The internet’s hatred of self-promotion is palpable.
While researching this article, I was shocked by the abundance of editorials that rail against the practice. A quick Google search produces headlines such as “Why Self-Promotion is a Terrible Idea” and “Your Self-Promoting Is More Annoying Than You Think.”
Even headlines that tout the benefits of self-promotion are laced with warnings of societal judgement: “5 Tips for Practicing Self-promotion Without Being Totally Annoying” and “40 Ways To Self-Promote Without Being A Jerk.”
And I get it.
We all have that friend who thinks they’re the next Grant Cardone, who posts inspirational quotes, uses hashtags like #entrepreneur, and hops from one pyramid scheme to the next.
And sadly, that’s the persona that comes to mind when talking about self-promotion—and it makes us recoil.
For some small-business owners, our fear of being perceived as unlikable, narcissistic, and arrogant causes us to hesitate when it comes to promoting our professional services.
But there’s a difference between being an #entrepreneur and mastering the art of effective self-promotion.
Learning how to promote yourself and your business is absolutely critical to your advancement and success—and it’s a concept that we should all learn to embrace and separate from the negative connotations that surround it.
Below are three things to keep in mind when learning how to self-promote in an effective way, without becoming an internet stereotype.
Promote yourself with intention at the right place, at the right time, to the right audience
There’s a difference between the aforementioned humble-bragging Facebook friend and someone who promotes themselves with intention.
What’s the intention of someone who boasts about themselves on social media or in a group of their friends and peers? To impress others? Does this person even have a clear intention in mind?
Now think about the way a business owner might promote themselves: by talking about the value of their skills and services to prospective clients, by touting the benefits of their product, and with targeted networking that puts them in front of the right audience.
Sure, your cousins might not be interested in hearing about what an amazing freelancer you are and how you’ve helped your clients make a ton of money around the dinner table at Thanksgiving. But your prospective clients would probably be very interested in hearing that story and how you might be able to do the same for them.
I became a believer in the art of self-promotion by spending the first half of my career in a male-dominated field and being mistaken, on more than one occasion, for the “pretty little secretary” in a group of my male peers.
And yes, that was an actual quote.
I didn’t have the luxury of being humble, else I would secure a permanent position in the background. And it wasn’t until I actively began to bring attention to my achievements that I gained some momentum in my career.
As a salaried employee, I frequently promoted my ideas, took credit for my successes, actively pursued advancement opportunities, and asked for raises.As a freelancer, I actively pursue large contracts and big clients. I ask for higher rates and am not afraid to tout the value of my services.
Over the years, these practices have helped me build a business that generates $300,000 in annual revenue in just three years and features in prestigious publications such as Business Insider.
I have never received a raise, promotion, or business opportunity that couldn’t be traced back to my own active promotional efforts.
Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who pursue them.
Substantiate your claims with case studies, testimonials, and referrals
According to a study in the Journal of Self and Identify, self-promotion is evaluated more favorably when the claims being made can be substantiated.
Let’s go back to that previous example of the seemingly braggart friend on social media who is posting inspirational quotes and memes and talking about their own successes.
Now imagine that friend has actually built a multimillion-dollar business in an industry that you’ve been trying to break into. What if that friend was actually Grant Cardone instead of a Cardone wannabe? Would your opinions about that person change? Would your interest pique in what they had to say?
It’s one thing to talk about your successes; it’s another to be able to put your money where your mouth is.
Freelancers and small-business owners can often substantiate their own claims by offering examples of their work, a robust portfolio, and perhaps most importantly, a collection of testimonials and reviews.
If you can prove you’re great at what you do, it isn’t bragging—it’s just stating facts.
It’s even better if you can get a previous client or professional contact to offer a referral or vouch for you on your behalf.
Ever notice how some of your best clients and business contacts seem to be those who came to you by referral?
There’s a reason.
In a study published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Inc., researchers found that having a third party sing one’s praises consistently resulted in a more favorable perception of the professional in question, along with higher pay recommendations, increased likability, and an increased perception of competence.
Talk about starting off on the right foot.
Quit worrying about the haters
With all of that said, there remains a certain vulnerability when it comes to putting yourself out there and singing your own praises. There will be haters along the way.
Women especially are more likely to suffer negative social consequences for self-promotion.
According to LeanIn.org, women face a social penalty when they assert themselves that men don’t have to deal with.
“We expect men to be assertive, so when they take the lead it feels natural to us. In contrast, we expect women to be kind and communal—so when they assert themselves, we react unfavorably,” claims the site.
This is why women are also more likely to be described as intimidating, aggressive, or bossy.
And to make matters worse, women also pay a penalty for being likable. According to the same site, when women are seen as agreeable and nice, we often see them as less competent.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single easy answer to combat this problem. We must strive to walk the fine line between likeability and self-assertion and do our best to tune out the haters along the way.
In my professional career, I’ve had plenty of insults thrown my way, both privately and publicly.
I too have been called “bossy” and “aggressive.”
But I also know, had I let those words stop me from continuing to put myself out there, I would have denied myself the advancements and opportunities that were crucial building blocks in my small business.
And while changing these preconceived biases toward women and self-promotion on a global scale is no small task, we can all do our part, as Lean In suggests:
“If a colleague says they don’t like how a woman bragged about her strengths or accomplishments in an interview, ask them to explore their thinking: ‘That’s interesting. Do you think you’d have that reaction if a man did the same thing?’”
“You can also reframe what happened: ‘I noticed that too, but I don’t see it as bragging. I just thought she was talking confidently about her talents.’ It’s also worth pointing out that a job interview is exactly the place to talk about your strengths.”
I cannot tell you how many opportunities would have not been made available to me had I not learned how to utilize self-promotion as a business tool. Embrace your promotional abilities with strategy, intention, and the ability to back up your claims—and who knows what doors might open up.
After all, no one is ever going to be as invested, or care as much about your business as much as you do.
Tennessee native Morgan Overholt is a freelance graphic designer, owner of Morgan Media LLC and co-founder of TheSmokies.com. Morgan and her team have worked with nationally recognized clientele from all over the world, including the Centers for Disease Control Foundation (CDCF), Kimberly-Clark, and Stanley Black & Decker.
Morgan transitioned into the role of freelancer and small business owner after spending nearly a decade in the traditional corporate world left her feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Today, Morgan is passionate about sharing her story with other hopeful entrepreneurs who hope to follow in her footsteps. She has been featured on Upwork.com, Refinery29, and Business Insider.