The umpteenth piece on self-promotion
Let me tell you two very different stories about networking. At my first writers’ conference, a friend of mine tried to pitch her novel to an agent at the opening reception. We were both nobodies, and the agent was a superstar. He kindly said, “Not right now.”
My friend spent a fair deal of time cajoling me, when she wasn’t schmoozing. Act more assertive, she said. Otherwise I’d never get a book deal.
So I tried, and failed. Meanwhile, my friend did actually make some sweet connections with editors at big publishing houses. Three months later, they all rejected her book proposal.
After a while, I let go of everything popular culture had taught me about networking and just started expressing my chiller, easygoing self. Traveled some — stateside — and read my ass off.
And I wrote a lot.
And made some poor life decisions — like every writer should.
Now here’s my second networking story. Years later, I managed to publish in some decent venues. At another writers’ conference, I browsed and chatted with editors at press booths for half an hour. My point wasn’t to sell myself, just to kill some time between panels. When I’d run out of social juice, I grabbed some coffee and wandered.
Right before I left the room, an editor walked up and practically grabbed me. “Hey, I just read one of your stories online. Send me something!”
So I did. And it got rejected.
Content matters the most
Those two experiences taught me something crucial about networking. But also about marketing, branding, and any other type of promotion.
You don’t sell your content. Your content does.
Every single time.
Content is everything. No matter what you’re pushing — art, music, or banana slicers. Your best chances rest on the strength of your ideas.
Sure, people have won by cheating. A clever marketing scheme or drip campaign might spark interest in an otherwise worthless product like pet rocks. But do you want to be that person?
Do you really want to be the guy or gal that dreams up social media campaigns for stuff like Goop?
Because I just went to their website, and it looks a lot like shopping items from Kroger — photographed from clever angles. Don’t get me wrong, I love Gwyneth Paltrow in the Avengers movies. But even Pepper Potts can’t make me pay that much for what I can find at a grocery store.
Free Trait Theory
Your ability to network and promote yourself depends very little on your actual personality type. Like we’ve seen time and again since Susan Cain’s book Quiet, introverts can socialize and engage just as much as extroverts — or even better. But why?
The real crux of Cain’s book lies in free trait theory, developed by Gordon Allport. The key idea is that people can act counter to their personalities for different reasons. We all have “cardinal” traits that govern something like an essential self — if that really exists. But we can learn other behaviors and emulate other personality types, if we want.
An introvert like me can throw a party if she really wanted to. As long as she identified an incentive, found motivation, and learned how to do it well. You know, without creeping everyone out.
How do you think Hannibal Lecter got so good at convincing people he wasn’t a cannibal? He watched and learned human behavior, then created a disarming persona.
Acting like someone else might sound dishonest, but we all do it. Some of us just do it better than others, and we do it for a range of reasons — not necessarily to take advantage of people, but to survive happy hour with our coworkers. A noble cause.
It takes a lot of practice to exude a different version of yourself. You’re taking a lot of risk. But you can do it. So it doesn’t really matter if you’re an introvert, extrovert, or total sociopath. As long as you don’t eat your potential investors. That’s bad for business.
Epic networking fails
It’s easy to forget how networking and promotion actually work. We see it done poorly so often. Plus, magazines and infomercials lie to us all the time. They want us to believe in the power of pep, just as much as self-made billionaires with reality TV shows.
The culture of personality is reinforced from all sides these days. So when you’re tempted to give into the hype, try this:
Remember the worst networking fail you’ve ever seen. How bad was it? What made it so bad?
I’ll tell you mine, at least from recent memory. About a year ago, I was wandering around publishing booths at another conference. A nonfiction writer was handing out promotion baggies.
When I tried to slide past anonymously, he stepped in front of me and struck up a conversation. “Tell me all about yourself,” he began.
“Well, I’m a teacher.” The word MISTAKE flashed before my eyes. Was there still time to escape?
The guy began explaining his book and why it would be perfect for a course adoption. Or maybe I could even help put him in touch with our freshmen read coordinator. Ugh.
You want to know what his book was about? Sigh. It was a writer’s guide. Not a great one. The research was a mess. He kept insisting that his was the “ultimate” writer’s companion. Except ten minutes of conversation revealed he hadn’t read any other guides.
Still, I listened and waited for an emergency exit to open in the conversation. This is what happens when introverts get trapped by extroverts. At least the baggie had a cool pen, and a pack of post-it notes.
The elephant factory
There’s a powerful machine at work these days. It wants you to sign up for charisma coaches and hire publicists. It wants you to try and sell something, even if you have nothing.
In my nook of the world, we call these elephant factories.
They make nothing but elephants, and those elephants go on and make even more elephants. That’s a colorful way of saying that a personality coach or marketing expert can’t do much except turn you into a weirder version of themselves.
Or if you already have a solid product, they can shine it up a little. They’ll take way more credit than they might deserve.
In Quiet, Susan Cain describes her attendance at a day-long workshop led by the famous motivation guru, Tony Robbins. This guy charges people thousands of dollars for enthusiastic pep talks. His website lists Bill Clinton as a client. But the truth is kind of hard to ferret out. All I’ve managed to find is an interview with Robbins, where he talks about how Clinton called him for advice back in the 90s, during the impeachment.
So, let’s cut the shit. A personality coach didn’t make Bill Clinton president. Didn’t even help him win reelection. Clinton’s impeachment began in 1998, two whole years into his second term.
It also sounds to me like Bill Clinton didn’t pay thousands of dollars for the advice he got over the phone.
If Bill Clinton had called me the night before his impeachment, here’s what I would’ve said:
Look, Slick. Just ride this out. You have no idea how bad shit’s going to get after you leave. You’re the Ronald Reagan of the Democratic Party. Just don’t fuck any more interns, and you should come out of this okay.
A hundred experts and influencers will take your money in order to shine up what you’ve got. They’ll promise to fix your life. Double your web traffic. Triple your sales. They’ll show you how to use LinkedIn.
Not that there’s anything wrong with LinkedIn. It’s just that…LinkedIn already shows you how to use LinkedIn. Besides, learning how to use LinkedIn won’t make the difference between one sale and a million.
Focus on the center, not the fluff
We all get distracted by the ephemera. Stats. Followers. Traffic. Viral tweets. We almost want there to be a secret to all this. There’s not. Just failing, learning, and trying again.
Consider the squatty potty. Memorable name. Funny commercial. Altogether brilliant marketing. But at the core, squatty potty is just a simple, strong idea. It’s a stool that makes shitting easier. And it actually works.
The marketing potential is baked in. Think about how many people expel their bodily waste by sitting on a toilet. Not quite everyone, but pretty close.
And we don’t do it just one or twice a year. We do it every day. And shitting can be uncomfortable. So a device that makes it easier has instant, nearly universal appeal. From its inception.
Squatty Potty was already doing pretty well before they released their famous unicorn commercial. They didn’t hire a bunch of marketing experts or social media influencers. The CEO wrote and created the skit in-house, against the advice of other supposed gurus — including a Shark Tank panel.
Squatty Potty became a huge success because the idea was good. The marketing helped. Like it should.
The commercial’s job was easy — be funny and quirky enough for people to remember the premise. Yep, you’ve been shitting wrong your whole life. You need a stool.
Without an actual product, the commercial would’ve been worthless.
We forget this basic lesson all the time.
Everyone wants to make a cool commercial these days. We forget that you actually need something worth advertising.
So let’s revisit the dude trying to market a writer’s guide. I’m not sure he thought much about his content. Instead, he started ass backwards, with his promotion angle.
He thought it would be easy to crap out a bunch of cliches about creativity, then use the power of his personality to push that glossy stack of nothing into unsuspecting hands.
The next time you see someone like this, take a pass. Put your attention on the harder stuff:
What are you selling? Yourself? A lifestyle? Okay, I guess. You’ll be competing with Dr. Oz. Good luck with that. But if you want a sure bet, stop thinking so much about the marketing, the stats, the traffic. Think about what value your content or product adds. Content first, always.