3 Steps To Create A Personal Brand (And Why It Matters)

This article was originally published by Forbes.

Last week, public speakers from across the country assembled in Phoenix, AZ for Brand Lab, a retreat the National Speakers Association designed to help attendees hone their personal brands.

After two and a half days of workshops and feedback sessions, I identified three common themes among industry leaders who are effectively using their personal brand to connect with clients.

1. Bring in your personality.

When it comes to developing my personal brand and voice, my biggest struggle is to override the stylistic instincts I learned in academia. In grad school, I learned how to communicate in a way that was clear, concise, and utterly devoid of personality –  basically the opposite of what we’re going for in personal branding.

When I first started writing, a friend gently told me my articles were “kinda boring.” She wasn’t wrong. My desire to be seen as a credible expert with important insights made my initial content dry and unengaging.

Humans need contrasts to make decisions, and your personality is one way to provide that contrast. Turns out, a playful cadence that’s decidedly “me” resonates far more with my clients than a formal approach that feels more like an expert robot.

As it pertains to social media especially, it pays to write like you talk. Sales and marketing speaker Phil Gerbyshak explains, “If you wouldn’t say it to me that way in real life, why would you say it to me like that on social media?” The brands that have the best engagement on social media are likely those that are conversational and accessible.

Another way to think about it is to “embrace your weird.” Digital marketing expert and speaker Mallory Whitfield uses that expression to remind us that the very things that may have gotten us teased in high school can become an invaluable point of differentiation in personal branding. Whitfield once had breakfast with a guy who is uber-famous and one of her professional inspirations. They met through a social media exchange that was deep in the weeds of Star Wars fan culture.

I walked down the aisle to a string quartet arrangement of the theme song to Jurassic Park. I just need to figure out how to work dinosaurs into my content.

2. Use storytelling

Think back to the last speech you heard or conference you attended. Do you remember the facts and figures, or do you remember the stories and experiences? It turns out, our brains are designed to remember stories, not data. We can use this to our advantage in branding. If we build our personal biographies and unique experiences into our brands, we can better connect with the audience and gain credibility.

 MICHELLE VILLABOS PHOTO CREDIT: Tabatha mudra

MICHELLE VILLABOS PHOTO CREDIT: Tabatha mudra

Michelle Villalobos, who co-chaired Brand Lab, has fully integrated her personal evolution surrounding career fulfilment into her brand. In her marketing materials, she shares, “I spent my whole life seeking happiness through success and achievement”. She describes how miserable and burned out that left her. Then, in dramatic contrast, she explains how she’s now thriving, with a badass, bumping business that aligns her strengths with how she wants to spend her time.

Her personal brand is built around this concept: I developed a profitable business model, which leaves me happy and fulfilled. I've been where you, and I can help you find a business model that works for you.

Personally, the most positive feedback I get often centers on my willingness to use personal experiences and vulnerability as a tool to make content come alive and help the audience feel less alone. However, be deliberate about what you share and when. To paraphrase Nadia Bolz-Weber, we should speak from our scars, not our wounds.

Note that storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean baring your soul. You can share anecdotes about past experiences that demonstrate expertise or help you relate to the audience.  

3. Accept that it’s always evolving.

On one of the Brand Lab panels, motivational speaker and comedian Tim Gard explained that personal branding isn’t like a brand you put on a cow, which stays the same forever. Instead, it has to evolve and change based on audience needs and the changing landscape.

This came up repeatedly throughout the conference.

As we debriefed one of the feedback sessions, an attendee explained that she now knew her brand was too scattered and she needed to continue to hone her message. Another had gotten the opposite feedback that the brand she’d spend years developing was now “too perfect” – her personality didn’t come through.

In some ways, I find this discouraging and want to grumble, “Seriously? I have to keep doing and redoing this forever?” Alternatively, accepting that it’s iterative takes some of the pressure off of getting it just right.

As the internet brings ever growing competition, these three strategies will help you differentiate yourself from your competitors and authentically connect with your target market.