How to self-promote as a creative professional - minus the ego trip

How to self-promote as a creative professional - minus the ego trip
As a country and a culture, we despise those who self-promote. But in today's climate, you need to have a profile to get ahead - particularly if you work in a creative industry. So how do you talk yourself up, minus the ego trip?

As a country and a culture, we despise those who self-promote. But in today's climate, you need to have a profile to get ahead – particularly if you work in a creative industry. So how do you talk yourself up, minus the ego trip?

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5. Macbeth is preparing himself to kill Duncan but needs to deceive him; to be bold, determined and deadly, while appearing innocent and friendly. Says Lady Macbeth: “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.”

It strikes me that actress-cum-presenter and girl about town Kimberley Crossman is perfectly in alignment with Lady Macbeth’s principles. 

That’s not to say Crossman is snakelike, not at all, but more so that her appearance and demeanour belie her determination to succeed and probably lead many people to underestimate her smarts. The diminutive actress may look like the innocent flower – all blonde hair and white teeth, bubbling over with happiness and enthusiasm – but when it comes to her goals and her future, she is the iron fist inside a velvet glove.

For Crossman, it’s business time. In the course of our interview on the art of self-promotion, she uses the words ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ as naturally as if she were discussing what she might have for dinner tonight.

Many will dismiss her youthful enthusiasm, only to find she’s snuck up on them with a smart business strategy that’s long been in the works. And then smacked them on the back of the head with it.

The long game

Crossman took up an acting role as Sophie McKay on Shortland Street in January 2007. It was a dream come true for the former deputy head girl at top Auckland private school Diocesan but, never one to rest on her laurels, she immediately began making plans for the future. Crossman had seen how many Shortland Street actors had been immortalised as their character, unable to break free from the shackles of Lionel or Dr Warner. Crossman wanted to have a fan base and separate herself from her character, “to be more Kimberley Crossman than Sophie McKay”. She launched her website, www.kimberleycrossman.com, which started as a blog of sorts, after she’d spent some time on online forums answering fan questions. It was a break from tradition; other cast members hadn’t gone down that path.

“They’d actually advised us against it because they weren’t always particularly nice in forums, so not to get involved or take anything personally. But I went on and started building quite a fan base through that and through having my own website. At that point it was just a blog but it was getting a bit of heat as well.”

“Heat” would be an understatement for the attention Crossman’s online properties get today. She has more than 30,000 followers on Twitter (@kimcrossman) and 20,000 likes on Facebook. Contextualised: David Shearer has 5,500 Twitter followers; Sally Ridge has 6,000; the NBR has 8,500. Kimberley Crossman, on Twitter at least, is bigger than the leader of the opposition.

The stats, says Crossman, were “really good for what it [the website] was”, and after a conversation with her sister Rochelle Shaw, “who’s very creative and business-focused”, they decided to go hard on the site and building Crossman up as a brand in her own right.

“The conversation had come up about Shortland Street and wanting longevity out of my career – how you can create a career in this industry, and looking offshore for some examples.”

Crossman scored a few presenting gigs, notably on What Now, which was also part of the master plan: “That was so that people would know me, the person, rather than me, the actress. It was all strategic. We started talking about the brand as a business and setting it up as a business, as well.”

The key difference that sets Crossman apart from her actor peers is the finely tuned art of self-promotion. A more shy, retiring, modest type would simply not have encountered the same level of success Crossman has. She’s had to push herself out there, talk about herself, her skills and her work. And of course, she’s irritated a few people along the way.

Cut ’em down

Much is said about Tall Poppy Syndrome in this country; we simply don’t like those who stick their heads above the parapet. Those who talk about how great they are and what they’ve achieved. In short, those who self-promote.

Sure, I’ve got my own story. Early last year I signed a book contract to pen a popular history of New Zealand advertising. Getting to that stage represented a fair amount of work in itself; to convince a publisher to take you on, you need a solid, convincing pitch, preferably some writing samples, and a track record of success and diligence. Then comes the real work: on top of a full-time job, I’d be writing a couple thousand words each day, and more on weekends. To get the 85,000-word manuscript finished in five months, I’d typically get up, write a thousand words, go to work, come home, write another thousand, eat dinner, write another thousand, go to bed. Rinse and repeat.

A former colleague, who’d written a couple of books himself, didn’t take kindly to the news after I excitedly shared it on Facebook. “You know you’re going to fail, right?” he asked me – rhetorically, I presume. “That word count is impossible and you’ll never meet that deadline. You’re going to get to 30,000 words and have nothing left to write about. You’re going to fail.”

I took some delight when he emailed me the week before my deadline to ask how it was going – presumably to procure grisly details of my abject failure – in telling him I’d submitted the manuscript early.

The moral of the story is that there’s nothing to stop any journalist in New Zealand going out and pitching their own non-fiction book and getting a contract. It isn’t that hard, when you’ve already got a track record in writing, and there are plenty of publishing houses wanting quality content. All you need is a good pitch and the dedication to follow it through. But many look at the surface product – the Facebook announcement of a book contract – and wonder, how did she score that so easily? And why not me?

As Crossman knows well, so much of Tall Poppy Syndrome is couched in professional jealousy.

Another anecdote: a beautiful, vibrant woman at the top of her game in her day job. She’s stylish, bubbly and smart. And like Crossman, the strategic part of her personality is largely hidden underneath the beguiling exterior.

I ran into her in an elevator one day and asked how she was. “I’m amazing!” she exclaimed. “I just found out I got first-class honours in my Master’s degree, and I’ve sold the film rights to my novel!”

I congratulated her – I was in all honesty very impressed, for both are laudable achievements – and she bounced on out of the elevator.

“Well,” sneered someone in the lift. “Don’t we just think we are the best thing ever.”

Oh yes, the Tall Poppy. It’s one of the ugliest posies a person can have, but it’s endemic to our culture. So how – particularly if you’re in the creative industries and need to have a profile in order to score work – do you self-promote, without seeming needlessly egotistical?

Handling the backlash

Crossman is no stranger to the poppy backlash. Take, for example, the fake Twitter account @KimKrossman set up late last year to poke fun at her. “You might know me from my 48 seconds on American television,” the Twitter bio read. “Buy my book! I love me and you should too.”

Crossman, it is true, relentlessly self-promotes. “Arrived safe in LA – learning lines and getting ready for a big day in Hollywood tomorrow! xx” is a typical Facebook status update, and her tweets regularly feature motivational quotes with the hashtag #kcloveyou, a reference to her book, Love You, which came out last year. However, it is entirely authentic. Every word she writes in pushing her achievements comes from honest happiness. It isn’t fake, put on or affected.

“I can get a lot of patronising comments from people,” she admits. “But I’m not one to really dwell on that. Of course it hurts my feelings when people say horrible things about me or have an idea about me that isn’t true. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t have an effect on me.”

She remains philosophical to the point of being almost yogic about the hate.

“At the end of the day, if people have an opinion about me, that’s them and if they want to have a bad attitude to me, I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and making sure I’m doing it with integrity and doing my best and working hard and as long as I’m doing that, I shouldn’t let those things affect me.” 

Crossman doesn’t take fondly to the label ‘self-promotion’ (“it has a negative connotation”) preferring instead to label it ‘skills promotion’.

“I always tell people if I’m on TV or have done an interview,” she says. “I share that but I think it’s about picking your audience. I know a lot of people don’t follow me on Twitter because I share those things, but I also have a really captive audience who are keen and eager to be part of my journey and it encourages and inspires them.

“I think it’s about knowing who you’re talking to as well and making sure you are being honest and giving inspiring information. Then I don’t think there’s any problem with self-promotion in that respect.

“I think that as Kiwis we’re our own worst enemies in that area. We have to learn to be proud of our work. Self-promotion is a negative connotation, purely because if you say you’re good at something, people think you might not have the facts or the talent to back it up.

“I think if you are good at something or you’ve done something you’re proud of, it’s important to tell that. You don’t have to yell it off the top of the mountain but if you have got a skill set and you’re good at something, you have every right to be proud of that and tell other people.”

Try #socialising

Aside from walking the fine line between modesty and egotism, how can you showcase your achievements and build a profile? Social media is the most obvious option and has the benefit of being free and easy to use.

Social media aficionado, creative director and author of Tweet This Book Vaughn Davis has successfully built a following of more than 6,200 followers on Twitter and reckons social media has been good to him because he’s been good to it.

“After earlier false starts with Bebo, SecondLife and MySpace, Twitter turned out to be my gateway drug, and I now use it to connect with 5,000 of the most interesting people I’ve ever known,” Davis says. “Add a thousand or so each in LinkedIn and Facebook and a sprinkling of other networks and I get to be a part of some pretty amazing communities.”

In spite of being so active on social media, Davis says he doesn’t find it a chore.

“If you do, then perhaps social media isn’t for you. One way, though, that I manage to find time, is by not thinking too much about what I tweet or post. The result perhaps is that to follow my social media trail is to get a feel for who I really am – so when people connect with me on a business or personal level, they usually know me pretty well before they meet me.”

How does this connect to self-promotion? Davis cites the example of one Twitter user who has a line in his bio that reads “happy to help”. Davis has been busy for the past couple of years running his own consultancy, The Goat Farm, without ever having to approach people for work.

“That hasn’t happened yet and probably never will,” he says. “But ‘yes’ is my default answer when someone asks for a hand with something. Sometimes it’s interesting and profitable, sometimes it’s not. But you never know.”

Davis’ policy of saying yes has seen him fronting a documentary in Samoa, filming ads with pop stars, helping select and coach the speakers for TEDxAuckland, becoming a regular radio guest commentator and a whole lot more. “I said I don’t usually think too much before posting, but using the word ‘interesting’ just now reminded me that I do try to stick to rules – be useful and be interesting. What constitutes useful and interesting, of course, depends on who you’re talking to.”

Davis did, however, employ deliberate self-promotion in writing and publishing New Zealand’s first e-book about social media, Tweet this Book. He wanted to do more work in social media and was “painfully aware” that for his clients, selling him in as “Here’s Vaughn, he knows about social media” wasn’t going to go down so well. However, “Here’s Vaughn, he wrote New Zealand’s first book on social media” had more credibility.

“I designed Tweet this Book – and it shames me to say this – in PowerPoint and distributed it via a magnificent social

recommendation platform called Pay With a Tweet.”

Pay With a Tweet is the world’s first social payment system. Creative folks (musicians, artists, writers) sign up for a Pay With a Tweet button, which users hit when they want to download the content (a song, perhaps, or in Davis’ case, an e-book). After the download, a Tweet goes out from the user’s account announcing what they’ve downloaded, and in turn promoting it. It’s the ultimate tool for creative self-promotion.

“I didn’t worry too much about making the first edition perfect,” Davis says. “Instead I waited for readers to point out typos and so on, then I simply updated the PDF on DropBox.”

To date more than 26,000 people have read it, “not counting the bootlegged printed out copies plopped onto senior executives’ desks”, and it’s done exactly what Davis had hoped it would.

“I’d recommend [Pay With a Tweet] to anyone. The only trick is having some useful and interesting content to start with, but if you blog or make public speeches regularly you’re sure to have some good stuff sitting around.”

Davis reckons he’d update the book, but with all the work flowing in via his social media connections, he now simply doesn’t have the time.

Shifting platforms

For all her talk about strategy and tactics, you’d think Crossman would have a 10-point plan for social media, but in fact it’s the opposite – and it’s actually a lot more organic.

“I get asked a lot of the time what my social media strategy is in terms of getting more followers, and to be honest most people would think I would have a strategy in place, but I don’t,” she says.

“I’m not necessarily in the business of trying to get more followers and have a number thing – I want a loyal and engaged fan base and I don’t think that’s reflected by a number, it’s reflected by a quality and a relationship. [But] in terms of a business and moving forward, yes, I think it’s important to have a strategy in terms of a goal and knowing where you want to head.”

Part of Crossman’s self-promotion schedule last year was writing a book. She’s big on goal setting – her book has a chapter dedicated to it – and a while ago she decided she wanted to document her life up until the present point.

Around the same time, she’d read a lot of motivational books and realised there was a gap in the market for the sort of book she would’ve wanted to read when she was a bit younger. An older sister advice type book for young girls: her fan base.

So Crossman wrote on her goal list: “Write a book”. She refined her ideas and decided to combine her personal history with motivational writing, talked to her agent Karen Kay, and selected a publisher, Auckland-based international publishing house Penguin.

“We took the idea and went and met with Penguin. I felt like I do a lot of things, I have a lot of fingers in different pies, and if I was going to do something I hadn’t done before, which was write a book, I wanted a really credible publisher. I’ve always read Penguin books and I respect them and was eager to work with them.”

Penguin saw the merit in the idea and in about an hour and a half, Crossman was writing the book. Penguin general manager of publishing Debra Millar says Crossman was “a very motivated individual” and the book was incredibly resolved at a very early stage. In other words, a dream author for a publisher, and crucially, one with an in-built network for promoting the end product.

She wrote the whole thing herself, with input from friends and family. No ghostwriter in sight.

“It’s not like, oh great, here’s a book deal and here’s a step by step process of how you write a book. You’ve got a blank canvas so to speak, so coming up with how each chapter would flow into the next, and the structure, was something I had to come up with.”

Crossman now wants to do another book, although there’s nothing set in concrete.

“The great thing about the site and the brand is that it’s moving with me. With the book launch, we’ve taken the brand into a new area and that’s definitely a strategy I wanted [to follow].”

Have a point of difference

One of the best ways to self-promote without compromising authenticity is to champion a cause, present an idea or have a point of difference.

Jimi Hunt, entrepreneur and founder of charity Live More Awesome, decided to raise awareness of depression by taking a pink Lilo and floating it down the Waikato. His silly solution for a serious problem saw him featured on mainstream media including One News, and in recent times he’s made a media splash by attempting to build the world’s longest waterslide.

The business side is there, though; Hunt also runs branding and design company The Creative Difference, but he’s primarily hit the headlines for his madcap antics on behalf of Live More Awesome.

Similarly, Hap Cameron spent years travelling around the globe in his attempt to work in every continent of the world before he turned 30, a goal that led him to giddy heights but also to sleeping in a car with his best mate Barney as they worked and lived in Canada. Cameron parlayed this experience into a book, Hap Working the World, with Allen & Unwin, and has now managed to set himself up as an inspirational speaker.

It doesn’t have to be a cause, though; former women’s magazine editor Wendyl Nissen has successfully reinvented herself as an entrepreneurial ‘Green Goddess’, rooting out chemical nasties wherever they may lurk in the household and finding ways to recycle everything including the kitchen sink. Nissen is living, breathing proof that setting yourself up as an expert in a particular field can be done via online properties and steadily building a following.

She’s penned three books and along with regular print columns and a radio spot, she sends out a weekly e-newsletter to more than 9,000 subscribers.

Micro mavens

Speaker, writer and consultant Trevor Young (@trevoryoung) has given self-promotion a thorough shake with his new book microDOMINATION: How to leverage social media and content marketing to build a mini-business empire around your personal brand (Wiley, $28.99). Young identifies a type of self-promoter he calls ‘micro mavens’ – entrepreneurs who’ve developed their own media platform and built their personal brand via social media, or grown businesses literally from the comfort of their own home, or while on the road.

We have three copies of Trevor Young's book microDOMINATION to give away, enter here.

Young believes there’s a danger now in failing to promote yourself in today’s business climate. “I think we’re fast approaching a time where if people can’t find you on Google, you don’t exist. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but people’s behaviour has changed with the advent of the social web – they will ask their networks for recommendations, they will check you out on LinkedIn before meeting with you, they will Google your name before doing business with you, and if you can’t be found on search engines or there’s a disconnect between the online and offline you as far as your personal brand is concerned, in all likelihood this will impact on your business.”

Young’s biggest recommendation is to show up and add value to others on a daily basis. He cites author Brian Solis, who calls it “relentless giving”: solving other people’s problems by constantly creating and distributing free content.

And the biggest pitfall? “Being too ‘shouty’. Continuous one-way broadcasting of your advertising messages at the expense of adding value to the online community. If you front up on Twitter or LinkedIn and start pushing your products and services, you will be unfollowed. Likewise, if your blog is one big plug for your business, it will be ignored, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a blog in the first place. The moment you think it’s all about you at the expense of your audience, you’re doomed to failure.”

Young points to entrepreneur, wine guru and social media maestro Gary Vaynerchuk, who has nearly one million followers on Twitter and a book called Jab, Jab, Jab, Jab, Jab ... Right Hook, which is a metaphor for ‘give, give, give, give, give ... take’.

“His take on business – and personal branding is an integral part to growing a business – is that you need to earn the right to self-promote. I agree wholeheartedly.”

Young says there’s nothing wrong with self-promotion, so long as you hang out regularly, develop relationships and add value 80 to 90 percent of the time, “thus earning the right to plug yourself, whether it’s a book you have coming out, a blog post you’ve written, a media article you’re profiled in, or an event you’re organising or speaking at”.

Authorpreneurship

Hazel Edwards, author of Authorpreneurship, a book that argues that those in the creative disciplines need to be businesses, not just content creators, recommends developing a portfolio of three to four specialities, so that you can become a source for useful media quotes in more than one area. Anecdotes also help, something Edwards terms ‘anecdultery’: “Collect quirky anecdotes which make you a good media interviewee but which link to your business,” she says. And manners, too: “Much effective PR is simply good manners. Be discreet and don’t gossip.” As does a clever business name that gives people a genuine and immediate clue about what you do, and can easily be used in the name of talks and merchandise.

And remember that your marketing department is, well, you. You’re a person and a brand.

I ask the irrepressibly bubbly Crossman if she feels pressure in that sense, to be ‘always on’.

“Well, you’ve met me before,” she says. “I’m not overly off, to be honest.” (It’s true. She isn’t.) “You become aware of your encounters with other people. If you have an encounter with someone at a supermarket checkout and you’re in a foul mood, that’s their encounter with you that they’ll share.

“You become hyper-aware of your behaviour, but I don’t feel like I’m ever fake or putting on a happy face. I’m genuinely a very happy, bright, energetic person and I have been since day dot. So I think I’m very blessed that I have the ability to always turn a bad day into a good one, and if I am feeling unwell or sad or down, I don’t tend to put myself in a situation where I’m around a lot of people anyway.”