The human side of personal brands

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The discussion of personal branding has a spectrum of beliefs that go from "you are who you are, people should just accept it no matter what", to "you need to be cognizant of how every little thing you do is perceived every moment of every day". 

The problem with one end of the spectrum is that even people who feel that way see things in others they disagree with and they make judgements about that person. Because - and this relates to the problem with the other end - we're all human. Imperfect. Capable of making mistakes, or having differing beliefs. The problem with the other end of the spectrum is that it relies on having the ability to control others' perceptions.

I ran across an article on personal branding recently that showed so clearly that we are all being judged by a variety of standards. From what we wear, to what we say, to who we associate with, to whether we have decent grammar or spelling skills, even what we think and believe. We hold each other to pretty high standards.

Unfortunately, being humans, the standard we hold others to is usually heavily influenced by our personal beliefs and values. Sometimes we have weird standards that are really silly and frivolous, but deeply ingrained nonetheless.

For example, it took me years to accept that one's belt doesn't actually have to match one's shoes. There was just something so nice about the matchy, matchy accessories. Did I judge people for not matching their accessories? Sadly, I think I did. Fortunately, I tended to think that the perpetrator either did not know what I knew about matching belt and shoes, or they couldn't find matching shoes and belt (a ridiculously common problem with navy and brown, right?), or they simply didn't care. 

(I told you some people have weird standards.)

Your brand is so much more than how you look

Discussions I've had around branding often start with the visual. The logo, colours, fonts, style - those are all small, superficial (though not unimportant) details that only go skin deep.

Your brand is what you say, how you say it, what you do, why you do it, and on and on. Have you ever met someone who was so well put together on the outside, but as you got to know them you came to realize that they had well-hidden messiness? On the flip side, discounting someone who appears to be an unorganized train wreck could mean grossly underestimating a worthy opponent. (Think Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni on The Good Wife. Her character is one of my all-time favourites.) 

Don't hide your genuine self online

How easy is it to show your best face online? You can choose the picture you set up on profiles, you can share only the good or not-mistake-ridden stories of life, you can white wash every last byte of information you share. But should you?

Being selective about what you say or don't say is completely fine. We all have different levels of comfort with sharing. You can be authentic without being transparent. A willingness to share every intimate detail of your life isn't a prerequisite to being active on social media. We can show we're human through personable updates just as effectively as we can through personal updates.

Personal: I've had quite a day. Went to drop off my kid at school and got a flat tire, which caused me to use some unfortunate words in front of said kid. It was fun getting a call from the teacher right after a meeting in which my boss told me I better get my act together. Nothing like motivation to pay bills to get me working in this job I hate.

Though it's 100% fake and lacks any identifying details of the child, the teacher, the boss, or the company, this update makes me cringe a little - It makes me uncomfortable.

Personable: Got a flat tire on my way to drop off my kid. That kinda set the tone for the day. Calgon, take me away!

Both are genuine. Both are authentic. Both are transparent. The personable update just leaves out some details, but the reader will still get the message that it's been a rough day - and we can all relate to that.

Know when to walk away

It's practically impossible to get online these days and not encounter someone's opinion or an issue that we disagree with. There's nothing wrong with conversing about any topic you want to, but when the heat turns up, or there's immediate shutting down of ideas, those are my cues to walk away before the discourse goes off course. How you respond to controversy or confrontation can say a lot about you to anyone watching.

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Think before you post, then t.h.i.n.k. again

One of the most disturbing trends I've seen online ever is the tendency to use public shaming as a tactic. I cringe to think of individuals who are targeted by groups that set out to make them an example. I love this acronym - I first saw it hanging in my son's daycare several years ago. Recently, it's been shared a lot online and I think that's great. It's a valuable reminder that every one of us can use from time to time. 

T - is it true?

H - is it helpful?

I - is it inspiring?

N - is it necessary?

K - is it kind?

What we say - whether it comes from our mouth or our fingers - matters. 

We're all human

Mistakes happen. None of us is immune. We have faults and we do things we shouldn't sometimes. Remembering to be kind to ourselves, remembering to be kind to others means that little by little we can each have an impact on the Internet mobs and maybe make the world in general a better place. And when we focus on that, it leaves a positive impression that would help any personal brand.

Personal vs. personable and the benefits of opening up

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I've given a lot of talks about online privacy and what I've learned through these sessions is that there is a lot of FUD - fear, uncertainty, and doubt - floating around. Generally, there are two things that generate the FUD:

  1. Limited knowledge of how the Internet works.

  2. Lack of forethought about boundaries.

I'm not sure what the answer to the problem is, but I do know there is a problem. In one session I did, a parent said to me, "I'm not interested in social media or Facebook. I don't want an account and I don't have time."

I get that. I really do. I replied with something like this:

If, as a parent, you are concerned about your child(ren) being online and what may happen, then gaining knowledge about social media and the internet is no longer about your individual participation - it's about knowing how to teach and protect your child(ren).

Every generation of parents has had its fair share of newfangled ideas and technology that they had to navigate and learn. However, never before have those changes created an actual NEED to be so vigilant. Thanks to the internet, which I think is a wonderful, wonderful thing, we are now in the position of "need to know". Awareness isn't enough. 

Many attendees have commented that they don't want to share information about their personal lives at all. This discussion is where I introduce the difference between personal and personable, as well as the idea of setting personal boundaries.

I used to refer to my comfort zone/personal boundaries filter as the mom-filter. If my mom would be disappointed to see what I shared, then I wouldn't share it. Over the years, my filter has gotten more refined to each individual role. I may talk about my parents, my brothers, my husband, son, and in-laws, but I generally don't refer to them by name without permission. (My husband and I have talked about what we feel is appropriate/inappropriate to share about each other.) I may write in vague terms about conversations that I have with people, but I make an effort to ensure that even the person I was speaking with can't be totally certain it's them I am referring to. I'm not perfect, but I try my very best to avoid sharing judgemental thoughts. (There's more than enough of that online already.) There are certain topics - in particular politics, and religion, and some of the debates around autism - that I avoid. The few times I have waded in, I hated the outcome.

That said, I've experienced huge benefits from opening up and sharing my struggles. The most notable experience was when I broke down and wrote for the first time about my son and the fact that we were waiting to get him in for an assessment to determine whether he had autism (he does). I wrote that just over three years ago. It was a frustrating time for our family and putting it out there was uncomfortable for me. I felt vulnerable - I worried that I was putting Brandon in a vulnerable position without him knowing. The truth is, I still worry a little about that, but I also want him to see autism as one part of who he is - like his blonde hair and blue eyes and his love for technology. If I can't treat it that way, then neither will he.

Inevitably, the topic of "oversharing" comes up in these sessions. I expect it and I'm prepared for it. I had the very great pleasure of seeing Jeff Jarvis speak at an event here in Ottawa a few years ago when he was touring to promote his book, Public Parts. Jeff wrote the book after he blogged and spoke openly online about his treatment for prostate cancer and the effects it had on him physically (urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction). Like me, Jeff found that opening up led to finding support and building a community that supported each other.

In his talk, Jeff brought up the topic of oversharing and gave the perspective that I have since adopted and share with anyone who will listen, with the very small addition of my own insights. Essentially, this is what I believe about oversharing:

Oversharing does not exist except in the context of personal regret over something personally shared. Only the individual who has shared something can decide if they have overshared. If Person A looks at content shared by Person B and feels it is oversharing, it's really about the Person A not being comfortable with what Person B has said. 

To me, this is a critical distinction because we all have different comfort levels. I may see the possible ramifications of what someone else shares and decide I couldn't share that kind of information because it's out of my comfort zone. But the ramifications may not exist for the other person in the same way, or that person may not be bothered by them. Oversharing isn't about the sharer - it's about the person who is taking in what's shared. 

Sheryl Sandberg recently opened up in a post that is real, raw, beautiful, and heartbreaking about the death of her husband. Given how I've been impacted personally by what Sheryl has shared, I can only attempt to imagine what anyone who has lost such a beloved spouse that is reading it would feel. The amazing thing to watch is how many people have shared their own stories, or offered support and compassion for Ms. Sandberg and her family. This is a topic that is associated with many people's worst fears - death of a loved one. Talking about it is scary and uncomfortable, even though we all experience it. 

Opening up online can leave you feeling vulnerable and unsure, but the effects can be positive and uplifting, with an outpouring of understanding, support, and empathy. There are often practical benefits, such as the development of relationships and people living a similar experience offering advice and wisdom. 

The bottom line is that we're all human and we all experience ups and downs, and are afflicted with individual faults that make up part of who we are. Each of us has the right to decide how much we share of our human experience, but being open to opening up can help you and others living your situation as well.

What are some of your concerns about being more open online?