Follow Me is a weeklong series about personal brands, for better or for worse.
When I first got assigned to work with a personal brand consultant, I imagined our conversation would boil down to something like, “Tweet three times a day, promote your work more, stop being so horny online for Adam Driver.” Unfortunately for Adam Driver, I was wrong.
“We don’t do coaching,” Dr. Talaya Waller said firmly on our first phone call. “Those are answers you could find on Google, and they’re not strategic.” Instead, she explained, she would do an in-depth examination of the gaps between where I am professionally and where I want to be — which, as it turns out, involves a lot more work than tweeting.
Dr. Waller is a personal brand consultant in Washington, D.C., and the founder of Waller & Company Personal Brand Consulting. When she started her business in 2014, it was a hard sell, she says. Back then, “personal branding” was associated with influencers hawking tummy teas and the Kardashians doing, well, anything; it wasn’t something people with “real” careers took seriously. Today, her clients span a variety of professions: health-care practitioners, doctors, lawyers, insurance professionals, retirees looking to start a new chapter. And now, one blogger.
Step one: Set a goal.
Part of my personal brand, it turns out, is being absolutely terrible at setting concrete goals for myself.
“What if my goal is to raise my profile as a writer?,” I asked Waller on the phone one afternoon. She told me that doesn’t count. “That’s a means to an end; it’s not an end. Why are you looking to raise your profile? Maybe it’s for speaking engagements, maybe you want to leave the company and go somewhere else, maybe you want a promotion.”
Given that my current professional goal is not to leave my employer (and even if it were — which it’s not! — I probably wouldn’t write about it for my employer), we settled on narrowing down what sort of writing I should be doing. More funny blog posts? More serious, political takes? More long, reported pieces?
To help me figure this out, Waller put together a “brand-image audit,” a survey for me to send to roughly 20 of my colleagues, peers, and friends. It’s one of her favorite things to do, she told me. “We’re always thinking about what other people think about us, but the truth is we don’t know. People are always assuming the worst. But I find that most times, people view us closer to how we want them to view us.”
This was a small consolation, but I still felt like I was living out the stress dream of walking into high school wearing only my underwear.
Step 2: Survey your peers.
For this survey, Waller put together a list of questions about my work, people’s first impressions of me, how I promote myself, and what my strengths and weaknesses are. As I shared it with my colleagues and friends, I assured them that their comments would be anonymous and that if they said anything mean about me, I would immediately dissolve into dust. People’s reactions were mixed.
“I feel like you’re asking us to cyberbully you,” my colleague Anna Silman said when I gave her the link.
“Answering those questions felt weird,” Vulture writer Madison Malone Kircher told me later that day. “I’m not used to thinking about my friends in those terms. As brands.”
“I couldn’t remember when we first met, but I assumed we were drunk in a frat house somewhere, so I made something up,” my friend Jenny from college texted me.
“Oh shit, I forgot to do it,” my coworker Bridget Read said, a week later.
I wondered what all of this would say about my brand.
Step 3: Examine the results.
A week later, Waller sent me my results in the form of a beautifully designed marketing deck. At this point, I realized I would happily accept even the harshest of criticism as long as came in the form of a PDF with a cute illustration of my bangs on the cover page, like this one did. (“There were a lot of comments about your bangs,” Waller informed me. I beamed.)
Waller eased me in gently. First, she pulled out a bunch of my peers’ comments about my strengths, which are, according to them: my wit, my writing, and my optimism. As we spoke on the phone, I dabbed away tears. It is genuinely moving to read compliments you forced your friends to give you, even in the form of an anonymous online survey.
Next: my areas for improvement. This was unsettling, not because anyone had said anything particularly harsh (I had warned them I would dissolve, after all) but because few experiences are as jarring as realizing how clearly others see you. Despite my best efforts to conceal them, my peers had picked up on my severe risk aversion, my shaky self-confidence, and my tendency to care too much about what others think of me. Incidentally, I cared deeply that they thought these things about me.
When it came to marketing myself, I scored only a 4.5 out of 7, which Waller told me was “not too bad.”
The main takeaway, according to her findings, was that I needed to increase “saturation in my brand message” by producing more content that aligns with my brand’s personality. In other words, I should choose what my brand will be — funny, serious, or earnest — and write more pieces in that vein sticking to certain themes.
Waller noted that my brand seemed to be strengthened more by my writing than by my social-media presence. Or, as I wrote in the margin of my notebook in all-caps, “DON’T SPEND SO MUCH TIME TWEETING!!!” I also need to take more risks professionally: “Your friends have so much faith in you; they just don’t want to see you miss out on any opportunities.”
When Waller hung up, I felt like I had finished a therapy session.
Usually, a full workup from Waller takes months. If I were one of her actual clients, we would go on to plot out the next steps to advance my career. Still, at the end, I felt like I had a lot more clarity about where I am professionally and how to move forward. I didn’t need to promote my work as much as I needed to double down on a beat and a tone and put myself out there.
Waller said she understood how flattening it can feel to amplify only certain parts of ourselves and not others. Unfortunately, though, that’s the system we live in. “I didn’t invent capitalism,” Waller said. “I’m just here trying to help people.”