We’re conditioned to think that the only way to get a job or make an impact in life is to become a confident, high-energy performer. People tell you to get out there and sell yourself – schmooze, pitch and then close. We’re coached to deliver punchy statements about strengths at the drop of a hat, and to drop all modesty.
The snag with this advice is that we hear it and then do nothing. You try to be more outgoing, discover it makes you feel uncomfortable, and so revert to old behaviours – being self-effacing, ignoring your achievements, failing to prepare for interview questions because you don’t want to anticipate the experience. The problem is that the advice comes from outgoing and practised communicators who we know we can’t emulate. If self-assertion doesn’t feel right, the advice to sell yourself feels like going from crooning in the shower to singing solo at the Albert Hall.
Finding an authentic style
It’s probably true that a small amount of people will never feel comfortable talking about their strengths, and others need no encouragement at all. Everyone else can successfully adapt their behaviours, even to a small degree. Practise talking about yourself and what you’ve done in a style that works for you. A style that works, gets you remembered, but doesn’t make you feel grubby or fake.
People find it tedious to listen to self-promotion. We don’t like being sold to unless we have a need to buy. Interviewers get tired of hearing the kind of empty clichés they hear on The Apprentice. They long for hard evidence of what you’ve done, not your ability to convince.
How do you find your authentic voice and make sure it sounds that way to others? Talk the way you talk when you’re relaxed. With friends you’re far more likely to express interest, curiosity, or happiness than to talk about your abilities. You are less likely to say “I am good at”, and more likely to say “I really enjoy”. That’s the place to start. Recruit a couple of supportive friends to listen to you talking about your abilities and experience, and get feedback about the things that sound great, or sound forced.
Communicate energy rather than ego
The concept of personal branding can lead to statements which sound naively egotistical. Getting noticed doesn’t mean over-selling. In a job hunt this is usually counterproductive. It can easily sound bland and naive to an employer if you clearly don’t have relevant experience, or your claims lack evidence. In a networking conversation it makes people feel they don’t want to risk helping you because that will associate them with your pushy style.
However don’t fall into the trap of believing the safest thing is to say less. The worst interview performance is the one where you remember what you could have said on the way home. Focus on evidence rather than ego. When talking about yourself: show, don’t tell. It’s better to give an example rather than state a fact. Most of us prefer to hear stories. Stories are remembered longer than information, and good stories even longer. This is true for describing skills, but even more for claims you make about your working style or personal values.
When it comes to networking as part of your job hunt, being authentic helps. Listening to people praise themselves is dull and doesn’t prompt you to help or recommend. How many times have you found yourself cornered at lunch by someone who wants to practise their elevator pitch? We hate being sold to even more in a social setting, which is why you need to develop a style for soft conversations when you’re trying to reach out to people and discover information.
What does being authentic sound like?
Take the focus off yourself. Seek conversations, not speech-making opportunities. Show a genuine interest in other people’s experience and responses. If you’re in a conference, talk to new people about why they are there and what they have heard. Ask and discover before you pitch information about yourself. Train yourself to listen more than you speak – seek information before talking about your own experience.
Even when someone says: “Tell me about you,” focus on what you’re interested in rather than your skills. Talk about products, ideas and organisations you find fascinating. “I’m fascinated by X” is much easier to hear than “I’m good at Y”, it also opens up the conversation.
Prepare for interviews by working out the top five strengths required by an employer. Then practise packaging your evidence into memorable stories which showcase these qualities. Talking about subjects that inspire you communicates motivation and energy – good for being remembered.
Don’t be afraid to begin with “I started” or “I had an idea”, then shift the emphasis onto what happened. Rather than awkwardly beginning “I’m a great team leader,” say: “Let me tell you about the last team I worked with,” or “Let me tell you about the impact of that project.” Focus on the story rather than the storyteller. Stories are more powerful than assertions. “I did” is far more convincing than “I am”. Talk about your impact on others. Saying “My manager was delighted with that,” works effortlessly compared to “I was employee of the month”.
Making people feel they’ve been sold to is also a poor way of building long-term relationships. Getting an interesting job in today’s complex market is definitely about influencing, discovery, and being visible – but that doesn’t mean adopting an overbearing style. You don’t need to fake it, just show the best version of you.
John Lees is a career coach, founder of John Lees Associates and author of The Success Code.