In most facets of life, it is wiser to err on the side of moderation than to indulge in excess. The sameis true of the way we portray ourselves to others: confidence and self-assuredness, especially when grounded in a realistic appraisal of one’s own abilities and expertise, are admirable traits; on the other hand, cockiness, false modesty, and “humblebragging” tend to elicit disdain.
So, how can you project an air of confidence and proficiency without seeming arrogant? What is tactful self-promotion, and how does it differ from boastfulness?
Authenticity is key.
Human beings are by nature social animals, and consequently, our desire to engender a positive first impression profoundly influences our interactions. In situations where we have a significant stake in the outcome—like an investment funding pitch, or a first date with a person in whom we have a romantic interest—the motive to put our best foot forward is even stronger.
However, according to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, our intuitions about the strategies most likely to impress the target of our self-promotional efforts are often misguided—namely, we tend to underestimate the value that others place on perceived authenticity. Studies conducted by Gino and her colleagues Ovul Sezer and Mike Norton suggest that humblebragging (for example, claiming in a job interview that your greatest weakness is a tendency to work too hard) is likely to instill an unsympathetic impression in others: the opposite of the desired outcome. Revealingly, their research found that the interviewers’ opinion of seemingly insincere humblebraggers was even less favourable than the same interviewers’ perception of chronic complainers.
No one likes to feel used. Accordingly, it is important to approach other people as potential friends, allies, partners, and associates, and not merely as means to an end or targets of an impromptu sales pitch.
Introduce yourself by describing your profession and/or significant interests in about three seconds. (See “Perfecting Your Three-second Statement”.) In conversation with individuals to whom you hope to appeal, make use of open-ended questions (beginning with who, what, when, why, how) and listen attentively to their responses. Concentrate on ascertaining their wants, needs, and objectives. Then consider how you can contribute to the fulfillment thereof.
You know what you do well, but your interlocutor may not. Specifically, prospective employers, investors, clients, or even potential romantic partners will be interested to know what you have to offer, and how they would benefit from becoming more acquainted with you.
If you feel you have a good understanding of the wants and needs of the individual to whom you hope to promote yourself, you are about halfway to your goal. At this point, rather than simply claiming to excel at X or Y (which can rub people the wrong way), an alternative technique is to recount an experience where your skills in a particular area served you well, or enabled you to overcome a challenge. A common saying in journalism circles is “show, don’t tell”, and for good reason: the facts often speak for themselves.
Rely on talking points rather than a fixed pitch.
This point should not be construed as denying the importance of a sound elevator pitch, but in real life, the context in which a conversation occurs informs its tone and content—and a rigid, memorized pitch may seem out-of-place. Therefore, it is worthwhile to have talking points in mind: pieces of knowledge or insight you can invoke that will offer people a better sense of who you are, your areas of skill, passion, and knowledge, and what you aim to accomplish. Stay abreast of news headlines too, especially items that are relevant to your areas of expertise, and be prepared to discuss at least two current events at social gatherings.
The ability to communicate those points effectively, while showing genuine interest in the people you meet, is the key to promoting yourself without sounding like a braggart or tawdry careerist.