varalli thinks so. Here’s how.

Understand your value

Part of what can make personal branding feel hollow is that, for many, it materializes as a sort of relentless highlight reel of arrogant “I did this” and “I earned that” statements. But Varalli argues that a good personal brand is not a simple recap of your resumé, but rather a helpful encapsulation of the key facets of your professional identity — measurable and otherwise — that will connect you to the people who need you.

Understanding this requires a degree of self-reflection and introspection, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone. To start, Varalli recommends taking a deep and clear-eyed inventory of all that you bring to your professional life — and to organize this process into three buckets.

In the first bucket, detail your tangible assets. This is where you list your experiences, your achievements, your credentials — the stuff you’ve likely already quantified on your LinkedIn page.

The second bucket is for your intangible strengths, which are, as Varalli explains, “the things that make you different from someone else with the exact same resumé.” These tend to relate to the way you do what you do, how you make people feel and what makes them want to keep working with you. Are you the kind of person who always calls people back within five minutes? That’s an intangible strength. Do customers often thank you for looking out for them? So’s that. Can you translate your knowledge clearly and effectively? That too.

The third bucket is for your personal story: essentially, how you ended up where you are. This won’t always register with people, Varalli acknowledges, but it can impart a better understanding of why you do what you do, highlight points of relatability and lead to emotional connections. “It can be very powerful,” she says. “Even if we like to think we’re rational, emotions play a role in every decision we make.”

Put your audience in the centre

Another way to temper your hang-ups about personal branding is to consider that it’s as much an act of service as it is one of self-aggrandization — if not more so. Why? Because, simply put, your audience is busy, whether they’re customers, employees, investors or peers. If you can clearly communicate what you have to offer and why people should choose you — without making them dig for more information, or wonder whether you’re a fit, or (worst of all) question what it is you actually do — you’re doing them a favour.

That’s why Varalli advises making sure you fully define and understand your desired audience. “First, figure out who you are talking to — whether they’re your existing audience or who you want them to be,” she says. “Then, think about the story that might speak to them.” This involves some sleuthing. Yes, you’ll want to get a good bead on what products or services or ideas they might want and need. But Varalli recommends going beyond that: What is your audience worried about? What are the outcomes they’re trying to achieve? What are their bigger-picture goals?

Questioning like this will help you develop a personal brand that delivers value to the audience you need to reach. People often underestimate this, to which Varalli has a bit of tough love: “You have to recognize that nobody actually cares about your story. They care about how you fit into their story.” So get to know their story.

Connect the dots

Once you know what you have to offer and what your audience needs, Varalli recommends looking for the “strongest paths of connection” — the most relevant elements of your biography, experiences and intangible strengths that will clearly and succinctly impart what you offer and why people should work with you. Think of it like you would a cover letter, only shorter and punchier, she says: “There’s nothing inauthentic about highlighting your best points.”

In taking this lens, creating a personal brand becomes less a matter of “look at what I can do!” (which can feel kind of gross) and more one of “look what we can do together” (which can feel a lot more constructive, comfortable and authentic).   

It all circles back to one of Varalli’s core tenets: A personal brand may be about you — but it’s not for you. It is, ultimately, a tool to help your audience understand how you can add value to their lives. “If you can share that story to the right people in the right way, that’s when magic will happen,” Varalli argues. And there’s nothing remotely cringey about that.