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Updated: September 2, 2021

How to promote your brand without bragging

Photo / Tim Greenway Nancy Marshall is CEO of Marshall Communications and host of "The PR Maven Podcast."

In business, you need to promote yourself to be successful. Whatever your specific industry, positioning yourself as a thought leader in that industry earns you clients and customers. People will only know about your brand if they hear about it — either from you or others.

But there is a fine line between self-promotion and bragging. When it comes to social interaction, bragging is one of the most common turn-offs. As Inc. magazine columnist John Discala puts it, bragging is “usually irritating instead of inspiring.”

Even beyond business, people have no tolerance for bragging. If you meet someone for the first time and they brag about themselves, is that a positive first impression? Of course not. If you’re dating someone, do you enjoy just hearing about them all the time? Definitely not.

A braggadocious personality reveals cockiness and, most likely, deeper insecurities. This also applies to marketing: When brands get into the business of bragging, they can easily turn off consumers who may otherwise be interested in their products and services.

According to a Morning Consult poll, more than 40% of U.S. consumers believe that brands are trying too hard to appear as if they care about anything beyond sales. More than half, 53%, claim companies should “stick to what they do [without bragging about] doing the right thing.”

Bragging is especially noticeable when it’s impersonal and tone deaf. For example, I often encounter PR “experts” who hire virtual assistants to email large lists of random recipients. They may even ask others to nominate their clients for certain awards, with no regard for people’s time. This is the wrong approach.

So how do you toe the line between self-promotion and bragging? Here are four ways to do it:

Never forget your target audience. Who is standing next to you or sitting across the table? What do they want to hear? Put yourself in that person’s shoes, trying to figure out what they’re most interested in hearing. Think outside yourself and tailor your self-promotion to the person listening. There is room to highlight your successes, for example, by bringing up successes that may matter to the other person. If you’re speaking to an SEO specialist, focus on successes pertaining to Google SEO. If it’s a PR professional, focus on earned media results.

Tailor your message. By remembering your target audience, you can hone talking points that directly apply to the situation at hand. Let’s say that you’re pitching a small business owner on a new PR campaign, which I do regularly. Going on tangents about your various successes matters less than adopting a small business mindset. Put on your “small business” hat. Talk about successes for another small business owner that your current prospect can envision working for their own business. Make that success actionable by making it relevant.

Use “we,” not “I.” Whether you’re speaking with a paying customer or anyone else, think about life as a team effort. It’s not about you; it’s about the collective unit. When you talk to a current client, emphasize what you have done or will do together. When you pitch a prospect, explain how your collaboration can be effective, not just your individual performance. When you find success, give thanks for that collaboration, even if you did most or all of the work. Allowing others to share in your success doesn’t come across as bragging; it creates goodwill.

Take breaks between the “me.” Let’s face it: If you’re promoting yourself, you will need to talk about yourself. Self-promotion inevitably puts the spotlight on you. But words matter: If you’re in a one-hour pitch meeting, take breaks in between your monologue to recognize the other people in the room. Use their names. Bring up examples that make those people feel like their part of the story. You want others to think that they’re part of your broader narrative. Again, it’s about the “we,” and language can instill a feeling of togetherness.

Show people you care. No matter who’s on the receiving end, people appreciate it when you express real interest in their concerns and ask appropriate questions. Listening matters. If possible, try to make your monologue a dialogue, allowing the other person to speak and involving them in your self-promotional efforts. They will trust you more if you listen and inquire. Who knows: You may even gain a friend!

Most of all, don’t be “that guy.” It may seem counterintuitive, but you should self-promote by thinking beyond yourself. That way, you won’t come across as a braggart.

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