Finding Your Voice: Building Your Personal Brand in Words

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One of the first things I tell my design students when they’re trying to write any bit of copy, a bio, an elevator pitch, or a project description, is to start by writing exactly what you to want say. Nothing profound—you’re not competing with David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre or even with Gary Shteyngart’s tweets for that matter.

The second thing is to imagine your audience as the busiest person you know—and write for that person. Distill your message to its core. The biggest mistake is to write too much.

“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” – French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal from his Lettres Provinciales

Brevity is desirable but challenging. Here are tips that are so helpful that the next time you see me, you’ll want to reward me with chocolate.

  • Use action verbs.
  • Avoid adverbs.
  • Write active sentences.

You’ll actually have to give the chocolate to Stephen King. Before King or I offer more tips, let’s talk personal branding.

What’s your story? Is there a payoff to the potential client or employer in how you define yourself?

To build your own brand, start with the raw material—what you’ve done, what your strengths are, your point of view, and more. No formal research necessary, though much analysis is required because what you’re seeking is an insight into why anyone would want to select you over any other candidate.

Kristen Campolattaro, Brand Strategist and Communications Professor at Columbia University, advises:

“The key to standing out is knowing what you have to offer that is special and unique—then making sure every touchpoint of your brand conveys this unique selling proposition or ‘USP.’ Once you figure out your USP, boil it down to one statement so short and sweet it could fit on a badge pinned to your lapel. This is your professional brand positioning and your guide to creating the plethora of touchpoints that will bring to life who you are and help you stand out vs. the competition. From your elevator pitch to your professional website, every vehicle should bring your brand positioning to life. With a clear, single-minded positioning, you’ll differentiate from your peers and have a memorable impact on professionals in your industry.”

Your brand is your promise to deliver some kind of value to a client or employer. You have to express that value in words—consistently across media channels—in your bio, handle, mission statement, POV, elevator pitch, CV, and cover letter.

Here are six personal brand copywriting aims:

  1. Distill your brand story into a core premise, seeking an insight your capabilities, what you promise to deliver and your personal design intention. What are your strengths? What do you want to be known for? What drives you? Why do you design or art direct? Try this exercise: Write your core personal brand story in 140 characters or less.
  2. Write genuinely and specifically—your statement is about you, not suitable for anyone else. If your competition can insert his or her name into your statement, then it’s too broad or generic. (I do deserve chocolate for this one.)
  3. Make it pithy. Eliminate extraneous material but retain the fabric of your personal and professional DNA.
  4. Each piece of copy about you builds your personal brand. If it doesn’t build your brand, delete it.
  5. Edit for repetitiveness. No one is going to read boring copy.
  6. Write active sentences. Avoid the passive voice.

Please don’t let writing scare you. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails.”

To warm up, liberate your inner writer by writing spontaneously.

Surrealist André Breton advocated in his Manifesto of Surrealism,

“Write quickly with no preconceived subject, so quickly that you retain nothing and are not tempted to re-read. The first sentence will come by itself, since it is true that each second there exists a sentence foreign to our conscious thoughts, which asks only to be brought out in to the open.”

However when it comes to writing any component of your personal brand, remember what William Strunk Jr. advised in The Elements of Style:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

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