Dorie Clark on How to Stand Out
The concept of the personal brand has been around for some time now, but in the freelance economy and the era of portfolio careers, it’s never been more relevant. How do you develop your own brand and accelerate your own Great Work? My guest today is Dorie Clark is the author of Stand Out: How To Develop Your Breakthrough Idea And Build A Following Around It. (Dorie was also my guest blogger last week, sharing her fav books for becoming a recognized expert.)
Whether you are climbing the corporate ladder or running your own business, these next 30 minutes are going to help you:
- Find your breakthrough moment
- Think about how to parlay your amalgamation of skills into a point of differentiation
- Create a framework that helps people instantly grasp who you are
- Start to build your audience and community
Michael: My guest today has been a political reporter, in fact an award-winning political reporter, a presidential campaign spokesperson, a non-profit executive director, a documentary filmmaker, but that’s not what she does now. What Dorie Clark does now is actually help people understand the power of the personal brand. She’s really claimed some space in this area and in fact it was through a mutual friend of ours, a colleague I worked with in an organization called Gartner, that I stumbled across Dorie’s work and I’ve been really enjoying her most recent book. It’s called Stand Out: How To Develop Your Breakthrough Idea And Build A Following Around It. So what we’re going to do with Dorie is kind of plunge in today. So how do you even get a breakthrough idea, because that feels a little daunting right off the top? And then, if you have an idea, how do you actually get people to actually follow it, because, trust me, if you build it, they will not come. That never works. So how do you actually get people to perhaps join your movement, wave your flag, rally for your cause? And that’s what we’re going to jump into with Dorie. So Dorie, welcome to the conversation.
Dorie: Michael, I am glad to be speaking with you. This is great.
Michael: Yeah, and look, forgive me if I stumble a little bit, I’ve actually got a head cold at the moment so I’m fighting my way through my own fog to try and stay present and engaged with you here, but I think this is going to be useful. Hey, Dorie, tell me, I gave you a really quick introduction as to who you are but what would you want to add so people have a sense of who you are and where you’ve come from?
Dorie: Ah, well, for me, you talked about some of the paths that I’ve taken along the way. I would say that the most formative experience for me was that I kept thinking that I would permanently land on these jobs, that I would be a journalist or that I would be a political operative, and my careers just kept not working out. I got laid off as a journalist, my candidates lost as a political reporter, and—or as a political spokesperson. And so it really taught me the importance of reinvention and adaptability and I think that regardless of what you’re doing today, if you’re working inside a corporation or if you’re an entrepreneur, adaptability and flexibility really is the most important skill that we can all have. That’s why I wrote my first book Reinventing You and I think that reinvention is fundamentally going to be the skill that enables us to thrive because the job that you are hired for today, in two years is probably going be very different. So the more flexible we all are, the more we’ll be able to be successful inside our companies.
Michael: Lovely. So one of my favourite sayings of all times is “Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.” And I’m curious, for you, what was the moment for you when your interesting and diverse past kind of clicked together and suddenly made sense?
Dorie: Well, one moment certainly was when I was working as the executive director of a bicycling advocacy organization in Massachusetts, and I had just come off of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign where I was the New Hampshire communications director. And of course, unfortunately, that was not a successful campaign, so I thought, “Okay, you know, I’ll take a job at a non-profit and I’ll move back to Boston” where I had been living, and I had been doing it for about a year and I realized something that just literally had never occurred to me which was that running a non-profit was exactly like running a business. I just hadn’t made that connection, that essentially I was training myself to run my own business and it snapped into place and I realized, “Oh my gosh, I could be doing this for myself.” And I was making so little money running the non-profit, I thought, “Gosh, it couldn’t be that hard.”
Michael: The only way is up from here.
Dorie: “I can make more than this.”
Dorie: Yeah, some people think that, you know, being an entrepreneur is very risky but really if you start with a bar that’s low enough, it’s not at all.
Michael: Right, that’s funny.
Dorie: So that was the moment.
Michael: Yeah. And I know one of your—kind of, one of the things that kind of applied rocket fuel to this niche you’ve developed about the personal brand and how to stand out is a blog post you wrote for Harvard Business Review back in 2010 which was “How To Reinvent Your Personal Brand.” And maybe just so people have a—because I love this story, how this, almost, not inconsequential blog, because you know, to get a blog post written for HBR you need to work at it and craft it and bring in research and all sorts of good stuff like that, but, you know, it’s one of many blog posts that you’ve written. Tell the story how this proved to be the touch-paper that kind of launched this focus on the personal brand.
Dorie: Yes, definitely. So, a lot of times I hear from people who say that they—you know, they have trouble identifying what they should focus on. You know, if they think about, you know, an area that they really want to double-down on, they just—they have too many interests, and I can really relate because there’s a lot of things that I’m interested in. It would have been very hard for me to choose a focus area.
But what I discovered is that sometimes the focus area chooses you, and I had wanted to write a book for a long time but I had not been successful. I had been stymied essentially because I kept hearing back from publishers that I did not have enough of what they called “the platform.”
You know, I was not famous enough; I did not have enough of a following. And so I was really frustrated because I knew that, you know, okay, I’m going to have to just delay the plans and work on building that following first. So I felt that blogging would be a good way to do it. And I was able to start writing for the Harvard Business Review.
Ironically, I had been pitching all these other places, it didn’t even occur to me to pitch the Harvard Business Review because it seemed a little bit out of reach. But I was living in Boston and I ended up selling my bicycle to someone who worked at the Harvard Business Review. And so she was willing to introduce me to an editor there.
I already had all these pitches ready because I had pitching to other places, to little avail, and he—it turns out he liked them. And so the second one that was ever published was called How to Reinvent Your Personal Brand.
And that became popular enough that they asked me to turn it from a blog post into a magazine piece and then when the magazine piece ran, I was able to, like, that week, literally, I got approached by three different literary agents who reached out to me and were interested in possibly working with me.
So that was the moment when I realized what it felt like when an idea actually works.
Dorie: And I thought, “Oh, this is what it’s like. People come to you. You don’t have to keep constantly knocking on the door.” So that was how my first book Reinventing You was created.
Michael: That’s a great story. I mean, there’s two things that are fantastic about it. One is it does just speak to the power of resilience around you just got to keep knocking, you got to keep finding different ways in, because if you give up at the first no, you’re doomed. But it’s also lovely just to hear how suddenly something can just catch fire, like this idea of leading from the blog post to a book—to an article to a book, just like that. Amazing.
Dorie: Yeah, thank you.
Michael: So, Dorie, in the stand-out book you basically say, “Okay, here the two core sections. The first is finding your breakthrough and then in the second part is building a following around your idea.” And I suspect that when you tell people, “You know, build—you know, find your breakthrough idea,” a lot of people go, “Hm, you know, that’s not really my thing. I’m not a—I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a fancy writer. I’m not any of that sort of stuff.” So first thing to ask you is, is this book just for people who are striving to become the entrepreneurial thought leader or has it got a broader appeal than that?
Dorie: Well, I actually believe that all the strategies in Stand Out are things that people inside companies certainly can use, and I would actually argue that in some ways it may be more essential for them to use these strategies.
Because to a certain extent, it’s self-evident why an entrepreneur would need to build their brand, would need to become recognized as the best in their field. It’s because that’s how they get business. They get clients if people think that they’re great and want to work with them.
That’s kind of logical. And entrepreneurs, no matter, you know, how well they’re doing it, they at least pretty much know they should be doing it.
The problem is that a lot of people who are working inside corporations don’t even realize that this is important for them and so they neglect it and they can go years, you know, quote-unquote getting away with not paying attention to their brand or not developing any kind of an expertise that they’re known for. And unfortunately, it works pretty well until it doesn’t work.
Dorie: And there’s a moment that comes—maybe it’s when, you know, your company or the economy hits a rough patch and they’re having to make decisions about layoffs, and who are they going to pick? Well, you know, they’re not going to lay off people who everyone says, “Oh, you know, I mean, she’s so amazing at this. You know, we can’t afford to lose her. You know, we can’t lose that skill set.”
But if you are in a position where your skills are more hidden, they’re more anonymous, no one really recognizes them, it becomes a lot easier for people to say, “Well, we don’t really know what he does so, you know, let’s give him the axe.” Having a strong brand, being recognized as an expert inside your company, in whatever facet of things that you’re doing, is incredibly valuable and it is ultimately the best form of career insurance.
Michael: And what’s interesting here is you’re not saying that an idea just has to be “Oh, I’ve written a white paper or written an HBR blog.” It’s actually—it could be an amalgamation of skills or expertise or the thing you’re known for; the thing you’re known to do better or think better or think differently from anybody else.
Dorie: Yes. That’s exactly right. I mean, you know, certainly you can be, you know, reaching out and writing for prestigious publications and things like that, but there’s many, many ways that, inside a company, you can get known for your ideas.
You can start contributing on internal social networks, like Yammer, or whatever. You know, a lot of companies, they have them and no one uses them and that’s actually a competitive advantage because if you become the person who does use them, there are people who are very invested in the internal social networks, usually the high-up executives that paid for them, and it aggrieves them that people are not using them.
And so, if you’re showing an interest, they are going to notice you disproportionately. You can even get noticed by just, you know, raising your hand and starting something. You could start, you know, a running club at work or you can, you know, sign on to lead a recycling initiative. Any of those things raises your profile in a way that associates you with a certain set of skills and values.
Michael: So where do I even begin, Dorie, because one of the things that’s in my head is going, “Okay, do I just begin with what I’m good at, because you know, when I think about it, I’m actually good at a bunch of things that I’m actually not that interested in, but I’ve just, you know, developed the skills and the expertise over the year, or is it something that I’ve got a passion around, or is it …?” I mean, if somebody comes to you going, “You know, I’m a blank slate or, at least, I haven’t got any traction here at all,” where do you direct people in terms of trying to start figuring this out?
Dorie: Yeah, so I would say, you know, of course we could start with what to rule out, which is that if there’s something that that you’re good at but you actually just don’t really like doing it, then I certainly wouldn’t do that because, you know, you don’t want to torture yourself.
If you’re neutral on it, I mean, okay, you know, maybe we can consider that, but if it’s something that you’re good at but you just really don’t want more of it in your life, then don’t take action to bring more of it into your life. Whatever you’re going to be doing, presumably the goal is that it is going to get you recognized for it, so you want it to be something that you hope you can expand your portfolio into. So I think that there is a certain level of aspiration to it as you’re thinking about what your brand is.
I mean, I wouldn’t pick the thing that is, you know, horribly hard and difficult for you but if you can find something that you’re pretty good at but maybe it needs to be a stretch role for you, then I think that’s fantastic.
One of the examples that I cited in Stand Out, one of the case studies of course, was a mutual friend of ours, Michael Leckie. And Michael was very interested in coaching and training and development. He didn’t necessarily know that much about it but thanks, in part, to time spent with you and collaborating with you, he was able to become very knowledgeable inside Gardener and recognized for his knowledge because that was something that he specifically took the time to develop.
Michael: Yeah. In fact, I know even as we speak, he is negotiating a promotion and pay rise based on and driven by the level of expertise that he has built up over the years. Let’s hope that by the time his broadcast gets released he’s got that promotion and pay rise. We’ll find out, but it certainly has driven, partially anyway, the success of Michael’s career.
You know, one of the—so let’s say that you’ve found an area that—and this is sort of the way I think about it. It’s something that you want to do, it’s something you want to claim, and it’s also something that your organization or maybe your future organization needs to have. So it’s not only something that drives you, a passion for you, but in the world of work, you know, it’s actually got some usefulness or some relevance to the organization that you’re part of, or maybe a future organization that you’d like to be part of.
You know, one of the things that you point to, one of your chapters is actually about building a framework around that. So talk to me a little bit about frameworks. I mean, I love frameworks, so I’m kind of—you got confirmation bias here. I’m just going to the stuff that lights me up, but what do you mean by frameworks and why is that so important in terms of actually helping to build your own great idea?
Dorie: So, frameworks are useful. If we’re defining “framework” here, I would call it a structure that helps explain something better, a structure that helps you simplify something that’s complex or just really grasp it in a new and better way.
Michael: I love that.
Dorie: And, you know, of course, that’s a useful thing, right? I mean, if you can have a framework to help you understand just about anything, oh, fantastic, bring it on. But a lot of people—you know, we use frameworks, we apply them in our lives but we don’t really think of ourselves as framework creators and that is a myth that I want to try to burst a little bit because a) anyone can create a framework and b) this is—you know, I think part of what holds us back is we think, “Oh, well, you know, my field, you know, whatever I’m doing, it’s all been figured out, clearly.”
But the truth is a lot of it hasn’t. I mean, there are examples that, you know, you could think of, you know, from popular culture. You know, something like Joseph Campbell in The Hero`s Journey.
Or Elisabeth Kubler Ross and the five stages of grief in Death and Dying. And I mean, people have been making myths from the time—you know, and telling these sort of mythic stories from the time that humans existed.
Dorie: Clearly, have been dying from the time that humans existed and yet it’s only in the last, you know, 50 years, 50ish years, that both of the frameworks were created that explains oh, actually all myths pretty much have a similar story.
Or oh, you know, when someone close to you is dying these are the steps and pretty much everybody goes through these steps. And it’s like, “Oh, right! Now that you mentioned it, yes.” And so, that’s a recent innovation, both of those things, but it reshapes how we see it.
And so, for people, if you’re somebody who’s a strategic thinker, if you’re able to sort of take a look at things from a 30,000-foot view, you can oftentimes come up with structures that can really help a lot of other people understand things better.
Michael: Right. And I think there’s a couple of really good things to point here. One is the fact that in some ways, it’s all been said before, and I think actually there’s a degree of truth to that, which is it has all kind of been said before. I mean, if you look at the area that you’ve chosen to work, Dorie, you’ve got I think Tom Peters, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, talking about Brand U, and I think I remember Dan Pink talking about something like that, and William Arruda, he’s a guy—he’s been on our podcast a few times—he’s talked about the power of personal branding.
So, there’s something about that field has had people walk through it before. So don’t look at a field and go, “Nyah”, you know, “there are other people there, I can’t complete.” I would always look at it going, “There are other people there, that means there’s something valuable here.”
But then there’s a twist on this, which is to say, you know, you can’t show up and just kind of repeat the same obvious stuff that everybody else has said. You have to find your own angle on this; your own twist. I mean, one of the things that makes me want to bang my head against walls is reading, you know, articles in LinkedIn or HBR or whatever, and I’m like, “I have heard that story. I’ve seen that framework. I’ve seen all that before. Where’s your twist? Where’s your original point of view that, you know, puts this old wine into a new bottle? Because don’t serve me old wine in old bottles because I’ve drunk that already.”
Dorie: That’s right. That’s right. And I think that, you know, one of the things that becomes really powerful, I mean, particularly when you think about, you know, personal branding and people talking about that, it’s almost a drum beat that you hear too often, but there’s, you know, an authenticity, you have to be authentic, and blah blah blah.
But, really, I think what this means is that what makes something new, fundamentally? What makes something new? And it really is the fact that it comes from you; that it comes from your unique experience. It’s the way that only you can see the world, and if you were sharing that, inherently it’s going to be different, but I think, for a lot of people, where they go wrong is they think that they need to edit themselves out of it, because, you know, maybe it’s a self-esteem thing, that, like, “Oh, well, it’s just me or just my opinion,” or whatever.
The truth is what makes something powerful, what makes something unique is your story or your point of view or your perspective, because otherwise it becomes so bland and sanitized that it really is exactly what everybody else says.
Michael: And part of what I love about the Stand Out book is that, you know, you have woven a lot of stories through that. Some of the stories I’d heard maybe a little bit of before but most of the stories were new to me. So part of my sense about who you are, Dorie, is the person here, is you are a collector of interesting stories, and that’s how you make the points that you want to make.
So, not only does your own story weave through this but so do other people’s. And, you know, as far as I can tell, there’s not a single story about Southwest Airlines in it, which I love because, you know, every other business book has to mention Southwest Airlines in some way or another and it’s nothing against Southwest Airlines; it’s just that there are other companies out there.
Dorie: Yes, exactly.
Michael: So let’s say that you’ve found your area. It’s a place where you got some umph there, something you want to talk about or want to claim; it’s useful for your organization so that’s helpful; you found a framework; you’ve added your own twist to it through relational research, either that’s quantitative, you know, there’s some numbers stuff that you done, or qualitative, you added stories to it. And you’ve come up with your theme, and it’s exciting, but the whole statement, just as I said in the introduction, if you build it, they will come, that is a palpable lie. If you built it, they will almost never come. So, how do I start finding somebody to go, “I like your idea”? How do I start building a following around this?
Dorie: Yeah, it’s a really important question because it’s very true. A lot of people have been sadly and sorely disappointed because they assume—you know, you hear stories on the internet and, you know, the way that the stories are edited or told is, “Oh, they just—they put it up and then a million people clicked on it.”
Dorie: And, you know, that does not happen by accident. That does not happen organically. You have to figure out how you’re going to make that happen. So, in terms of building your following, what I discovered in the course of researching Stand Out is that there’s really a three-step process that just about everybody follows, who is able to be successful, and that is first, building your network. Next, building your audience and third, building your community.
Michael: Right. And just to stop there. That, to everybody listening, is an example of a really nice framework.
It’s got a structure and a build to it. You can almost imagine, if Dorie was going to draw this out on a whiteboard for you, you could see how it would be concentric circles or three phases, and I think one of the things for me is I think about frameworks is if your framework can somehow appear visual, you know that you’re onto something interesting as a framework.
So, I love that. Building your network, building your audience, building your community. Sorry to interrupt, Dorie.
Dorie: No, that was a very good meta moment, Michael. I like it. But yeah, so building your network is the first step, and that is these, just, one-on-one interpersonal connections, the people that you individually have a relationship with.
And ideally what you want to do is take the smartest, you know, best people that you know and try to find ways to surround yourself with them. How can you spend more time with them? How can you get, hopefully, their ideas and involvement in your project, so that you can bounce ideas off of them, get honest feedback and make whatever idea as good as it possibly can be before it starts spreading out into the world at large.
Next, once you’ve that in place, you start building your audience, which is where you’re meeting and talking to people that you don’t already know. And you start communicating in larger numbers. It’s no longer just one-on-one coffees or lunches; you start writing a blog post that a few hundred or a few thousand people might see. Maybe you’re speaking at a conference, maybe you’re doing a webinar, all these things.
You start spreading your idea out there. And you already have a little bit of a validation because the people in your network have told you that they like it, they think it’s a good idea. So you start putting it out into the world. And, finally, at a certain point, you’re—you know, you’ve been putting your idea out into the world, people are presumably starting to like it, starting to get excited about, that is when, if the idea is sufficiently good, they will start talking to each other about it, and that is where you can start building a community. This is where the, I call it “many to many” transition.
Because the people who have heard it are now going to start being your ambassadors and spreading it for you.
Michael: Do you feel you have a community around your work?
Dorie: So, I’m beginning to get one I would say. I think that it’s—I think of myself as being somewhere between phase two and phase three. Some of the things that I’ve seen that have been very effective for people in shifting from audience to community are doing things like organizing conferences. You might think of something like Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit, or something like that, where it really becomes community.
Michael: Or Jonathan Field’s Good Life project. He’s done a nice job building a community around that as well.
Dorie: Yes, exactly. Another very good example. Meet-up groups are another useful way that people can get together and connect. You know, I’m a fan of James Altucher and there’s a whole bunch of choose-yourself meet-up groups that have started in different cities around his ideas and his message, which is pretty cool. You can also do it on line as well and have on line forums or communities that in some cases are pretty active, as a way of sharing ideas.
Michael: Right. Like I know a number of people who have, like, private Facebook groups, where there’s a kind of community around here’s people nurturing each other, people to share ideas with, people to kind of pluck up your courage to do the thing you want to do, all of that sort of stuff.
Dorie: Yes, precisely.
Michael: If there was—because I’m looking at the time and we’ve almost been going half an hour so we, sadly, we’ve only just started getting going and we need to start wrapping up, but if—I think most of the—many of the people who listen to this podcast are busy managers and leaders, and if we’ve lit a little flame underneath them and they’re like, “You know what? I wouldn’t mind standing out. I wouldn’t mind being known for something,” what’s a small practical step that you could give them, Dorie, to say, “Look, why don’t you try starting here?”
Dorie: Right. Exactly. So if you’re just getting started and you want to take an initial step about what you should be known for, the very first thing that I would recommend—this is actually a technique that I share in my first book, Reinventing You, is to figure out what is the strength that you want to double-down on. And I have an exercise called “the 3-word exercise” where you just go around over the course of the next week or so to maybe a half a dozen friends or colleagues and you ask them, “If you had to describe me in only three words, what would they be?” And when you start getting this feedback—it’s a very easy question to ask somebody and it’s not hard for them to answer it …
Dorie: But you’re going to start to see patterns in what they’re saying and as a person, as a human being, nothing that they’re going to tell you is probably going to be shocking. You could probably imagine the kinds of things they might say, but what is going to be new to you, I’m willing to bet this is the case for most people, what is going to be new to you is knowing which traits stand out the most.
Dorie: When you hear them, you’ll all be, like, “Oh yeah, you know, yeah, I’m like that.” But it’s going to be a surprise to most people which are the things that are most memorable about them to other people. That’s the part that’s hard for us to perceive. And so knowing that enables us to say, “Oh, well if people are really, you know, they really think that I’m creative or if they really think that I’m strategic or if they really think that I’m bold,” or whatever it is, that’s the thing that if your brand is already strong in that area, then it may give you ideas about other ways that you can take action to play that up and to really make it a signature element of who you are and how you’re seen by others.
Michael: So if I may just push along this, do you have a sense of what your three words are?
Dorie: I definitely try to walk my talk so I do periodically ask people this question and I’ve gotten—I would say that probably the most common ones that I’ve gotten, I get “intelligent,” I get “curious.” I think that’s an interesting one because that’s one that I wouldn’t necessarily think would go to the forefront but apparently I ask people a lot of questions and maybe not a podcast if you’re asking me.
Michael: Right. Exactly.
Dorie: But when we have dinner, I’ll ask you a lot of questions.
Michael: Sounds good.
Dorie: And, you know, another one that I get that’s actually kind of interesting is people say that I’m—you know, especially, like, from business contacts, is they say I’m fun. And I thought that was kind of interesting because, you know, particularly in the business realm you don’t think that you’re coming across that way or you’re not even, like, trying to because it’s, like, “Oh, well you know, it’s business. You want to be very serious.”
Michael: Right. Right.
Dorie: But it actually is kind of a competitive advantage I think that people think, “Oh, this person—you know, we’re doing this serious business-y thing but this person’s fun to work with while doing it.” And I think that that actually is something that’s pretty nice for them, that they didn’t necessarily count on initially, you know, but they didn’t think that that would be something that would be a valuable trait but turns out to be.
Michael: Well, you’re preaching to the converted. You’re talking to somebody whose company is called Box of Crayons, so I totally get you on that one.
Michael: Hey Dorie, this has been a great conversation. I knew it would be. If there are people listening who want to join your audience/community, where can they find you on the web? How should they connect with you?
Dorie: Thank you, Michael. Yes, if people would like to join the audience/community, one resource I wanted to mention is that I have a free 42-page workbook that I created that is an adaptation of Stand Out, and it enables you to walk through step-by-step the process and how to come up with your own breakthrough ideas and build a following around them. And folks can download that for free on my website, which is dorieclark.com, D-O-R-I-E C-L-A-R-K.com, and I have more than 400 free articles on that website, and I’m also on Twitter if folks want to connect @dorieclark, and my books are Reinventing You, Stand Out and Stand Out Networking, and they’re all available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other awesome places as well.
Michael: That’s awesome. Dorie, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for your time today.
Dorie: Hey, thank you, Michael.