Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It

Remaining quiet about yourself or, worse, downplaying your successes leads to being underappreciated, or even allowing others to take credit for your achievements. When done with grace and style, bragging promotes your best asset-you!

Book Excerpt

It ain’t bragging if you done it.
Bragging Myths We Live and Die By


Myth #1:

It’s not my father’s workplace anymore, or even the one many of your mothers may have entered in the 1970s or ’80s. The days of job security in exchange for loyalty and hard work are long gone. For most, this isn’t news. Yet many of us fail to recognize the value of self-promotion in maneuvering today’s volatile and unpredictable workplace.

Given the constant changes-mergers, management shifts, downsizing-you simply must let people in the organization know who you are and what you are accomplishing. Otherwise you’ll be passed over for promotions, in succession planning, or when the company is determining the best performers during layoffs.

Even if you’re an ace at keeping your boss up to speed, remember, he or she might be gone tomorrow. You need to cover all your bases and stand out in the eyes of your boss’ boss and that boss’ boss and all the bosses right up to the big boss. Your mission is made even more challenging when you consider what the Information Age has wrought: people who are overwhelmed by the daily on-slaught of e-mails, voice mails, faxes, phone calls, and meetings upon meetings. They have little-to-no time or any real need to pay special attention to you.

Planting for the Future

As important as those on the inside of your company are for your survival, those on the outside are just as significant: recruiters, industry associates, personal friends and acquaintances, even your competitors. Even seemingly stable companies can collapse overnight. Just look at Enron and Arthur Andersen, among many others.

Good self-promoters know this: They’re always planting seeds for the future. Karen, forty-two, a division head for a major global food corporation, is a good example. At an informal gathering, when asked how long she had been in the business and what she did, instead of the typical “I’ve worked with my company for fifteen years and run its dairy division,” she responded:

Who ever thought I’d be in the food industry, especially after my mom forced me all those years to eat Cheez Whiz? [Everyone at the table erupted with laughter.] It must have been fate, but after I graduated with my MBA from Columbia, I got a call from a friend who told me about a few interesting openings. I began working for my company in 1985 in brand management, working my way up to marketing director.

Two years ago, one of the company’s other divisions was really in the hole and they gave me the assignment of turning it around. I didn’t really know where to start, so I began talking to people on the f loor. A lot of them had great ideas. From there, I got everyone involved and formed teams to pull in the various disciplines and put together a strategic vision. Today, I am the proud head of a dairy division that is number two in profitability worldwide.

Smart self-promoters show up prepared. They value face time with others and are always ready with stories about themselves that break through the verbal clutter. They know that positive regard from others isn’t going to “just happen” on job interviews, at performance appraisals, during presentations, or at networking functions. And it’s unlikely to “just happen” by marching into the CEO’s office and asking for an appointment to discuss how wonderful you are. It’s not going to happen unless you make it happen, and the crème-de-la-crème opportunities to self-promote are going to come your way when you least expect them.

Myth #2:

April 5, 2002: I am on a plane bound from New York to San Francisco and the thirty-something guy sitting next to me just blew it: He missed a golden opportunity to sell himself and his company.

We had struck up a conversation and were happily chatting away about living in San Francisco when I asked him, “So what is it that you do?” “I’m a management consultant,” he replied. He didn’t continue, so I tried to engage him more by asking, “What’s your specialty in management consulting?” “Telecommunications,” he responded, followed again by dead silence. I took on the exercise of seeing if I could pull out some more information asking, “Who do you do it for?” He named one of the top five management-consulting firms, then stopped cold. I was just about to ask another question when something inside me snapped. I thought to myself, I’m not asking a fourth question. I’ve done enough digging. He’s not making it interesting or fun for me to talk with him.

Missed Opportunities

The first response from many clients hearing about this casual airplane encounter is to rattle off possible reasons why this fellow wasn’t more forthcoming. Maybe he was tired, or reluctant to start tooting his own horn on an airplane, afraid that he might divulge sensitive information to prying ears, possibly a competitor’s. While sometimes that may be true, in this case we were already having a conversation. So the point is, the road traveled by a lackluster self-promoter is paved with missed opportunities. You need to act like your best self even with strangers on airplanes and even when you don’t feel like it. Before you quickly slam shut the book claiming this is exactly the reason you didn’t go into sales, consider the following: Mr. Telecommunications didn’t know who I was.

I might have been a CTO of a company that could have used his consulting services. I might have been a recruiter who could come in handy one day when he’d gotten axed or one who was currently placing a specialist in the hottest new company in Silicon Valley. He didn’t know that, in fact, I am a consultant who works with Fortune 500 firms and could possibly introduce him to an executive of a company that could have become a major new account. He never found out.

I wasn’t asking him to reveal the location of the Holy Grail. I was simply asking that he tell me more about himself. If he had engaged me and talked about what he did and got me excited about it, I might have been a good future contact. I might have handed him some business. At the very least, I would have remembered his story.

Myth #3:

I’ve gone to spend a few days with my friend in the hinterlands of western Massachusetts and I find myself in an unlikely place: a tae kwon do class that her five-year-old son is enrolled in. The grand master, a Korean black belt, begins the class by asking the students to recite in unison the five themes by which to live. Lined up in military-style precision, each child exhibiting impeccable posture, they shout:


There it is. That last one. Don’t brag about yourself. Stating your value and accomplishments is risky because you might come across as pompous or make other people feel uncomfortable. It’s safer and much more appealing to be humble and understated. But will you get ahead?

Humility is a virtue with biblical and spiritual roots that is taught the world over. In some areas of the world, such as Asia, humility is prized much the way we in America prize our freedom of speech. Early on we are taught humility for good reason. We haven’t developed the social skills to talk about our accomplishments and ourselves gracefully. Instead, as children we blurt out, “My daddy has lots of money,” “I’m better than you because. . .” or in the case of my friend’s son, “I have more land than anyone,” which he proudly proclaimed one morning between mouthfuls of Cheerios as his mother cringed. Our parents and mentors know it’s important to squelch this behavior right from the get-go or people aren’t going to like us. And they’re right.

But the problem is this: Very few of us ever learn how to reconcile the virtue of humility with the need to promote ourselves in the workplace. When education and training do focus on selling ourselves, we’re taught to pay the greatest care and attention to our wardrobe, our hair, our hygiene, our table manners, and our résumé. Get those things right, it’s a slam dunk! There’s very little instruction on selling ourselves with ease and sincerity. Somehow we think if we personalize our message or get too excited, we are not being professional, when in fact this is exactly what makes us effective self-promoters.

Wimping Out

The tug-of-war between showing humility and showcasing our accomplishments is played out daily across working America, even in the brashest of industries. Recently, while conducting a workshop at a major Wall Street investment bank, I asked a group of young men and women to update me on any successes they had experienced since we’d last met when we worked on crafting more compelling sales pitches.

From the back of the room, I overheard one guy encouraging Patty, a twenty-six-year-old, perfectly coiffed junior banker to share her success story. Even though she had just landed a $10 million account, Patty seemed reluctant. With prodding from the whole group, she finally stood up. With her eyes directed toward the floor, her shoulders shaped like an orangutan’s, and in a whispery voice that barely rose above the white noise of the conference room, she said:

Oh, well, it’s really nothing. It was a team effort. There was this guy who I had read about in the paper, so I wrote him and later called his assistant, who said he wanted to meet with me. I went in and told him about the services of the bank and what we could do for him. He said it sounded interesting and asked where do we go from here? And I said, well, I’ll bring the portfolio manager and my senior banker with me and we’ll make an appointment. So we went back in two weeks. I led off the meeting, but the senior person did most of the talking, and we got a call yesterday and he’s giving us ten million dollars. And then she sat down.

I asked the group for some feedback. The fellow who had initially urged her on was flabbergasted. “Patty, what was that? You heard about this guy, you called him up, you met with him, and he gave you ten million dollars! You told it as if you had nothing to do with it. Quite frankly, you sounded like a wimp.”

Patty replied, “Yeah, well, you know, a lot of people helped out. I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging and taking all the credit.” An Ah-Ha Moment for Patty

Seeing that Patty was missing the point, I encouraged this co-worker to get up and act as though the story had happened to him. He said:

Oh man, I read about this guy in the paper. I got really excited about it. I wrote him a fabulous letter. I called his assistant to set up a meeting with him. On the day of the appointment, I was nervous but we still had a great conversation. I was really on my game that day. And he said, “What’s the next step?” And I said, “I’ll come back with my boss and portfolio manager. You’re going to love them.” When we walked in two weeks later, I introduced everyone to set the stage. Then they did their thing. Just yesterday the guy contacted me to give us his ten-million-dollar account. I am so psyched! I nursed this baby from beginning to end.

I asked the group to describe differences between the two versions of the story. The remarks were revealing: “David really owned it. He came across as excited about what happened. But he seemed authentic, too. He didn’t come off like he was stretching the truth. You could tell he was really proud of what he had done.”

Patty said, “Now that I’ve seen him do it and people respond so positively, maybe it wouldn’t feel as uncomfortable to promote myself in this way.” Like so many others I have coached, Patty was learning to overcome the whispers from her past, those similar to my father’s, like “You’re going to break an arm, patting yourself on the back too much.”

Myth #4:

It’s great if someone says something nice about you, but don’t hold your breath. Although letting others do the bragging for you is one tool in your goody bag, it isn’t your only tool. And it’s no substitute for you. No one is going to have your interests at heart the way you do. No one will ever tell your story and get people excited about you like you can. Plus, nine times out of ten, when those to whom you report talk positively about your work to others, it’s usually because there is something in it for them. Unfortunately, the accolade is often framed in such a way as to bolster them, more than you!

Since most people rarely acquire the skills to promote and talk about themselves, many come to rely on others to do the dirty work and boast on their behalf. As children, most of us have at least one adoring fan who pushes us along, builds our ego and self-esteem: a parent, a coach, a favorite aunt or grandparent who takes us under a wing, or a teacher who’s convinced we’re the next Einstein or Michael Jordan. Where we start to really stumble is when we grow up. When we no longer have our childhood cheerleading squad on hand, many of us wrongly presume that others in the workplace will fill their shoes and continue with unconditional support for our accomplishments and us. And even then, when someone occasionally sings our praises to others, we tend to deflect the compliments with self-deprecating comments: “Oh, no, it wasn’t anything,” or like Patty, in the preceding example, “It wasn’t me. It was really the team.”

Looking Out for #1

Bill, age twenty-one, a quiet, understated, no-nonsense type of guy, has yet to grasp the most basic rules when it comes to self-promotion. He’s a go-getter salesman who has just placed first in the Southwestern division for selling more of his company’s software than anyone. He believes that his numbers speak for themselves and he assumes that his boss, who has praised him often for his sales prowess, will let the higher-ups know.

When his boss presents his division’s sales results and estimates to senior management, here is what he says: “We’ve had an excellent first half; we are up twenty-five percent, a remarkable feat considering the tech downturn.” When asked by the CEO what’s working, Bill’s boss replies, “I’ve put a top-notch sales force in place and I’ve trained them well. You know that problem we were having with our fixed-pricing schedule? Well, I sat down with Fred, the marketing director, and we determined that if we allowed our sales guys some greater flexibility and let them customize some of the pricing-within limits, of course-we’d sell substantially more units. And that is exactly what happened.”

When someone mentions that she heard about Bill getting the award for the most sales in the Southwest, his boss says, “I knew the day he walked in that I could whip him into shape. I worked hard to get him on board, and it’s paid off.”

Even though Bill got the sales award, the boss took most of the credit. Bill’s lackluster bragging skills limited him on two levels. First, because he placed very little importance on making personal connections with his boss or senior management, they had no vested interest in him, other than some guy making his numbers. Second, Bill’s tight-lipped “sales are the only thing that matters” mentality is shortsighted. Had he revealed something more about himself and his story, his boss would have learned that Bill is from a tough neighborhood. He put himself through school and now spends a lot of his leisure time as a mentor with troubled youth. Knowing this, his boss might have told the CEO instead, “I knew the day he walked in that Bill was gold. He had already worked his way through college, and that kind of can-do attitude has paid off.” Now, suddenly an image of Bill appears in everyone’s mind. He becomes more than just a good hire. He becomes a gutsy, hardworking guy with a can-do attitude.

And if Bill had mentioned to his boss his work with youth, a seed might have been planted. One of the higher-ups in the meeting asks Bill’s boss if he knows of anyone who might be interested in starting a high-profile community outreach program to enhance the company’s image. Bill’s boss says, “Not off the top of my head,” and Bill misses another golden opportunity. Seldom are we encouraged to bring our background, our experience, and our enthusiasm to the table and weave them into a compelling human-interest story. It’s ironic that with all the advances in communications technology, our interpersonal business communication skills languish in the Dark Ages.

Myth #5:

It’s a beautiful California morning. I am in my office early when the phone rings and I answer it. Immediately I am once again reminded that self-promotion is all about the quality of one’s message and story, rather than a boring list of accomplishments. As the following discussion so vividly demonstrates, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done; if you can’t sell yourself in a way that’s inviting to others, people shut down.

“Hi, is Peggy Klaus in?” asked a female voice. “Yes, this is she.” Never stopping to ask if this was a good time to talk, this stranger proceeded to launch into a litany of her accomplishments, delivered with the precision of a Power-Point presentation.

“I am so excited to talk to you. I just graduated with a degree in communication. I was an excellent student with a 4.0 GPA. I wrote for the school newspaper, which has won accolades from all over the state. I also interned at a local advertising agency during the summers for the last four years. I have a very good reputation and references. For my term paper, I wrote about the changing role of communication in our society today. I think I would be perfect for a job in communication, and since you are involved in that, I wanted to speak with you.”

I said, “I’m sorry, what was your name?” She stated her name, but before I could get another word in edgewise, to my utter amazement, she continued: “I also forgot to tell you, I don’t know how I could have forgotten, because it’s so important, but I can’t begin work for another month because I won a prestigious service award and will be traveling to Africa next month to help needy children.”

I finally had to say, “Excuse me, Sarah. Obviously you’ve done so many things, but I have to tell you that I am not looking to hire anyone at this point. You might want to consider some of the larger firms in the area.” “Thank you for talking to me,” she responded meekly, sounding as if the air had seeped out of her overinflated balloon.

Sarah, like many, is a victim of a one-size-fits-all method of presentation that emphasizes form over authenticity.

If she had only started off by asking, “Is this a convenient time to talk?,” by telling me how she had learned about my firm, and by engaging me in a thirty-second story about herself, the result would have been different. Even though I wasn’t hiring, I would have offered her the name of a personal friend who was. As it was, I just wanted to get her off the phone.

Myth #6:

I’ll never forget the national television images of thirteen-year- old Rebecca Sealfon, winner of the National Spelling Bee, screaming and leaping around the stage in triumph of her hard-won victory. Unlike Patty, the junior banker who resisted telling others about her multimillion-dollar business win, Rebecca was excited and proud. She was happy and confident. She was a female thrilled to tell the world about her success.

She was one of the few. Many talented women today continue to abide by the myth that it’s unbecoming and aggressive to promote themselves. Although their parents may have told them they could do anything they wanted, there was also a big but. And that was, but don’t celebrate your own glory. It was all right if the boys vied for the limelight and one-upped each other, but girls were taught to share it with others. And even then, it was best not to draw too much attention to themselves.

This disinclination among professional women to self-promote has far-reaching consequences. It can affect referrals, negotiations of work schedule, salary, high-visibility assignments, and promotions, as well as make your blood boil when you see the guys getting ahead faster.

Showing Off Your Real Stuff

Throughout the years, I’ve worked with many female clients on changing the behaviors that result from the fear of upstaging male colleagues. Once I coached a physician from Harvard who was preparing a presentation to a large conference of her peers. Although only in her thirties, she had a tremendous amount of credibility in her field and a great deal of experience speaking at conferences. Yet when she practiced her presentation in my studio, she didn’t come across as an assured, confident academic and scientist. Instead, she rambled, didn’t appropriately introduce herself or her credentials, lacked a sense of urgency and excitement about her new breakthrough, and suppressed all of the delightful personality and sense of humor she had revealed in our earlier conversation.

When I asked about her style, she told me she didn’t want to appear “too big” or “too braggy.” She was concerned that her achievements would make her older and mostly male colleagues feel uncomfortable. What she did as a result was to present an unconvincing and boring recitation of her findings.

Fortunately, when she saw her performance on video playback in my studio, she didn’t like what the tape exposed. She decided that she was willing to take the risk of stepping into the spotlight to present a fuller, more authentic version of herself. This didn’t translate into acting “more like a man” or changing her personality. Instead, she learned to present her own characteristics with conviction and confidence by using direct eye contact, a sense of humor, and a conversational speaking style. She talked about herself and her credentials with enthusiasm, convincing her audience of the importance of her research. If she believed she was the expert and worthy of recognition, so would they.

Myth #7:

Brag doesn’t have to be a distasteful four-letter word. Someone who is effective at self-promotion brags in a way that isn’t obvious to others, and doesn’t come across as too self-serving.

Learning to brag is not about becoming something you aren’t or trying to put something over on someone. In fact, bragging as an art is just the opposite. It’s about becoming more of who you are and bringing forward your best parts with authenticity, pride, and enthusiasm. It’s about telling your story in a way that showcases your strengths. It’s a way of building a bridge to others and to better opportunities. Seeing it in this light, one woman pointed out that bragging is really a way of honoring our own spirits and who we really are. She noted that we do endless self-bashing along the lines of “I should be this and I shouldn’t do that,” or “Oh, no, I just got to the top of the publishing world because I happen, well, to be lucky.” Instead, for her, bragging has become a way to revel in all the wonderful things she has accomplished.

To see bragging in this way, we have to start by wiping the slate clean and dropping our preconceived notions. As one man recently asked, “I have a boss and all he does is brag about himself. I hate it. Do I want to be one of those people? Is this what your program is all about?” Of course not. His boss is one of those people who have taken it to the extreme, who brag in a way that’s annoying. But look at this man’s reaction. Because of it, he doesn’t brag at all, but becomes upset when recognition passes him by. My message to all of you is simply this: You don’t want to brag like “one of them,” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it at all. Let me show you how to talk about yourself in a way that is sincere and feels comfortable. By doing so, you’re going to learn how to brag and get away with it!

Copyright © 2003 by Klaus & Associates, Inc.

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