Self Projection for the Modest

John Lees explains how quieter people can make a bigger impact.

Why are so many career changers told to “get out there and sell yourself”?

In some labour markets, especially the UK and US, access to jobs has changed significantly. The UK, for example has seen a noticeable decline in conventional job advertisements. Elsewhere, too, word-of-mouth recruitment has become prevalent, if not dominant. To your client, positive-minded networking may seem the only option if they want to find a job, win new business, or secure a freelance project. In such contexts, traditional job search methods have been sidelined as increasingly organisations create a cloud of online followers, and SMEs fall back on their favoured question “who do we know?”

Many career changers have latched on to the idea that they need to do something different. Bookstores and websites are full of material telling them how to be smooth networkers and great self-publicists. Some naturally enjoy opportunities to talk about their abilities. For most it’s hard work, and for some it’s a nightmare. 

Self-promotion as the new norm

A strong idea permeates parts of the developed world – the belief that personal success is achieved by imposing an extrovert personality on others. Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic described a longitudinal survey of US college students. In the 1950s 12% described themselves as “an important person”; by the 1980s no less than 80% made the same claim. Scores indicating such a strong shift in assumptions probably wouldn’t be repeated in most European countries, but studies point to the rise of digital narcissism, including extensive disclosure of personal information and the ever-present “selfie”. In 2010 researchers at Western Illinois University looked at students who use Facebook, identifying traits including ''self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies" and a “willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others".

Perhaps the most important challenger to extroversion as the new norm is Susan Cain. Her book Quiet argues that pushing yourself forward in a “me-first” style has not just become socially acceptable, it’s seen as required and admirable. Cain argues that society has a “cultural bias towards extroverts” and “we tend to think that becoming more extroverted not only makes us more successful but also makes us better people”. She shows how in US colleges, outgoing, assertive behaviours are reinforced through praise; students feel they will receive lower marks if they do not impose their personalities in a group setting. Such attitudes have not become the norm internationally, but they no doubt exert an influence.

The dread of networking

Networking is a key tool for exploring opportunities or advancing a career, so why do many people hate it? The answer is perhaps obvious: for most introverts, therefore around half the working population, it’s an uncomfortable fit. It’s widely accepted that personality types are not distributed evenly across the world. For example, a much lower rate of extroversion is found in East Asia compared to Western countries. Japanese and Chinese students attending Western business schools can find that their quieter manner is misunderstood in team discussions. Their comparatively gentle approach arises from a concern not to embarrass or outshine other people; an uninformed observer might see it as a lack of enthusiasm or assertiveness. Even within Europe, different cultures display different preferences for – and tolerances about – obvious networking.

If your clients find the idea of networking makes them feel physically uncomfortable, they’re not alone. In a 2014 US survey, authors Casciaro, Gino, and Kouchaki revealed that many people feel grubby after networking events - “professional networking increases feelings of inauthenticity and immorality – and therefore feelings of dirtiness - much more than networking to make friends”. The study recorded that those networking for professional reasons often felt “unclean” (one person reported using large quantities of hand sanitizer after business dinners).

Students leaving Business Schools are frequently told they need to “schmooze”, pitch, deliver punchy statements at the drop of a hat, close the sale, and along the way drop all modesty. Why is this poor advice for most business school graduates? Because it ignores the way we are, and misunderstands what really works.

Behaviours that end conversations

Job hunters are told to prepare a smart, pushy ‘elevator’ pitch, without thinking about how it feels to be on the receiving end. Many of these extrovert, self-asserting behaviours we’re encouraged to adopt take little account of audience response.

Remember the last time someone ‘pitched’ to you at a conference coffee break? It’s dull listening to other people talking about themselves at length. For one thing, most people hate any sense that they are receiving a sales pitch. Being sold to makes the listener feel like the least important person in the conversation. Additionally, we dislike it when selling takes place in what we perceive as a social context. There are certain settings where we give tacit permission to receive sales information, but in other contexts it’s the last thing we want to hear. Research suggests, for example, that only 4% of social media users in the US would look at Facebook to find a promotional deal, even from companies who they have given permission to send them offers. Meeting someone at a party who insists on explaining the benefits of his services is a big turn-off. We instinctively dislike sales pitches when we are off duty and enjoying ourselves – another reason why “sell yourself” may be the worst advice given to networkers.

Finding an authentic style

Let’s be clear about what we mean by an “authentic style”. Self promotion is the action of publicising yourself or your activities, explicitly imposing yourself on others, with extrovert force. This is often linked to self-aggrandising behaviours and sometimes narcissism. Self-regarding behaviour is often about attracting empty praise and avoiding objective feedback. Self projection is something different. Think of the phrase in its most literal interpretation - images projected onto a screen. The screen is the community of people you want to share information with. What you decide to show on that screen makes a difference to how you are remembered, and recommended.

Our clients project themselves in many ways. This might be in great detail (for example in a CV), or briefly improvised (the answer given when someone at a party says “tell me about yourself....”  The questions to ask your clients are these: How long are your words remembered? What will others say about you when you’re not around? Self projection is therefore how you help others understand and remember important things about you.

Encourage clients to think about the style of what they say as much as the content - so that relationships are forged as well as connections. Rather than delivering a monologue, encourage clients to show a genuine interest in other people’s experience and responses. We should all seek conversations, not speech-making opportunities.

Better networkers listen more than they speak, seeking information before talking about their own experience. Clients can be encouraged to take the focus off themselves and their script. For any client feeling they must make half a dozen strong points when they speak means their attention is entirely on themselves.

Genuine listening has two key ingredients: paying attention, and showing attention. Try this for yourself. Make a gift of your attention. Borrow a technique used by public figures: point yourself squarely towards the individual you’re talking to, lean in slightly, and make them feel they are the most important person in the world for 60 seconds.

Communicating energy

What we are asking our clients to do, essentially, is to try reaching out to people without assuming they’ll be forced to say uncomfortable things – muttering “I’m brilliant at....” through gritted teeth, or starting every sentence “I am”. Instead of describing outstanding achievements like a reality show contestant, invite clients to talk about the things they find most interesting; “I’m fascinated by....” is much easier to say than “I’m skilled at....” Authentic impact puts relationship building and trust first. Clients don’t need to fake it, just make an impression which is effective but still comfortable.

Career practitioners shouldn’t be persuading clients to become extroverts, but helping them develop a style that works for everyone – techniques which make sure they’re remembered, but don’t make them feel grubby or a fake. Encourage clients to talk the way they talk when they are relaxed. With friends we’re far more likely to express interest, curiosity, or happiness than to talk about our abilities. Helpful advice is often to communicate energy rather than ego: show, don’t tell. Coach your clients to tell stories that demonstrate strong interests rather than making assertions. Stories are remembered longer than information, and good stories even longer.

The aim of authentic networking is this. Our clients want to give people a strong reason to move them forward in their careers - into new territory, new conversations. Help them prepare for interactions: show them how to look for personal links in what is being said before jumping in with information about their background. Even when someone says “Tell me about you….”, encourage your client to focus on areas of investigation rather than talking about their skills. Suggest that your client should talk about products, ideas and organisations they find fascinating. “I’m really interested in....” is much easier to hear and say than “I’m good at....” – and it provokes much more useful responses.

Brief Reading List

  • Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Penguin, 2013.
  • John Lees, The Success Code: How to Stand Out and Get Noticed, John Murray Learning, 2016.
  • Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt, Hudson Street Press, 2013.