How Not to Promote Yourself

Note: This is Part 22 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. –Shane (1953)

It doesn’t matter if you believe in “personal branding”. Branding yourself matters regardless.

In the eyes of others, you’re what they see, even though you’re most certainly more than meets the eye.

I’d say personal branding has three major elements:

  • Communication: use public speaking as exposure opportunities; maintain a high standard of social etiquette.
  • Reputation: let others want to recommend you whenever opportunities arise; sustain a presence, online and/or offline.
  • Networks: curate people connections; explore collaboration opportunities by offering help.
Figure: the career growth triangle.

All those are neat. But there are definitely things that, when done wrong, are rather off-putting.

Those things are quite similar to code smell – in computer programming, it means “any characteristic in the source code of a program that possibly indicates a deeper problem” (Wikipedia).

Personal branding also has code smells. In fact, there are many such code smells in the art and science of presenting and promoting yourself.

Here are some of them–

Self-Proclaimed Arrogance

Unless you’re already widely and wildly recognized as such, don’t use the following other-referential words to describe yourself:

  • Leader
  • Innovator
  • Difference maker
  • Change maker
  • Catalyst

Why? Because those are not the kind of words that can or should be self-proclaimed. They’re the ones other people give you when they look back at the impact of what you did with appreciation and admiration.

Calling yourself an innovator or catalyst is a bit like applying too much of cheap perfume – the resulting, mildly annoying smell merely puts strangers off. Everybody, in fact.

After all, if you’re really a well-recognized, media-soaked innovator or catalyst, then you’d be probably no stranger to a lot more people than necesary to shape your brand image.

Thoughtless Reposting

When it comes to self promotion, sharing interesting stuff on social media is pretty much part of the game.

There is a difference though: reposting without your own comment is merely promoting other people; reposting with your own comment is totally promoting yourself.

Even with just a few emojis, you’re showing that you thought about it before you repost.

When reposting, my favourite commentary emoji sequence is 👇🎯👏.

What are yours?

Frozen Connecting

Nobody gives a damn who the hell you are, unless you leave a message to help people understand who the hell you are and why they should care.

It’s good to leave a message when you invite strangers to connect with you, online or offline.

It’s better to design your message, to explain why you reach out.

It’s best to perfect your message, to convince people that they really should connect with you.

Branding Mismatch

If you say you’re a designer, then you need to look like a designer, write like a designer and design like a designer.

That’s NOT to say that a designer has a uniquely specific way to look, write or behave.

That’s to say that you should NOT confuse people by mixing different images of you when you say you’re a professional.

The duck typing rule applies – if you walk like a duck and you quack like a duck, then you must be a duck.

I’ve seen profiles, websites or portfolios that claim to be UX designer but look like artist, photographer, painter, engineer, programmer, doctor, K-12 teacher, real estate agent, financial advisor and more.

You may counter that I’m stereotyping people – “how can you say someone looks like an artist when artists look all kinds of different ways in real life?”.

Sure, but at the same time, we humans rely on stereotyping to relate to people, things and the world around us – stereotyping is merely one specific way of modelling the world around you.

So stereotyping doesn’t necessarily imply anything negative. You have to strike a balance between the easy, biased, black-and-white simplicity and the realistic but unsurmountable complexity.

If you say you’re a UX designer, then I don’t want to see your beautiful food pics or business professional stock photos. If I see those, then I’m clueless as to how you’re actually a UX designer.

In the film Yesterday, the obnoxious talent manager comments her musician’s proposed new song:

I hated it, but, I wasn’t interested in it enough to listen to it again to find out why.


Yup, that’s exactly how people feel when you’ve got a branding mismatch.


Rest assured, there are many chances to promote yourself the wrong way. The good news is that there are even more ways to do it right.

The rule of thumb is to be confident, not arrogant; be considerate, not thoughtless; be polite, not demanding; be realistic, not confusing.


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