5 ways to be better at self-promotion


I get asked a lot of questions about self-promotion. Mostly I give answers like find something you are great at doing and be nice to people. It’s a killer combination, really. But people always want more advice than that. So, here are five tips that I give a lot. And I live by them.

1. Specialize, which means saying what you don’t do
In order to talk about yourself in a memorable way, you need to say something specific. This is why specializing is essential for effective self-promotion.

A good example of this is promoting yourself as a personal trainer. If you say you can train anyone, then you are the same as everyone else. If you say you help people work on their core strength without free weights, then not only do you separate yourself from the crowd, but you say something so unique that you encourage more questions.

It’s always scary for people to specialize because they think they’ll lose clients. But turning away clients is actually the best way to get them. You have to say no to people to establish yourself as an expert in something, and experts get hired more often than non-experts.

2. Stay the most focused when things look the most difficult
We each have a wide range of talents. And it’s easy to get frustrated when things are not happening fast enough. So it makes sense that we’d try something new, to see if it might work faster.

I did this a lot while I was trying to be a freelance writer. I can write a wide range of stuff, and it took me a while to figure out the intersection of things I like to write and things I could get paid well to write. I knew a ton of opportunities in both of those categories, but I could think of very few things at the cross section of the two categories.

Which is why I found myself writing online dating profiles. I could tell I’d be good at it because it’s a lot like writing a resume. And I could tell there was a big market of people who would pay well for the service. So I gave it a try with my ex-boyfriend’s profile. I told him his was bad and I could fix it. And I did. And then I wrote myself a plan to promote myself as a dating profile editor. And then I threw it out, and focused on my real, long-term goals.

I did this all the time on my way to where I am now. The important thing is to recognize when something is a brilliant idea and when it is a way to avoid facing your true goals when they are difficult.

3. Be the tortoise, not the hare
Self-promotion is about building a long-term reputation for yourself. Establishing trust and respect in the marketplace. This is not something you do in a few months. So you need to get some work habits that will allow you to move self-promotion from a project type thing to a lifestyle type thing.

So first of all, get out of your head that you work well under pressure. You don’t. No one does. Not when you are promoting yourself. Because in the end, what will make you stand out is your ability to find creative approaches to your chosen specialty. And it is a myth that creativity happens best under pressure. Also, you need sleep. People who get enough sleep are more creative.

Another hurdle for being good at self-promotion is that it’s hard to quantify success. There are some metrics, like blog rankings or Academy Awards, but they never show the whole picture. One of the biggest risk factors for burnout is doing lots of work without being able to measure your success. So it’s important, with self-promotion, that you make daily goals for doing something small – reaching out to someone, publishing something, showing up at an event. This way you can show yourself that you are making measurable progress in the self-promotion realm even if the real measure – like new clients – will come months later.

4. Mitigate the fear of starvation
Getting your name out there takes time. And while you’re doing it, there is a nagging fear that you won’t be able to and you will starve. You might be encouraged to hear that this is actually a feeling that is essential to grand success.

But here’s some practical advice as well: Don’t say no to anything. Just because someone is offering you a stupid project or a project that you would never want your name on, don’t turn it down, just raise your fee. It’s rare that someone would offer you work that you wouldn’t do for a million dollars. Start there and go down. For most of my freelance life I was willing to write anything for triple my regular fee.

Another good way to freelance without starving is to change how you think about time. If you keep a paying job and do self-promotion on the side, until you have some traction, then you are giving yourself time to learn how to be your own publicist before you depend on that for food money.

5. Know yourself, really, so you know when to shut up
Most people err on the side of not talking themselves up enough. We each need to learn the right way to toot our own horn. However sometimes you really do have to let your actions are speak louder than words.

I am struck by how well Oprah balances this. When her school was getting trashed, she got out into the press and defended it. But it turns out now that she was the only mainstream media figure to come out against the Iraq war before we went to war, and she does not make a big deal about this at all.

How does Oprah know when to be loud and when not to be? She knows her brand well because she knows herself well. She understands what she has to offer so clearly, and what her goals are so clearly, that she knows she needs to stand up for the school in order to protect her brand, but making a big deal out of her early position on the war would not help her meet her goals.

Make it a point in your life to have the same level of self-knowledge that Oprah has. Don’t underestimate that piece of the self-promotion puzzle.

45 replies
  1. Moneymonk
    Moneymonk says:

    Wow, nice upbeat article. I think we tend to procrastinate and wait to something happens. Instead of making it happen or thinking outside the box

  2. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    Great List – we could all use a lesson on self promotion. There is such a fine line between arrogance and self promotion. Knowing where that line is and using it to your advantage will keep a person on the right track. Good advice, thanks.


  3. Quasar9
    Quasar9 says:

    So true, “Jack of all trades Master of none”
    A Jack of all trades may be handy on the motorway or in the office when you need a quick fix

    But if you want to fine tune your sports car, or set up a computer system to run optimally, always best to get someone who is A Master and has been doing it for a while (can do it blindfolded so to speak). And always get a good (reputable) builder to build your house – like trees, they are hard to straighten once they start crooked.

    However, it is also good to have ‘varied’ interests

  4. Erin Hallstrom-Erickson
    Erin Hallstrom-Erickson says:

    Great list. I think there are some people who know how to self-promote quite well. The rest of us just stare in awe and hope some of the good luck falls our direction.

    I always find it interesting to hear (or not hear) my coworkers and friends not promoting themselves. It’s as if they expect good luck or the career fairy to do the work for them.

  5. dawn
    dawn says:

    This is a great post — thanks! (I have a bunch of your posts bookmarked for future reference and this will be one of them!)

  6. Jason Alba
    Jason Alba says:

    I saw that you linked to a post you wrote from a long time ago, when you saw Peggy Klaus in action! I’m jealous!

    I read her book a couple of months ago and highly recommend to … well, everyone :) Brag! is an excellent resource for those that find it easy and those like your friend Liz… I’d say it’s required reading for anyone that isn’t retired yet!

    Jason Alba
    CEO – JibberJobber.com

  7. Brip Blap
    Brip Blap says:

    I kept up running against the problem you mentioned in #4, when I finally realized I don’t have to quit my day job YET in order to pursue other interests. #1 is also a tough one. In the corporate world I think you get a lot of pressure to be a generalist, able to cope with anything that comes your way. As a freelancer I don’t think anyone’s interested in the fact that I’m adaptable – they want specific skills to fulfill specific needs. I struggle with that as a consultant and I’m sure it will be more of a struggle as a freelancer, which is why #4 – “don’t quit your day job” – is still key for me while I develop some specialization.

  8. An Xiao
    An Xiao says:

    I feel like #2 and #3 are the toughest, especially when it’s so difficult to develop reliable measures of success during the slow periods that require so much patience and faith in oneself.

    * * * * * * *
    Really, you could say that faith in oneself is the hardest part of everything.


  9. Sam Davdson
    Sam Davdson says:

    #1 is right on. Well said. It’s important for individuals and organizations to realize what they don’t do and to focus more on what they do well.

  10. Andrey
    Andrey says:

    Hi, Penelope

    I wonder, whether it’s possible to be good at self-promotion with a braided career, which seems to be very popular among Y-Gens today?

    * * * * * * * * *

    Great question, Andrey. The more responsiblity you take for your career and your quality of life, the more important your personal brand becomes. Because you can’t rely on a company affiliation to define you, so you have to clearly define yourself so poeple know who you are and what you’re good at. Then the braided career — the process of managing your personal life along with the career you have and the career you want becomes all about personal branding. You manage the shift in your personal brand from what you are to what you want to be. If you shift your brand as you shift your career then you don’t have to start out at the bottom.

    This is what I did when I changed from being software startup girl to being a columnist. I shifted my brand over the course of years so that the career change wasn’t as big a leap.


  11. John Goodman
    John Goodman says:

    Number 1 is spot on! As a technical recruiter I see resumes all day long that wherein the candidate believes listing a series of skills and talents is the best way to get a job. Granted, a person may do all the things you list on their resume, but if you can’t figure out what you REALLY want to do how can I or the hiring manager I’m working with?

    Think of your own sourcing/buying habits. You wouldn’t go to a doctor that lists opthomology, OB/GYN, internist and radiologist as his/her specialties even though they all require the same medical degree. Nor would you go to a car dealership that sells VW’s, Cadillacs and BMW’s even though they’re all cars. No, you pick a provider because their knowledge in their specific expertise is deep, and the narrower that specialization probably the deeper the knowledge.

  12. Gina Edwards
    Gina Edwards says:

    Thank you! This seems to be a hot topic these days and your list was succint and upbeat. As the VP of Marketing (by day) for a nonprofit organization, and someone who has a freelance cooking instruction and writing business on the side, I can’t believe how many times I forget these simple rules when trying to promote myself. It was nice to have a recap that I can save and use as a daily reminder/motivator.

  13. Sarah D
    Sarah D says:

    Loved points 2 and 3 – though agree they are the hardest to keep. No instant gratification there :) Stay focussed when things are difficult, don’t kid yourself about working well under pressure, get enought sleep… this could be written for the week I’m having, thanks for the reminder Penelope!

  14. Fran
    Fran says:

    Wonderful list. I especially like number 3. Our lives are influenced by things that can be done easier and faster. We should not risk our reputation by hoping to achieve it the easy way.

  15. Lisa Balbes
    Lisa Balbes says:

    Thought-provoking post, as usual. However, don’t “1. Specialize, which means saying what you don't do” and “4. Mitigate the fear of starvation ….Don't say no to anything” contradict each other? How can you specialize if you accept every job that comes along (for enough money)?

    * * * * * *
    Great question, Lisa. They don’t contradict if you are very clear in your head, and in your actions about what your goals are. If your goal is to specialize then when you take high paying work to pay the bills, it is just that — to pay bills. Nothing that is actually going to help you reach your goals. It’ll just keep you afloat so that you can take other actions to help you meet your goals. Also, specilizing means knowing when to say no to a mediocre paying job outside your specialty.


  16. Alan
    Alan says:

    These are great suggestions, especially specialization. People may ask questions about our unspecific job, but it’s only out of curiosity. Specific jobs attract people that are interested.

  17. BrandonA
    BrandonA says:

    Becoming specialized is interesting. I think it is so dependent on the degree of specialization on your industry. I’m in taxation and I see alot of coworkers specialize in topics. But in a living industry like tax which can change every time congress goes in session, specializing may become a burden. I haven’t been in the industry long, but that is my original perception.

  18. Jorge Olson
    Jorge Olson says:

    Great List!

    How about number 6: Be Unselfish. When you are unselfish and help others promote themselves you will automatically promote yourself as in the process. The more you promote others, the more you apply the 6th rule of self promotion.

    Jorge Olson

  19. Likoare
    Likoare says:

    It’s the best time to make a few plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I have read this publish and if I may I wish to counsel you some interesting issues or advice. Perhaps you could write subsequent articles relating to this article. I desire to read more things about it!

  20. TheResumeBuilder
    TheResumeBuilder says:

    Stay focused! I think for every employee aiming for promotion one must maintain focus so as to be able to bring himself or herself at it’s her/his best always. Avoid distractions and keep on focus so as the Boss will see your worth for the promotion.

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