Here are articles on personal-branding

Authenticity? Hogwash.

I’ve  been reading a lot about how important it is for companies to be “authentic” with their customers. People love to point out how “authenticity” is now what people need, and social media makes it all that much more important.

I beg to differ.

Authenticity doesn’t matter.

What matters to customers is not authenticity; it’s believing that they’re being treated authentically. There’s a world of difference between the two.

Here’s the authentic story: the companies you do business with are in business to make money, create prestige, and give people power. Very few of them would exist if the founders and employees had other sources of cash, status, and power. Maybe some of those founders and employees truly, genuinely care about the business as a vehicle for meaningful relationships. Here’s how you can tell: next time the company founders, see how many top managers reduce their salaries to keep their employers employed. Next time there’s a problem with a company’s product, let’s see how many companies actively seek out customers to refund their money (versus simply having a silent policy that complainers get refunds). And next time the company does something wrong or unethical or breaks a promise, watch how it eagerly rushes to its blog to discuss its ethical transgressions.

For most businesses, social media is simply another new hurdle to be dealt with. An appropriate brand image is designed and an ongoing conversation is created to reinforce that image. If part of that image is to be “authenticity,” then it helps for the blogger to put in a few embarrassing self-effacing comments or air a few customer complaints. And voila–authenticity achieved.

The Internet Doesn’t Necessarily Lead to Authenticity

There’s a theory that now there’s so much information around that it’s hard to hide misdeeds or give a crafted impression. Huh? Since when. I have direct experience to the contrary.

Several years ago I posted a blog post about a controversial issue in which a particular Fortune 500 company had a large, vested interest. Within an hour of my post, I got a call from the Board of Director’s PR person, informing me that they wanted to spread word of my post. It seems they had a database of 10,000 bloggers with a cumulative following of several tens of millions, who believed that they (the bloggers) were privileged keepers of truth. By leaking information to this network of bloggers, the company could flood the internet with whatever information (or misinformation) they wanted. It would appear to come from thousands of independent sources, all of whom were being played by being fed the pre-packaged information along with lots of flattery about how important they and their blog are to the world.

The company wins: it gets its message out there in ways that seem completely unrelated to the company.

The bloggers win: they are privvy to “inside” information, they increase their followings, and get a huge ego boost.

The consumers: well, they get to pay more money for stuff and keep consuming.

Authenticity is a Choice; Know Why You’re Choosing It

For some people, authenticity is a choice. They strive hard to present an online image that reflects what they’re like in person. I’m like that. As someone whose product is information–the market price for which has been steadily pushed down by the internet–what makes me unique is my personality. So I strive to present myself online with all my offline quirks.

So what do I do when someone tweets me, telling me they like my Get-it-Done Guy persona better than my Twitter or Facebook personae? I hadn’t realized they were different, but yeah, the Get-it-Done Guy is a kinder, gentler version of me, in part because he goes through an editing process first. So even when I’m doing my best, my different online presences bring different parts of my personality to the fore. I’m being authentic, it’s just that each lens into me is getting a different part of the whole.

Rather than worrying about authenticity, realize that internet commerce is about transactions. It’s not about making friends with a company. And as a company, the internet is simply one more playing field where reputation management matters. In my humble opinion, the easiest way to manage your reputation is to do a good job, ethically and morally. Then you don’t have to worry about handling the coverups.

I’ll end with the $100,000 question: is this blog post sincere, or just an attempt by me to give the impression I’m authentically sharing my thoughts?

What Acting Teaches About Building Reputation

My first acting experience has given me a profound appreciation for how we build reputation (or “personal brand,” to use the 21st century parlance). I just finished my first weekend as part of the ensemble for Evil Dead: The Musical. I play a dancing tree, a headless corpse, a ghost, and a singing zombie. As you can imagine, I draw on significant real-life experience in bringing each of my characters to life (though technically, only the tree is living).

What’s made a huge impression is realizing how little the audience evers see of the actors. When I watch movies, plays, or TV, I leave with a feeling of connection with the characters, and by extension, the actors. While I intellectually know it’s nonsense, being in the play really drives the point home. What the actors bring to the experience is the authenticity of their emotions and emotional choices, but everything that knits those choices into a story—the dialog, the plot, the lights, the band, the sets—is staged and as close to identical as possible night after night. Almost none of it comes from the actors.

Shakespeare was Right—All the World’s a Stage

Then I realized that much of how we show up in the world is the same. No one we interact with gets the experience of us. They get the sum of their glimpses into us. But we expect them to behave as if they know us and our intentions.

Our reputation with any given person is the sum of the glimpses that person has had of us. If we had to reschedule a meeting twice with a prospect due to genuine emergencies, their experience of us is that we don’t make it to meetings on time. If we show up to a meeting with disheveled hair and bloodshot eyes, that’s the impression they have of us. Never mind that we were in a car accident the previous day and are still a bit vague from the drugs… they build an impression anyway.

This works for “good” reputations, too. Every time you put on a suit and go out to a business event where you nod, smile, and talk about the things that are “acceptable” in that context, you’re presenting a small slice of yourself. Never mind that you play in a rock band on weekends and have a complete reproduction of the Mona Lisa tattooed underneath that dress shirt… people at work build your reputation from the little building blocks you give them, that were carefully scripted by the current business culture.

The Scripts We Choose Determine the Impressions We Give

People only experience you through the glimpses you give them. What do you show the people around you? Do you let your idea of “expected” behavior be your script? When I was bitten by the theater bug last year, I mentioned it to my friend of 10 years, Steve. Steve’s a sales manager. After our conversation, he revealed he’s a sales manager whose degrees are in stage managing and directing. He directs 4-8 shows a year. He’d mentioned he did high school drama once or twice, but I figured he did it as a volunteer parent. He’d never shown me anything that suggested it was such a big part of his life. He was acting the script of the good, conservative businessman.

My friend Paul is at every networking event in Boston, handing out his card, flitting from person to person. Is it any surprise people know him as a major networker. Yet all he ever talks about is business, so his reputation is purely professional. People don’t feel like they know him, but they do know to call him when they need an introduction. He’s a whole person, but he’s living the high-powered, type-A networker script.

My script is a bit less mainstream. I talk about Evil Dead: The Musical and zombies. I write and produce a funny podcast on personal productivity, and do my best to find excuses to dress in jeans and T-shirts and wear colorful sneakers. That’s one glimpse into me. I also write about leadership, business strategy, entrepreneurship, and psychology. That’s another glimpse. Depending on where you get exposed to me, you’ll walk away with profoundly different impressions. People who love one of those characters may or may not relate to the other. Yet they’re both me.

Who Writes Your Script?

How do you show up? Be careful with your answer. Don’t consider how you want to show up, consider how you actually do show up: your appearance, the things you talk about, how you treat people. Are you brusque? Courteous? Fawning? Assertive? Tentative? Caring? Guarded? Open? Friendly? If you say things like, “people will just have to learn to deal with the fact that I don’t mince words,” have you ever really thought how you’re coming across when you don’t mince words? Have you considered the reputation that builds? Is it the reputation you want. The way you build reputation is by showing up more and more as the reputation you want to build. All the world’s a stage, we’re just actors, and you can let everyone around you write your script, or you can write your own. Your choice.

Stever in Corporate Mode