Career & Success

Maximizing Your Brand: Communicating Who You Are to Help Get What You Want

In this episode, Dorie Clark shares strategies for building the personal brand you want and need.

December 05, 2023

What comes to people’s minds when they think about you, and can you control it? Dorie Clark says you can — with the power of your personal brand.

According to Clark, “You have brand equity in your own life.” Your personal brand or reputation, she says, “makes things either easier or harder for you” as you pursue your personal and professional goals. The key question, is “what kind of reputation have you built up?” By taking stock of the personal brand you have, you can redefine it to align with who you are and where you want to go.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Clark and host Matt Abrahams discuss the power of personal branding, being more strategic in how we communicate about ourselves, and how we can shape the narrative of our lives.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Many of us carry very specific ideas about certain brands. When I say think of a luxury car, sports apparel, or a soft drink, what companies come to mind? Well, think about this. What comes to mind when people think about you? What’s your brand? My name’s Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I’m excited to speak with Dori Clark. Dori is a consultant, speaker, lecturer, and author. Among her many books are Stand Out, Reinventing You and her latest, The Long Game. Dori and I recently met and have found lots of commonalities in our approach in our work. And Dori, I am just excited to have you here. Welcome.

Dorie Clark: Thank you, Matt. I’m really glad to be here. Alright,

Matt Abrahams: Are you ready to get started?

Dorie Clark: Yes, let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: I’d like to start with your perspective on personal brand to begin, what is your definition of personal brand and what do you mean when you talk about brand equity,

Dorie Clark: Essentially it’s a synonym for your reputation. That’s really all it is, because having a good reputation generally is a useful thing in business and in life.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. And when you talk about brand equity, what does that mean? I understand the notion of equity, but what is brand equity?

Dorie Clark: Just as a corporation might have brand equity. I mean, the Coca-Cola trademark is worth millions because everybody knows the red and the little curlicues. You have brand equity in your own life. Your reputation makes things either easier or harder for you. If you are known as someone who is a great worker and always on time and always wanting to be helpful and doing high quality work, everyone’s going to want to do business with you. And the converse is obviously true. And so the question around brand equity is what kind of a reputation have you built up and is it what you want? And is it helping you in the world or not? And if it’s not, how do we fix it? Yeah,

Matt Abrahams: I’d like to dive into that. One of our very early podcast episodes, we had Alison Kluger, who’s a colleague of mine who teaches a class on reputation management, and I found it really fascinating. Can you walk us through your methodology for defining our personal brands and what best practices do you suggest for communicating our brand in the world?

Dorie Clark: Absolutely, Matt. So when it comes to defining our personal brand and really understanding who we are, where we want to go, one of the things that I’ve discovered is that it can be really challenging for us to do it ourselves. This is a place where friends and colleagues can be extremely valuable in mirroring back to us. We have to recognize we know too much about ourselves. And so as a result, we know all the things, but we don’t understand the relative weight of them. And so if you have a group of trusted people, they can actually mirror back and say, oh, but you’re actually fantastic at this thing, or you’re much better than other people at doing xyz. Or, wow, you really light up when you talk about this thing, but not that thing. And that data can be very helpful because it’s really hard for us to perceive it.

So we begin to have that as clues and we begin to think about where we want to go. But once we are developing our vision about what do we want it to look like, and you can do this through identifying people that you would admire in your industry or your field, seeing pieces of what might be possible for you, the way to begin to communicate that with other people, there’s a few things that you can do. I mean, one is at a really basic level, think about what you are talking about. Something that I often suggest to people as a missed opportunity is that literally every time you see someone that you haven’t seen for a while, they’re going to ask you some variation of, Hey Matt, what have you been up to? And usually we do not have a good answer for that. We just, oh, same old thing.

Or, oh gosh, I saw this movie last weekend. It’s just nothing creative. But if you want to be known for something, if you want to be known as a strategic thinker or if you want to be known as the expert on women in negotiation, those are the things you should be telling people you should identify in advance and have in your back pocket some kind of anecdote about, oh, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching xyz. Or, oh wow, I just got back from a conference where we were talking about abc. Those are the things that can become the meat of what other people think of when they think of you, because that’s what you’re spending time conversing about. That’s a really easy low hanging fruit that we all can prepare.

Matt Abrahams: And it fits very nicely with my whole approach to these types of spontaneous speaking where you actually can do some preparation in advance so that when these things come up, you’re ready to go. So you should be thinking about what are the things that are important to me? How can I package up the things that I’m passionate about and where I want to go next? I love that advice and I love the methodology, the way in which we can really ascertain how people see us, not by just looking internally ourselves, but by asking others. That’s very helpful. I know you and I share a passion for strategic communication. I’m curious to get your thoughts on how we best establish strategies for our careers, where we see ourselves now and where we see ourselves going. And you also talk about, I know when you talk about strategy, you talk about strategic leverage. So I’m hoping you can add some insight into that as well.

Dorie Clark: It does feel intimidating sometimes to people if they’re unsure. Where do you get the strategy? How do you figure out the strategy? And I like to actually just kind of boil it down and make it simple. My favorite question is, well, who are you jealous of? Jealousy does not have to be a bad thing. Jealousy can be a clue. It can be, oh gosh, I really wish I did what he was doing. I really wish I had his career. And it doesn’t mean that you want to stick pins in the voodoo doll or do something to harm the other person. It just means that you are resonating and connecting with something that they’ve done. And it enables you to look for the clues and say, oh, well, okay, if I’m intrigued by that, how did he get there? What could I do that could help me get there too?

And it begins to create the outline of at least a possible strategic plan for you. That would be the first part. And to your point, Matt, about leverage, one of the things that I always like to be mindful of is it’s hard out there. And so the more we can try to kill two birds with one stone, the better. And so when we think about making decisions that sort of take advantage of leverage, there’s a lot of ways we can do it, but it’s thinking through, alright, how can I take the goals that I want to accomplish and find creative ways to sort of tap into opportunities that I have that make it even better or even more accessible? I think about in my most recent book, the Long Game, I tell the story of a guy named Phil Van Nostrand who was a, I mean now he’s become every year more and more successful, but he came to New York originally as a kind of young photographer who was looking to make it.

And one of the things that he did was work, I will say in air quotes for free, which is a thing that on the surface, many people would say, ah, why would you do that? That’s not good. But he wanted to be able to have a cool New York lifestyle, and he realized a lot of the people that he knew or that he could work with, they didn’t have a lot of money to pay for fancy photography, but they could trade him things. And so he ended up doing all this work for restaurants, and so he’d be able to eat amazing meals and take out his friends all the time because he got script, he got trade from the restaurants. And so even though it wasn’t putting cash in his pocket, it was a very smart leverage way of helping him lead the lifestyle that he wanted in a kind of clever way.

Matt Abrahams: I love this advice about how to be strategic, and you’ve actually helped me. We just released an episode about fear of missing out FOMO. I interviewed Patrick McGinnis, the guy who came up with the concept, and we were talking about how to manage our fear of missing out, but you’ve just helped give me, because I suffer from this significantly in my life, you can actually harness that. So your notion of who makes you jealous, what makes you jealous, you can also look at your fear of missing out and saying, what are the things that I’m missing out on? And have that become items in a strategy that you can strive for. And then the second piece I really liked of what you said is we need to find those access points in our lives that can give us some of that leverage that might give us access to the learning or the experience or the colleagues that we need to execute on that strategy. I think that’s fantastic. I often recommend to my students to use LinkedIn, not as a tool to necessarily broadcast who you are, but go look at people living the careers that you’re interested in and see the paths they took and where can you connect in some ways. So thank you for that. I love that it’s not just strategic, it’s also very tactical things you can do. That’s very helpful.

Dorie Clark: Yeah. Thank you, Matt. And if you don’t mind, I’m just curious, when you think about personal branding, what’s your sort of philosophy around it? How do you think about it in your own life?

Matt Abrahams: For me, personal branding is really about how you communicate who you are to the world. And when I think about myself and what I try to communicate, I’m fundamentally somebody who is very curious and I’m very curious about communication. So in everything I do, I try to learn about communication, but I also try to bring out learnings in other people. And so I’m constantly asking questions. I’m constantly trying to put myself in situations where I can learn more and to help others learn more. So to me, what helps me in my own personal brand is I have a guiding principle, curiosity and a guiding passion about communication, and that’s what helps me make the decisions I make in my career.

Dorie Clark: Yeah, I love that. That’s a great response. Thank you.

Matt Abrahams: You’re an advocate of becoming an expert in whatever you do. In fact, you’ve developed an entire methodology and community around this idea why is being an expert so important? And can you share some nuggets from that methodology about how to develop our own expertise?

Dorie Clark: There’s kind of two pieces to it, right? One is the expert piece. Why is it important to be an expert? Well, certainly I want to put a stake in the ground. I think many of your listeners would probably agree that we live in a world where there’s enough noise, there’s enough charlatans that there’s something important about having the integrity of legitimate knowledge. I think that striving to be an expert and be able to really contribute to others knowledge that is hard won and not just something you picked up through Google is kind of a noble thing. How do you help other people with deeply held and fought for information that you have worked to gather? I really just respect that at a fundamental level. But the other piece that I think is critical, and it’s a drum that I like to bang, is the importance not just of being an expert, but of being a recognized expert.

Because I feel like for so many people, unfortunately, they spend so much time and effort getting one more certification, one more degree, learning all the things, but it’s like the tree falling in the forest. If other people don’t understand the contribution that you have to make, if they don’t understand the knowledge that you have to give and the way that you can benefit them and other people, it doesn’t do that much good. I mean, it’s nice for you. It helps maybe the handful of people around you, but I think for a lot of people, if they’re embarking on that journey of knowledge, they actually want to make a difference. They want to help people at scale. And so you need to be a recognized expert in order to do that so that people will be able to turn to you and say, oh, well, what does he think about that?

That’s the place we want to be. So to your point, there’s three pillars of the recognized expert methodology, and we can go into more depth about any of these, but briefly, it’s content creation. So number one is basically finding ways to share your ideas publicly so that people know what your ideas are. You sort of have your intellectual property out there in the world, whether it’s books or articles or speeches or what have you. Number two is your network, because first of all, it’s about how you get new ideas, but also you need an amplification device. You could be the greatest expert in the world on communication, but if the other greatest experts in communication don’t know you, that’s not a good sign. That’s not a good look. So you got to be kind of plugged in. And then number three is social proof. And basically that is how can we make sure that you are easy to recognize by very busy, distracted people as an expert? It varies from field to field, but it could include things like what kind of clients have you worked with? What stages have you spoken on? Who blurbed your book? What articles, what publications have you written for, or what magazines or newspapers have featured you or quoted you? Those are the types of things. What awards have you won where people say, oh gosh, she must really be credible if such and such was willing to feature her or to have her keynote.

Matt Abrahams: So I see here that you’re pulling together many of the concepts we’ve talked about already. It’s your brand, your reputation, it’s your strategy about how to find that leverage that you can use to help get your messages out. I find this all really very useful. And I think all of us, regardless of if you’re trying to be on the public stage, a thought leader or just somebody who’s really proficient at their work and their own life, I think going through this methodology is really helpful. A lot of people who listen to this podcast listen to learn about skills that will help them take them into the next step in their career. What advice do you have for people who are looking to advance in their career to perhaps expand their purview, take on more responsibility, get more access? What are the things that you would advise them to do?

Dorie Clark: Yeah. Well, one of the concepts, Matt, that I talk about in the long game that I think is useful here, and it has a little bit of a Silicon Valley callback, is the idea of Google 20% time was very impactful to me, and some of your listeners will know. In the olden days, Google had a concept that they were advocating called 20% time. It was originally inspired by 3M, which had 15% time similar idea, which is that they theoretically encouraged their employees to spend up to 20% of their time working on discretionary activities, things that are not part of your day-to-Day job responsibilities. This is how Gmail was invented, it’s how Google News was invented. It obviously yielded some business breakthroughs that were quite meaningful to the company. Now, the caveat here, and I think it’s an important caveat to dive into, is that if you ask contemporary employees of Alphabet now, oh, hey, do you do 20% time?

Very few, very few are going to say, yes, estimates are, it’s not perfect estimates, but estimates are that maybe only 10% of employees actually do this. This is not a ubiquitous thing. And the reason is pretty clear, which is that people get busy, people have things to do. They’re so busy with their regular jobs, they don’t have time to muck around with these unclear, murky, it might work, it might not work, kind of things. So we understand that, right? That is the normal human pull. That being said, you’re not going to get the Gmail, you’re not going to get the Google News if you don’t do that. And so what I really want to encourage is, the truth is everything in this world has become pretty decentralized, right? Especially over the past 30 years, whether we’re talking about pensions, whether we’re talking about professional development, whatever it is, the responsibility has been shifted for better and for worse onto the individual employee.

This is a similar instance. We can’t sit back and wait for an employer to tell us what we need to know and then teach it to us. We need to be proactive enough that we are setting the agenda, that we are coming up with this. And so I think that it’s useful for us as a frame to say, well, what’s my 20% time? And that’s a big chunk of time. Maybe it’s your 5% time, maybe it’s your 10% time, but what is the discretionary time? Might be nights and weekends, let’s be honest. But what is the discretionary time that you are using to keep developing yourself? We need to have an answer for that question, but it’s how we keep ourselves both interested and engaged, but also ahead of the curve and ready for things that we can’t even predict in the future.

Matt Abrahams: I really think that’s great advice. And as you were speaking, I was really reflecting on my own life and what am I doing? There certainly were times in my life where I was allocating time to developing skills that would directly help me in whatever was next. And I think now I need to reinvigorate that In my own life. I’ve been very focused on very specific things, and I need to give myself permission to spend maybe not 20% of the time, but maybe a little bit of time, developing skills that will help me for the future. So dory, everything you’ve said has been really helpful and it’s helped me personally, and I hope many of our listeners have taken value. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody the first I make up. That’s just for you, Dory, and then the other two are very common. Are you ready for these questions?

Dorie Clark: Let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Alright. So my first question is, as you look at how your career is unfolding, what is your next step? What’s the 20% time you are spending time focusing on?

Dorie Clark: Well, I can answer that a couple of ways. Matt. One thing that I’ve been pursuing since 2016, so I’ve been working pretty assiduously for the past seven years on it, is learning to write musical theater. That is something that I have been working toward. I created a goal that over a 10 year period, I wanted to write a show that made it to Broadway. So we’re on the path. We’ll see. We’ll see how I do. It’s not directly relevant, per se to my regular career, but it is something that has been a fantastic learning opportunity and has exposed me to a lot of new people, a lot of new ideas and worlds. So that’s great. I will see my more career centered answer is that I’ve been spending a lot of time really deep diving into email automation, which I think is an important concept for the kind of work that I do, and I think it’s useful for lots of people.

Matt Abrahams: I can totally see the value of email automation. I certainly appreciate it in my own life. I’m just fascinated by your whole musical theater band. Did you perform and do musical theater at some point in your life?

Dorie Clark: No, no, actually, this is all relatively new. I was not a musical theater kid. I grew up in a little town in North Carolina where my school was so small, we didn’t even have a theater program. So no, I had to figure all this out later on. Well,

Matt Abrahams: That’s cool. And I can see how many of your skills that you bring in terms of being very methodical, having a strategy and the creativity you bring to the work that you do, I can see why it would be attractive. Let me ask question number two. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Dorie Clark: Yeah. So when it comes to communicators that are fantastic, there’s a lot that we can say. I will pick a sort of classic one, which is Barack Obama. And I love him mostly because he’s just so calm, he’s a calm communicator. And as of course, and talk about everybody has their kind of style that they lean into. And there’s some people where that’s not what they’re optimizing for. They’re looking for something totally different. But personally, I think that if you are a world leader and if you are running a nuclear power that is brushing up against other nuclear powers, being calm and finding ways to kind of de-escalate is a good skill to have,

Matt Abrahams: Certainly an amazing communicator and somebody who many people admire. For sure. Let me ask you the final question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Dorie Clark: Yes. So we get our milk and our sugar and our eggs. So as we’re baking our communication gate, I would say the first three, if we’re plugging it all in, I would say that the most important pieces are being clear about who your audience is. Because if you’re doing it right, you’re tailoring it to who you’re talking to. It’s number two, asking the question, what do they need from you? What is the goal? Is it an educational goal? Is it a motivational goal? Is it an information transmission goal? Is it persuasion? So really understanding what is it you’re trying to do in to accomplish in that moment. And then the third piece would be about, so that’s kind of about them. The third piece I’d say maybe is about you, and there’s lots of places you could go, but if I’m just picking three, the one that I would choose is about being able to be in control of your own physiology.

Because now that we are all up on mirror neurons, and we know that’s a thing, I think most speakers have intuitively understood that this is true. But now we know from research, it’s literally true. Your emotions are contagious, and if you are the speaker, as long as you are collected, they’re going to be just fine. But if you are really nervous, you’re going to make them nervous. It’s going to create conditions you don’t want. And so if we can learn to master our own physiology, it puts the wind at our back and it makes everything easier.

Matt Abrahams: Those three ingredients are critical. The notion of really understanding who you’re speaking to, thinking about what do they need from you in this moment. And I love this point of how your demeanor impacts and influences the audiences you speak to. So if you can think through how best to convey the emotion you want, you can get that reflected back from your audience. And there are things you can do in terms of your confidence and your calmness that can set you up for success. And there’s certainly things you can do that can invite difficulty, et cetera. So thank you for that. And Dory, thank you for everything. I love your energy, your methodical approach, the way that you see finding where we are and proposing how we get to where we want to be. Thank you for your time. I wish you continued success in all of your endeavors, your writing, the community you’ve built, et cetera. Thanks for spending time with us.

Dorie Clark: Thank you so much, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast, from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information in episodes, find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you. And please make sure to subscribe and follow us on Linkedin.

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