Self-Promotion: Learning the Right Way to Brag

Tooting your own horn is critical to career advancement. Get expert advice on how to promote yourself without coming off as arrogant.

Self-praise is at best unbecoming, and at worst a sin. "We're told by our families, our teachers that nobody likes a braggart," says Peggy Klaus, workplace communication expert and author of BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It. "Brag is truly a four-letter word."

And IT professionals in particular shy away from self-promotion. "People in IT have a strong ethos around just stating facts and not exaggerating their contributions," says Nancy Ancowitz, business communications coach and author of Self-Promotion for Introverts. "It's admirable to take care of your team, [but] by increasing your own visibility, you can make the pie bigger [for everyone]."

CIOs are starting to get it. If you don't toot your own horn, no one else will, leading to slashed budgets, missed career opportunities, even job loss. "Self-promotion is just a necessary part of getting the visibility you need to meet your career goals," Ancowitz says.

But most people don't brag well, coming off as self-congratulatory, egocentric or downright annoying. According to Klaus, "there is a way to brag that is artful and gracious that will leave people—your boss, your clients, your employees—wanting to know more about you rather than less."

Self promotion should be "a give-and-take between you and a colleague who engages you," says Ancowitz. There are plenty of opportunities to sing your own praises and they can come up unexpectedly—a chance ride up in the elevator with the chairman of the board, your boss's unannounced peek into your office, the plane ride with a recruiter. They key is to be prepared. When someone essentially invites you to brag—"What's new? How's everyone in IT?"—responding with a laundry list of accomplishments won't work. Prepare for such moments by first compiling a list of accomplishments: recent successes, obstacles overcome, compliments from a client or colleague. Update the list often so it stays current.

Next, take a few items and weave them into a narrative. Then practice your "Story of Me" out loud repeatedly, paraphrasing and telling it a different way each time and at varying lengths—30 seconds to three minutes. "If you convert it into something conversational," says Klaus. "Then in no way, shape or form will I think that you're bragging."

Be ready to identify what information will most impress a given individual. The chief marketing officer will want to know about that article in the Wall Street Journal mentioning you. Your boss wants to hear the good news about the ERP upgrade. Expand your bragging universe outside your company. Recruiters, industry associates, vendors, friends—even competitors—are just as important.

Being mindful of the emotional temperature of an encounter is also important. "You'd probably want to tread lightly talking about the IT cost savings you achieved when you outsourced a project if that meant employees were laid off," says Ancowitz.

In today's dispersed organizations, face-to-face self-promotional opportunities are decreasing, so don't disregard e-mail as a way to reach out. "Your CEO might like e-mail and never return a phone call while your CFO is strictly a sit down and talk it out guy," says Ancowitz. "Strategize about the best ways to reach each of your stakeholders."

At the end of the day, everyone benefits from hearing good news. "I had a CEO tell me, 'Why do people only come to me with bad news?'" says Klaus. "If I tell my boss something good, it boosts his morale, the morale of his boss, the whole company."

Stephanie Overby is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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