Personal brands: embracing imperfection and staying authentic

I asked my followers on Twitter what they wanted to see next on this site and building a personal brand came out on top. I’ve been talking about personal brands since I joined Twitter in 2013: in my role as an Innovation and Digital Literacy Champion (iChamp) at University of Southampton, as a freelance Social Media Advisor, during my AIESEC Business Forum keynote presentation at the World Economic Forum in Vietnam in 2015, and more recently with Sreekaran Srinath and Stefan Natter on #TechTable in 2021.

What is a personal brand?

A personal brand is a widely known impression of an individual based on their experience, expertise, community presence or wider influence. These include business leaders, influencers, politicians, community leaders, content creators, and more.

They key here is: individual. Personal brands may be manufactured or authentic, but their aim is to build a reputation (or influence) in a given area.

Why do we keep talking about personal brands?

The growth and almost universal use of social media has transformed our world and, in my opinion, given us access to a wealth of knowledge, conversations and communities we would otherwise be removed from. The terms “influencer” and “content creator” are no longer online jargon but legitimate, fruitful career paths.

When working as an iChamp, I would get a list of attendees to my talks in advance and spend 15 mins collating public information I found about them online (tweets, Facebook posts, blog headlines, Google search results). As students entered the room, their anonymised content would be on display for the room to read. I purposefully avoided the lewd, frankly sometimes obscene, comments that could start a gossip war – but did this to show students that whether they thought they had a brand, they had a presence. And, whether they wanted to be influencers or not (as the PR-pros will remind us): if there’s going to be a first impression, I might as well control the narrative.

How do you control it, you ask? Well, you can’t control it all. People will talk. The greater your profile, the more people will infer from your activity, the comments underneath your posts, and make assumptions about your values, life and work.

However, there are some golden tips to personal branding that have worked for me, the students I used to teach, the people I’ve collaborated with, and clients I’ve advised that will help you achieve your goals, build a community and safeguard your privacy:

Be authentic but purposeful

Authenticity comes in many forms – it’s your values, honesty, and desires. Online, I often see the authenticity discussion morph into discussions about openness, and whilst there is value in being open, authenticity doesn’t mean giving you a one way ticket to every aspect of my psyche, relationships or whereabouts.

Personally, I share about two main aspects of my life: career and mental health. I rarely post pictures with friends, family or my partner. I don’t tell you all how I feel about every issue I read or discuss with my colleagues and friends. I purposefully close off some of my life for my own safety. I choose what to share, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

When I post I am speaking from the heart, from my experience and sharing thoughts, lessons or stories I believe will resonate with others. I am committed to writing about my journey on this site as I find so much inspiration in reading and watching others’. Your 240 characters, vlog, or article could be the spark that inspires someone to make a change, teach another something new, or simply make someone smile. I’m OK with that.

Define your niche

With that in mind, when growing my profile over the years I thought about what I wanted to be known for. I’m no celebrity and don’t aspire to be, but I asked myself: What conversations do you want to contribute to? How can you help people around the world who may read your words? What do you want people to reach out to you about?

In the same way you may set goals for your career progression, life milestones, I set goals for my online presence. These aren’t follower count, monetary gains or public speaking opportunities. I aim to be a trusted source for those wanting to switch careers, learning in the open and sharing how I overcame the toughest mental health challenges in my life.

If one person finds my words helpful, I’ve achieved it.

Have an audience in mind

You can’t be a source for everyone. Even those with the largest global followings – the likes of Kim Kardashian, Oprah, Beyonce – cater to a specific audience. Get comfortable that people won’t like your content and by proxy may not like you.

When I started sharing about my mental health journey I had people comment I was weak, send me DMs that pushed me to tears, and worse I don’t want to dignify. It was tough and I wondered whether it was worth me sharing anymore. Then one day someone reached out to me and said my words helped them recieve help, that me speaking in a Twitter Space about my battles with suicidal depression and severe anxiety made them feel less alone, and that they saw hope in life “on the other side of this”. That person is why I share. That is the audience I wanted to reach. The person logging online to find a glimmer of hope.

Similarly, in switching careers I’ve received a lot of challenge, rudeness and even abuse – but I am strong enough (most days) to focus on those that share their positivity, who engage in discussions that uplift others and who want to learn from one another in the open. I am humbled everyday by those who chose to share on my Twitter Space series Tech Table. When I launched the series, my key audience was those who had questions unanswered, who were afraid to reach out, who wanted to hear personal stories to help them in their career growth and learning. From this, I’ve grown a community of learners who constantly support me and each other, who look out for each other against the hate, and made genuine friends I’ll carry with me for life.

Be intentional, stay committed to your audience and your resilience to those outside it will come.

Stay consistent, but stay human

Consistency is key. When I started this site I wrote posts weekly, I log into Twitter almost everyday and stay committed to my messaging. You notice when your favourite influencers and creators take a break, when they go off-piste or stop altogether. Similarly, consistency spreads your message, your audience checks in and eagerly awaits your next delivery.

That being said, remember you are human. Your health is paramount. Your life offline more important. Since starting my new job, I’ve posted on here much less, I paused my Tech Table series and I am more intentional with time off screen. I’ve been busy with work, yes, but I wanted to make sure I dedicated as much time to my friends, family and resting as I was to my career.

I have a backlog of blogposts in draft, a folder of ideas for new content, emails to get back to – and I will – but in my own time, when it’s healthy and right for me to do so. While your followers, peers and friends enjoy your content, you don’t owe it to them. It is work to create, often for free, so remember to take the rest breaks and annual leave you would with your employer.

Stay humble and imperfect

We’ve all logged into Twitter and read a post that makes us immediately close the app. Almost everyday in Tech Twitter world someone is enforcing their dogma on a community already confused with opinions. I don’t think there’s been one week since I joined in 2013 that I haven’t seen something I don’t like.

Remember it’s a human on the other side of the screen. Just as you have emotions reading content or hearing words in a video, others will with yours. Recently, a prominent tech person posted a blog that caused a lot of pain for many. Some may have dismissed it, but many didn’t, reacting en-masse to the negativity this person created.

No matter your expertise, tenure, follower count, wealth, accolades and awards – you have something to learn, space to grow, ability to change. Experts listen to and anticipate the needs of others, and – in my view – they are honest and willing to admit their limitations, platform others as much as themselves, and give back to their community.

I hope you enjoy reading my journey (though I don’t consider myself an expert) but I am human. I am imperfect. I will make mistakes, post content you disagree with, change my views, learn from others and pivot my interests. Let’s embrace our humanness. Get comfortable with imperfection.

If you identified with any of the topics or experiences shared in this post and feel you would like to talk to someone, please reach out to your GP, contact Mind, or the Anxiety UK helpline. And if you feel like things are too much, please call Samaritans on 116 123 💚

📧 or hit the socials below.

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