The Basics of Personal Branding
Like every unemployed millennial who has an interest in social media, I decided to make a playlist on YouTube of personal branding videos. Mainly for my professional interests (there’s a point where, as a “social media person” you need to have some understanding of the terms and concepts in your field), and also because I’m running out of things to watch.
(That 2nd part is a joke. I have Netflix.)
So I queued up probably 15+ videos, ranging from 11 minutes to 1 hour, from a wide array of people: entrepreneurs, content creators, influencers (that title still rubs me the wrong way), and everyone in between.
Most videos, as you’d expect, overcomplicate this. I want to simplify it all so it’s more clear-cut, remove any of the additional ideas that I find unnecessary, and condense it into an easy-to-read article. That way, you can avoid my very unproductive 2-day binge on personal branding and just get to work.
Nothing in this article is revolutionary: in fact, I’m aiming for the opposite. I’m being hypocritical because I’m writing on a saturated subject. However, from what I’ve seen, part of the problem is that creators try to add something unique to differentiate themselves from the pack (often unnecessarily). My goal with this post is to talk about the important parts, nothing else.
Quick note: I don’t obsess too much about my personal brand, mainly because I enjoy the process of writing on different topics and I’ve already carved out where my expertise lies on the relevant platforms. I have decided to write on more specific topics, but I’m not trying to build a brand per se, just explore my interests. I may start building my “brand” one day, but for now, I’m just happy doing my thing.
What’s Personal Branding?
There’s no shortage of definitions on personal branding. They range from complicated explanations that focus on “public and digital image management to make you stand out from the competitors” to“intentional promotion through skills and content” to “treating yourself like a business trying to make a profit” (my least favourite definition). I think these all do a great job scratching the surface but fail in their goal to answer a question that is simpler than we make it out to be.
So, what is personal branding (in a simple way)? We can determine that by answering 1 question.
What do you want to be known for?
That’s it. That’s the tweet.
If you answer this question, you’ve won half the battle.
But, alas, we must include more information. To add a tiny bit of spice to this question, we can answer it by exploring two categories: topics & style.
“Topics” is, well, straightforward. What do you want to talk about?
I got this idea from Ryan Holiday, an author who has written some pretty great books (Obstacle Is The Way is his most popular, but my favourites are Conspiracy & Trust Me I’m Lying). In an interview with Gary Vaynerchuk, Ryan spoke about how a politically exiled Winston Churchill wrote and spoke on radio about World War 1, geopolitics, and the threat of nazism & Hitler. When Hitler launched his invasions (and started World War 2), all heads turned to Churchill, since he was the go-to person for this crisis and the one who had spoken for years on what needed to be done.
Now, this is a historical example, but it’s a great one to show the importance of defining your topics. If Churchill has spoken about gardening, or western countries, or industrial developments, he wouldn’t have been known as the expert or go-to person in international affairs. But he did. And the rest is history.
So what’s the lesson here? That it’s important for us when building our personal brand to determine what topics we want to be known for. It’s as simple as making a list and doing the work in these areas. You could make content on it (like I do), or you could simply work in a field and specialize. You don’t need to “make content” per se, but you can be the go-to person for this topic through your track record & word of mouth.
EG: Political Consultants rarely “make content” on political consulting. But they cut their teeth on campaigns, and over time earn their rep. Then, it’s as simple as outreach to find the next campaign.
Category #2 is style. This is basically the “how” behind your personal brand. How do you want to be known?
Instead of talking about platforms (Twitter, blogging, Instagram, etc., etc.), I want to focus on the actual substance behind your communications: your style. Are you a sharp, intellectual writer that uses big words? Are you more cheeky and humourous? Are you a simple, down-to-earth kind of speaker?
It really won’t take long for you to find your platforms (in most cases you’re already on them, or at least pretty close to signing up for them anyway), but it’s important you find your style. This is the emotional, connective side of you & your “brand” that people will become familiar with.
Play to your strength’s here and don’t try to be something you’re not. But, remember appropriateness. Don’t swear if you don’t want to be known as a swearer (is that a word?), and be willing to accept the consequences of speaking in a way that you value. Find the right balance.
An easy exercise is to create a table with 2 categories: one side for topics, and the other for style. Then, fill them both in. Include as much as you can. The more the better. Then, start crossing out what you’re not really resonating with.
Once you have your refined list, get to work.
Side-bar: I guess it would help for me to flesh out the actual platform side of things a bit more. The reason I glossed this over is that it’s really beaten over the head, and we overcomplicate it a lot. If you’re trying to find a platform that works for you, answer these questions:
- What “mediums” of communication do I vibe with best? (Yes, I used the word vibe. Deal with it). Do I enjoy shorter, rapid-fire messaging? Do I like talking/audio? Do I like to sit down at a computer and type for 5 hours? The more you determine what styles you enjoy, the easier it’ll be to identify your platforms.
- Who is my target/intended audience and where do they spend their time? (Only you can know this).
- What’s feasible for me given my resources (time, money, capabilities, etc.)? We’re not all fully equipped to dive into a new medium, and that’s okay. Spend some time exploring more accessible mediums. If you find one that might be better, save up some money to buy the necessary equipment (and spend some time learning about that method in the meantime). Regardless, remember that personal brands are platform agnostic. You’ll evolve as time goes on.
Alright, that’s my rant about personal branding. From what I’ve gathered (and applied) these are the basics. And if you nail the basics, everything else falls into place. By answering the question “what do you want to be known for” both through topics and style, you’ll have figured most of it out. Then by identifying your platforms (if you’re a content creator) you’ll have figured out the rest. If you’re not creating content, then determining what topics you want to be the defacto person for, and finding ways to promote that, is the next step. How you go about that is up to you.
All you have to do next is start building.