How Personal Branding Can Benefit Recent Grads
I haven’t always known where I wanted to land professionally. I’ve had a good grip on the general vicinity, though: somewhere at the intersection of creative media, writing, and community impact. But the exact destination wasn’t always clear. Even now, as I’ve completely fallen in love with branding, it's still a fairly new relationship. There are lots more specific places it could go as my career continues to evolve. But what I do know is that my decision to invest in my personal brand early on has been a pivotal part of why I’ve always landed jobs that advanced my goals instead of just paying the bills.
I’ve written before about what prompted me to build my first personal website: my anxiety that my haphazard liberal arts background would pose a threat to my ability to get a job after college. Now, I want to talk about how to craft a personal brand without clear professional goals. The choice to do so might sound counterproductive. Why launch a personal brand before graduating, and before even knowing what you want to do? Well, guess what: doing so positioned me to package my core competencies, carve out a more refined trajectory over time, and sell myself to the employers I wanted to attract. Let me tell you how I did it.
STEP 1: LEARN HOW TO DESCRIBE YOUR SMORGASBORD OF SKILLS IN A SENTENCE OR TWO.
I bet many of us can relate to the “jack of all trades, master of none” dilemma, especially if you’re a liberal arts kid like me. Basically, I’ve always had a number of interests and some great skills across the board. But I tended to be one software program short of being an expert at my desired field. And with college concentrations in African-American Studies, Media Arts, Social Movements, the Food Industry & Global Agriculture, what the hell type of job was I about to apply for? So, the first part of my personal branding process was to determine where my interests and skills intersected. This meant getting a little creative with how I articulated what I did best. I came up with this:
"My scholarship and presentations deal with the ways the modern entertainment & communications industries impact the experiences of socially disadvantaged and marginalized people. I use pop culture as an entry point for my analyses."
The key to my personal brand at the time was to sell my critical thinking and public speaking skills and to de-emphasize some of my technical shortcomings. I now know that this tactic is, essentially, brand positioning. Instead of thinking of myself as an aimless, inexperienced student, I thought of myself as a creative intellectual who had a talent for conveying my ideas to an audience.This didn’t mean ignoring those shortcomings, though. It meant that I grew my brand by getting booked for public speaking gigs at colleges and conferences and by self-publishing my essays on Amazon while I took extra-curricular classes on the low to fill in the blanks in my skill set.
So, my advice is to build a brand based on what you’re great at now and have a vision for what you want to get better at later. By then, you’ll have a reputation in the works that will only improve as you become more seasoned and refined. By the time I learned the software and techniques to call myself a graphic designer, I was also able to call myself a published scholar. This gave me an edge among creative professionals because my technical skills are backed by a knack for cultural competency and a theoretical understanding of communications. You’ve got an edge, too. You just haven’t thought of it as that yet.
STEP 2: MAKE A JOB UNTIL YOU GET ONE.
While I was job searching, I was hustling. With my burgeoning Photoshop skills, I started off illustrating cover art for my fellow classmates’ chapbooks and designing flyers for my professors’ campus talks. With my personal research on communications, I gave free branding advice to friends who were aspiring musicians. I landed an internship at Ruff Ryders, and my first assignment was to proofread a marketing plan. I pretended I knew what I was looking for. You could say I was faking it ‘til I made it, but I wasn’t faking. I was picking it up until I had a grip on it. And I was able to leverage scraps of experience into a growing portfolio, which I featured on my personal website. I ALWAYS maintained my website - kept my domain active and my content current with my latest projects, speaking engagements, and even personal sketches. It was increasingly important to my brand that I show my versatility as a thinker and creator.
When the time came for me to gain my first full-time job in a marketing and communications department, my “stunning website” proved memorable to the hiring manager. It also stood out to my supervisor at my next job, where I earned a role as a Marketing Manager at a film nonprofit. When I gained my current position, the CEO told me that my website at the time was one of the most beautiful sites she’d ever seen. (It sounded a little exaggerated to me, but was I complaining? Pssh, please.)
I curated the experience I needed to get where I wanted to in my career. Knowing that my academic background might not be packaged as neatly as a business or design school graduate's, I had to do the work to package myself. That’s the purpose of building a personal brand. It's the process of looking an opportunity in the face and saying, in so many words, "I'm not that, but I am this, which is even better because x, y and z," or "I don't know how to do that, but this is more beneficial to you." Then you continue to deliver on that promise, all while adding tools to your toolkit. Eventually, you'll get to the point where you're not only as qualified as your counterparts, but you've also still got that edge that set you apart to begin with.
My experience also shows the benefit of owning a personal website or landing page. There may always be a candidate more qualified than you, but how do you present your worth? How do you show and prove that your value is not only strong in the current moment, but that it is increasing all the time? Why not with an online archive that showcases your best stuff to date? Bring something meaningful to every room you enter, make every person you meet a believer, and give them a reason to keep your business card handy. If you do it right, they won't forget you. Trust me.