/ log / 13th May, 2010 /

Self-promotion

The world has changed. Everything we do is more immediately visible to others than ever before, but much remains the same; the relationships we develop are as important as they always were. This post is a few thoughts on self-promotion, and how to have good relationships as a self-publisher.

Meeting people face to face is ace. They could be colleagues, vendors, or clients; at conferences, coffee shops, or meeting rooms. The hallway and bar tracks at conferences are particularly great. I always come away with a refreshed appreciation for meatspace. However, most of our interactions take place over the Web. On the Web, the lines separating different kinds of relationships are a little blurred. The company trying to get you to buy a product or conference ticket uses the same medium as your friends.

Freelancers and small companies (and co-ops!) can have as much of an impact as big businesses. ‘I publish therefore I am’ could be our new mantra. Hence this post, in a way. Although, I confess I have discussed these thoughts with friends and thought it was about time I kept my promise to publish them.

Publishing primarily means text and images. Text is the most prevalent. However, much more meaning is conveyed non-verbally. ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’

Text can contain non-verbal elements like style — either handwritten or typographic characters — and emoticons, but we don’t control style in Twitter, email, or feeds. Or in any of the main situations where people read what we write (unless it’s our own site). Emoticons are often used in text to indicate tone, pitch, inflection, and emotion like irony, humour, or dismay. They plug gaps in the Latin alphabet’s scope that could be filled with punctuation like the sarcasm mark. By using them, we affirm how important non-verbal communication is.

The other critical non-verbal communication around text is karma. Karma is our reputation, our social capital with our audience of peers, commentators, and customers. It has two distinct parts: Personality, and professional reputation. ‘It’s not what was said, it’s who said what.’

So, after that quick brain dump, let me recap:

Us Brits are a funny bunch. Traditionally reserved. Hyperbole-shy. At least, in public. We use certain extreme adjectives sparingly for the most part, and usually avoid superlatives if at all possible. We wince a little if we forget and get super-excited. We sometimes prefer ‘spiffing’ accompanied by a wry, ironic smile over an outright ‘awesome’. Both are genuine — one has an extra layer in the inflection cake. However, we take great displeasure in observing blunt marketing messages that try to convince us something is true with massive, lobe-smacking enthusiasm, and some sort of exaggerated adjective-osmosis effect. We poke fun at attempts to be overly cool. We expect a decent level of self-awareness and ring of honesty from people who would sell us stuff. The Web is no exception. In fact, I may go so far as to say that the sensibilities of the Web are fairly closely aligned with British sensibilities. Without, of course, any of our crippling embarrassment. In an age when promoting oneself on the Web is almost required for designers, that’s no bad thing. After all, running smack bang through the middle of the new marketing arts is a large dose of reality; we’re just a bunch of folks telling our story. No manipulation, cool-kid feigned nonchalance, or lobe-smacking enthusiasm required.

Consider what the majority of designers do to promote themselves in this brave new maker-creative culture. People like my friend, Elliot Jay Stocks: making his own magazine, making music, distributing WordPress themes, and writing about his experiences. Yes, it is important for him that he has an audience, and yes, he wants us to buy his stuff, but no, he won’t try to impress or trick us into liking him. It’s our choice. Compare this to traditional advertising that tries to appeal to your demographic with key phrases from your tribe, life-style pitches, and the usual raft of Freudian manipulations. (Sarcasm mark needed here, although I do confess to a soft spot for the more visceral and kitsch Freudian manipulations.)

There is a middle ground between the two though. A dangerous place full of bad surprises: The outfit that seems like a human being. It appears to publish just like you would. They want money in exchange for their amazing stuff they’re super-duper proud of. Then, you find out they’re selling it to you at twice the price it is in the States, or that it crashes every time it closes, or has awful OpenType support. You find out the human being was really a corporate cyborg who sounds like you, but is not of you, and it’s impervious to your appeals to human fairness. Then there are the folks who definitely are human, after all they’re only small, and you know their names. All the non-verbal communication tells you so. Then you peek a little closer —  you see the context — and all they seem to do is talk about themselves, or their business. Their interactions are as carefully crafted as the big companies, and they treat their audience as a captive market. Great spirit forefend they share the bandwidth by celebrating anyone else. They sound like one of us, but act like one of them. Their popularity is inversely proportional to their humanity.

Extreme examples, I know. This is me exploring thoughts though, and harsh light helps define the edges. Feel free to sound off if it offends, but mind your non-verbal communication. :)

That brings me to self-promotion versus self-aggrandisement; there’s a big difference between the two. As independent designers and developer-type people, self-promotion is good, necessary, and often mutually beneficial. It’s about goodwill. It connects us to each other and lubricates the Web. We need it. Self-aggrandisement is coarse, obvious, and often an act of denial; the odour of insecurity or arrogance is nauseating. It is to be avoided.

If you consider the difference between a show-off and a celebrant, perhaps it will be clearer what I’m reaching for:

The very best form of self-promotion is celebration. To celebrate is to share the joy of what you do (and critically also celebrate what others do) and invite folks to participate in the party. To show off is a weakness of character — an act that demands acknowledgement and accolade before the actor can feel the tragic joy of thinking themselves affirmed. To celebrate is to share joy. To show-off is to yearn for it.

It’s as tragic as the disdainful, casual arrogance of criticising the output of others less accomplished than oneself. Don’t be lazy now. Critique, if you please. Be bothered to help, or if you can’t hold back, have a little grace by being discreet and respectful. If you’re arrogant enough to think you have the right to treat anyone in the world badly, you grant them the right to reciprocate. Beware.

Celebrants don’t reserve their bandwidth for themselves. They don’t treat their friends like a tricky audience who may throw pennies at you at the end of the performance. They treat them like friends. It’s a pretty simple way of measuring whether what you publish is good: would I do/say/act the same way with my friends? Human scales are always the best scales.

So, this ends. I feel very out of practise at writing. It’s hard after a hiatus. These are a few thoughts that still feel partially-formed in my mind, but I hope there was a tiny snippet or two in there that fired off a few neurons in your brain. Not too many, though, it’s early yet. :)

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16 Comments

  1. 1. By Brian Feister on 13th May ’10 at 09:48am

    Wow, this was alot of thoughts but I really do love how British you are. Such a quirky way of expressing such deep thoughts. I do concur!

  2. 2. By Brendan Falkowski on 13th May ’10 at 11:35am

    I’m stirred by these thoughts. Friend and colleague can be mutually exclusive or blurred making self-publication without segmentation difficult. Even authentic discussion is patronizing to part of an (unintended) audience. Is it better to wish they tune-out momentarily or self-filter at your discretion? My conclusions underserve all ends.

  3. 3. By Scott Corgan on 13th May ’10 at 11:40am

    Great thoughts and words. Promotion is dangerous because naturally we are horrible at it…

  4. 4. By Juan on 13th May ’10 at 11:40am

    This post couldn’t have been more timely, having just (like 5 minutes ago) finished an analytical paper on effective verbal and non-verbal communication. This was my reward for finishing ^.^

    Reading your background on communications, I glanced over the bit where you say that style is something we can’t control and for a moment I thought you meant writing style rather than visual style. I’m glad I re-read that >.>

    I like what you say about social karma. It seems like despite the size of the internet community (or perhaps because of it,) we tend to gravitate towards brands/personalities/entities with whom we can actually see real content, as opposed to a talking/blogging/tweeting front for a product. It’s akin to wanting to buy from the local salesman as opposed to the chain store.

    I really enjoyed your article, Jon. Write more soon!

  5. 5. By Eugene Kuhns on 13th May ’10 at 13:20pm

    Well said. For some strange reason I read this in the voice from Zero Punctuaction. It made it even more entertaining.

  6. 6. By Sarah Gabler on 13th May ’10 at 19:47pm

    I printed this out to read, and re-read…it is fantastic! Your point about criticizing the work of others whom might be less accomplished than oneself is excellent. I think this should be made into one of the main points of designer etiquette.

    Please keep writing, your thoughts are much appreciated!

  7. 7. By Oliver Ivory-Bray on 14th May ’10 at 02:14am

    Great thoughts and brilliantly written, witty yet insightful. I think the underlying messages can be translated into many aspects of life, not just for the creatively minded. Careful self promotion in the work place can open many doors and the rules remain the same.

    I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  8. 8. By Shane Weave on 14th May ’10 at 03:15am

    Great post!! So many thoughts and interesting theories compact into this great read!!

    Thanks.

  9. 9. By Scott Corgan on 14th May ’10 at 10:16am

    I’m commenting AGAIN because the article was so insightful, that I read it again. Something clicked with me and my eyes were open. Can’t exactly explain what, but thanks Jon!

  10. 10. By matthew smith on 18th May ’10 at 18:35pm

    WTF?! :P

    Really sharp thinking Jon. Non verbal communication can be adequate or even more robust when the cadence of our communication is slowed, or even if we remove the power of the 'send' button and actually engage our pen and paper.

    Working out communication on the web is not unlike wielding a gun, whereas speaking might be more like fencing. It’s more likely you’ll make a false and un-calculated move with a gun.

    As for publishing, I have found that it takes a lot more for me to write than it does to shoot pictures, produce quips, or drink beer ;) - so I am more apt to 'publish' in the easier forms. But, when I take the time, and am well guided by my peers (@carywood, or @jaminjantz), publishing meaningful work - like this blog post of yours - can be as rewarding as it is challenging.

    Thanks for spurring us on.

  11. 11. By Liam Jones on 30th Jun ’10 at 10:45am

    I publish therefore I am, like that :)

    I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  12. 12. By Mag on 20th Jul ’10 at 01:06am

    Those are some very interesting thoughts. It certainly was inspirational.

  13. 13. By Fraser on 4th Aug ’10 at 02:43am

    I found this very thought provoking and look forward to stopping by this blog in the future.

  14. 14. By Dave on 8th Dec ’10 at 15:22pm

    Thanks Jon, a thought provoking post. Funny enough, I’m just re-reading a great book on communication called The Jelly Effect, by UK author Andy Bounds. It’s about cutting the cr*p out of your communication, i.e. not just throwing a bucket full of jelly (or jello, for our US friends!) at the other person, and Bounds presents some compelling ideas to achieve this. His ideas are a bit like the Elevator Pitch principle, also excellent. Thing is, this approach works great on the web too. I recommend the book.

  15. 15. By James Henderson on 20th Feb ’11 at 08:29am

    Well done on this great post Jon.

    Reading your background on communications, I glanced over the bit where you say that style is something we can’t control and for a moment I thought you meant writing style rather than visual style.

    I look forward to more of your posts.

  16. 16. By NM on 16th May ’11 at 09:02am

    Very intellectual post. I especially like the bit about us Brits being shy and reserved it’s so true :).

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