The 8 Critical Rules of the Game and How to Win

Marketing yourself is kind of like a game. At least, you are more likely to be successful at it if you think of it as a game and decide to have some fun while doing it. Like every game, self marketing has some basic rules.

Rule #1: Positive Thinking

Nothing is more important in the self marketing game than a positive, can-do attitude. You must go into your self marketing endeavors believing your efforts will be fruitful. You must believe that you are a strong, talented, successful person who has something worth marketing. While not every little thing you do to market yourself will bring you instant opportunities, it is important to realize that many things in totality will eventually bring great success.

As I do things to promote my personal reputation or my company, I remind myself that every activity helps. Even if I have only one meaningful conversation at a networking event, I know meeting that one new person could lead to an opportunity.

Your mental outlook is at least half of what it takes to be successful. Positive thinking will help you be persistent—a key component of success in the professional world. Most of the great corporate executives and political leaders throughout history have been insufferably optimistic. Optimism motivates them to keep pushing and pushing. By constantly believing that their visions will come to fruition, they keep their people focused on the end goal. In your personal business of one, you need to set goals, work diligently and never stop believing that you will accomplish them.

Rule #2: Develop an Expertise

It is much easier to promote yourself if you are an expert in something. Perhaps to your surprise, becoming an expert in something is not necessarily difficult. You don’t have to have an academic degree in your area of expertise (although that certainly helps). Experts are “opinion leaders,” the types of people from whom other people take cues and get ideas.

An expertise gives you something upon which to focus your marketing efforts. It gives you legitimacy. Once you are an expert, you go from being an ordinary person to someone whom people want to listen to. You become fascinating, enlightening and engaging, even though on the inside, you still feel like your same old self.

So how do you become an expert? First, I recommend that you literally sit down in a quiet room with a piece of paper. Write down every subject you can think of that interests you and that you think you could possibly learn enough about to someday become an expert. At this point, don’t worry too much about practicality—if it pops into your head, write it down. It is okay to dream about the areas of expertise you would like to master. In fact, I encourage you to dream big. Don’t stifle yourself. If even a tiny part of you wants to master a certain area of expertise, write it down.

Study your list carefully and think of the areas of expertise that would most interest you. Next, think of the ones that would be most realistic, most closely related to your career and most marketable to a target audience.

Once you have identified the area of expertise that is best for you, it is then time to immerse yourself in it. You must study it inside and out, forward and back. Read journals. Go to seminars and conferences. Search for it on the Internet and study every relevant website you can. Find other people who are interested in the same subject area and make contact with them. You will be able to share ideas with them and use their knowledge to further your expertise.

Several years ago, I decided upon an area of expertise to pursue. I wanted something that blended my talents and interests with my profession: commercial real estate. I gave this a great deal of thought.

First of all, I’ve always been fairly adept at communication. I studied journalism in college and had done a great deal of marketing and public relations work in my career. Second, I have always been fascinated with cities—the way they develop, the way they foster entrepreneurialism and how they create wealth. Third, with a master’s degree in political science and public administration, I have always been fascinated with the policy-making process. I enjoyed studying how polarized interest groups competed in the public arena of ideas. Fourth, I have always been a proud booster of Omaha, the city in which I lived and worked. I threw all of these interests into my mental caldron and found inspiration. It came to me one day that I should become an expert in economic development in Omaha. After all, commercial real estate is closely aligned with economic development. It was a natural marriage of my interests and my profession.

With my mind focused on an area of expertise, I set out to develop it. I studied every book and article I could get my hands on that had to do with real estate development, construction, urban planning and business expansion. I read up on census demographics and studied maps. I read everything I could about Omaha’s development history. I talked about this stuff at parties and over lunch with friends. I found Internet sites frequented by people who shared my interests. I worked with my boss and colleagues to focus our company on the community’s growth and development. Our firm became a real estate company that was also committed to promoting the city and its economy.

This led to a number of good marketing ideas. Soon, I started writing articles in the Midlands Business Journal, a weekly business newspaper. Eventually, that led to my regular opinion column, “T-Squares & I-Beams,” in the City Weekly, which focused on Omaha’s growth and development.

The more I learned about economic development, the more people would seek me out. I was once asked to give a speech to a local group about all the real estate development happening in Omaha. The speech went quite well, and someone from the audience asked me to speak to another group. Next thing I knew, I was speaking on the city’s growth and development regularly. I now give about 50 of these speeches per year. That led to an even bigger opportunity for me to parlay my new expertise into a great self marketing activity: a radio show.

A good friend of mine, Jim Vokal, was guest-hosting a local radio talk show. The regular host was on vacation and asked Jim to substitute, since Jim was a member of the city council and knew a great deal about local affairs. I was talking with Jim about what he planned to do as substitute host, and he said to me, “You should come on and talk about all the real estate development happening around town.”

At first, I thought it was a silly idea. After all, I was just some young guy in commercial real estate. Was I the best source? Weren’t there people in the community who were older and wiser than I? Jeez, I had only been in the commercial real estate industry for a couple of years. The thought of going on the radio as a so-called expert before thousands of listeners was intimidating. Nevertheless, I ended up doing it. It turned out great. I received an incredible amount of positive feedback from people who heard the show and thought it was such an interesting topic.

A few weeks later, my boss and good friend Trenton Magid and I were working late and took a dinner break. I told him I had been daydreaming about talk radio. I imagined the two of us hosting a regular radio show that focused on economic development in Omaha. Practically everything on talk radio was politics, self-help or personal financial planning. I thought it was time for a unique show that discussed interesting aspects of a growing city. Trenton liked the idea and suggested we buy an hour of air time each week and start a show. The Grow Omaha radio program went on the air in January 2004.

After a couple years, our show was recruited to KFAB, a 50,000-watt AM station with a primary coverage area extending into several states. Literally thousands of people listen each week. We have a strong base of listeners and many loyal fans. Grow Omaha has put Trenton and me into the public eye and has put our company, Coldwell Banker Commercial World Group, even more prominently “on the map.” This leads to credibility in the community, making it easier to generate business for our company.

From newspaper articles, to speeches, to the radio program, my involvement with economic development in Omaha is a textbook example of how becoming an expert in something can directly lead to great notoriety and untold opportunities. All you have to do is find your “something.”

Rule #3: Be Prepared

The Boy Scouts have a great motto, which should be adopted by anyone interested in promoting themselves in a noisy, competitive marketplace: “be prepared.” The Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes said, “To be prepared is half the battle.” You never know when an opportunity to promote yourself will arise, so you must always be ready.

Not only must you always be positioned to embrace opportunity, you must also be prepared to deal with challenge.

On September 11, 2001, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani dealt with a challenge that no other municipal leader in U.S. history had ever faced. The savage terrorism at the World Trade Center that day stunned the world, but it did not destroy the spirit of New York City. A good amount of credit for New York’s steadfastness goes to its leader. In his book, Leadership, Giuliani said he was able to stay calm in the face of crisis because of preparation, which he defines as “not assuming a damn thing.” Giuliani goes further and advocates “relentless preparation,” which allows you to anticipate potential trouble before it arrives.

Hopefully, none of us will ever have to lead a city though a 9/11-like disaster, but in our own careers, we must always be prepared. We must have contingencies in place in case the unexpected happens. In self marketing, relentless preparation means you plan what you will say in certain situations. You put a great deal of thought into the things you write and say. It means you have promotional materials for yourself and your company ready to go at a moment’s notice. It means that you are mentally prepared for any sort of opportunity or threat that could come flying out of left field at the most unexpected time.

Rule #4: The Right Attitude

You can’t market yourself if you have nothing to market. That means you must work hard at all times. Marketing without solid performance behind it is but a lie. As you promote yourself, you must constantly work hard. The harder you work and the more you produce, the more confident you will feel, and therefore your self marketing efforts will convey better. This creates a snowball effect, because the better your self marketing is, the more opportunities you will have to be productive. A self marketer with a good work ethic will search for opportunities everywhere. Be curious. Sometimes the best ones come from the places you least expect. Constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to promote yourself. Pounce when the opportunities show up.

To be effective in self promotion you must think big and take risks. Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone. Perhaps you are somewhat shy or are new to your business and thus intimidated by industry veterans. Don’t waste time on fear and worry. It leads to disappointment and inaction. For many people, their first forays into self marketing are small. That’s a fine way to gain experience and build self confidence. Grassroots self marketing can start very humbly. The key is to keep building up your efforts. You will never gain the highest levels of name recognition and respect if you don’t do something big at some point. Once you break through the big risk “barrier,” all subsequent activities will not seem like such a big deal. There is an old saying that life comes down to just a few big moments. Don’t let timidity prevent you from seizing big opportunities in your life.

Self marketing is a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game. Everyone can win. Just because one person becomes a rock star in an industry or community doesn’t mean that someone else cannot. Some people, even some successful ones, have a difficult time understanding this. No doubt you have come across someone who can’t stand hearing praise about someone else. You say something nice about someone else, and that person feels compelled to refute it, bring up a negative thing about the person or at least minimize it with a quick barb or roll of the eyes. Anyone who behaves like this is telling the rest of the world that he or she has a low self esteem or a compromised sense of self worth.

One of the most important rules of the self marketing game is to never tear down others while promoting yourself. In fact, we should take this rule so seriously that we should go out of our way to build others up as we promote ourselves. Nothing looks so bad as to come across as jealous, envious or spiteful.

Rule #5: Everyone Counts

To get ahead in business, you need to impress the right people, but you have to be careful. There is a temptation to focus only on those whom you perceive to be powerful. The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle told us in the 19th century: “A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.” The seemingly non-powerful people could be powerful indeed. If they lack outright power, they may have influence over those who do have it. Secretaries come to mind. Oftentimes a job candidate will be so focused on impressing the prospective boss that he or she brushes past the secretary without acknowledgment. This could turn out to be a big mistake.

As any professional knows, bosses can be incredibly dependent on a secretary. If the secretary hates a candidate, the boss will probably choose someone else rather than alienate someone upon whom he or she depends. As an outsider, you don’t know the hidden relationships that may exist between the powerful person you want to impress and the staff members around the boss. That secretary could be the boss’s kid, best friend or even a romantic interest. Treat secretaries and other staff members like gold. Your success may depend on it.

It is wise to think on a long-term basis and market yourself to anyone at any time. You never know who could be your boss someday. You never know who could be a great client someday. Build relationships now to sow the seeds of future opportunity. It is never too early to start networking with people. Any relationship can lead to great opportunity.

I have known my current boss since I was in seventh grade. We had been close friends all through high school, college and our early adult years. In early 2001, I became restless in my position as dean of student services at a private college. I sought the counsel of my friend as I prepared to search for a new career. At the time, his commercial real estate firm was going through a rapid growth cycle and had just affiliated with Coldwell Banker Commercial, an international real estate franchisor. His career advice was to work for him! While at first I had some trepidation about working for such as close friend, it turned out to be a win-win situation for both of us. I moved into an exciting, professionally fulfilling job with a great organization, and he got an experienced administrator who could assist him in running the company.

Clients can come from anywhere, and relationships you currently take for granted could become very valuable. While I was in graduate school, I had a job training and supervising student orientation leaders—the juniors and seniors who gave campus tours to new freshmen.

One of my orientation leaders was Scott Kennedy, an engineering major from a small town in northeast Nebraska. Like all the orientation leaders, Scott was a good-natured, talented kid with a strong academic profile and some solid campus leadership experience. After my graduate assistantship was completed, I moved away from campus and lost touch with the orientation leaders. Several years went by, and I ran into Scott at a local networking function. Turns out, he became a construction executive and had become successful at quite a young age. He and his wife decided to start a side business, and I had the opportunity to represent him in a major land purchase. Since that deal, Scott has referred other business to me. Back when he was an undergraduate learning to give campus tours while walking backwards, I had no idea he would someday be a valuable client, not to mention a good friend.

Furthermore, you never know just who will become a big success in the future and have tremendous decision-making power. Craig Wolf is a guy I have known since the first grade. Growing up, we were typical suburban kids. After a successful tenure in the U.S. Air Force, Craig went to work for C&A Industries, a staffing and human resources company. As an experiment, his boss allowed him to start a medically related division of the firm. It turned out to be a smashing success. In the years since then, Craig has grown that division into a business behemoth, with clients spread across the nation.

The point of these stories is that self marketing should be directed at everyone, including the people who are already close to you. Too many times, we are tempted to focus solely on the people who are far away from us, so hard to reach they are virtually untouchable. In so doing, it is easy to forget that the people already in our spheres of influence are worthy of a great deal of our attention.

Rule #6: You Are Being Watched

During rehearsals, directors often remind their actors to “stay in character.” One of the cardinal sins of theater occurs when an actor loses his concentration and allows a glimpse of his real self to pierce his character’s façade. Once that happens, it breaks the audience’s sense of suspended disbelief, and the actor loses legitimacy. Skillful actors are constantly aware of good stagecraft mechanics. For instance, an actress backstage waiting for her cue to come on stage should never stand close enough to the leg (side) curtains that audience members could see part of her body. A good actor would never forget to leave his microphone on after he exits stage. Simply put, actors understand they must maintain professionalism and protect the integrity of their character at all costs.

Professionals of any field would be wise to adopt tenets of the dramatic arts. As a professional trying to market yourself, you must always stay in your professional “character.” If you make an ass out of yourself in front of someone, you will have a difficult time ever regaining legitimacy in that person’s eyes. Furthermore, it’s good to use a little showmanship in the business world. By no means does my reference to acting and showmanship mean that you should be lying and deceitful. It does mean you must polish your image and be conscious of how the little details look to your audience.

As a radio talk-show host, I have to incorporate showmanship into my work. For example, there is an old saying that radio people should always assume every microphone is “live” even when you know it is turned off. Being extra careful prevents you from uttering a four-letter word or speaking some nasty gossip and having it accidentally hit the airwaves. In radio, it’s just safe to assume that everyone is listening to everything you say at every moment of the day.

In your career, it is likewise safe to assume that you are always being watched or listened to. If you are out with friends on a Friday night, remember that you still have a professional image to maintain. Anytime you are in public, there’s a chance that someone you should impress is observing you unknowingly from afar.

The things you do when you assume no one is watching can hurt your career. I remember an interesting incident that occurred back when I was a college dean. One of the positions that reported directly to me was vacant. We received a lot of resumes, but one of them stood head and shoulders above the rest. This candidate was great on paper, and he was equally impressive when I interviewed him over the telephone. I was already assuming that this guy would become my future staff member. We set up an in-person interview for the next day.

Shortly before the scheduled interview, I was sitting in my office, which overlooked the parking lot. A car pulled into one of the visitor stalls below my window. Thinking it might be my candidate, I watched him get out of the car. He looked to be the age I assumed my candidate to be, so I figured it was him. Then something weird happened.

He reached into the back seat of his car and pulled out a neck tie. He then proceeded to use the reflection of himself in the car window to tie his tie. After securing his tie, he reached back into the back car seat and pulled out an electric razor. Using the same window as a mirror, he proceeded to shave right there in our parking lot. After removing his facial hair, he tossed the razor in the car, pulled on his sport coat, grabbed the obligatory leather portfolio that everyone brings to an interview and walked toward the building.

Two minutes later my phone buzzed. My assistant’s voice said, “Jeff, your appointment is here.” Sure enough, it was that guy. Interestingly, he did a fantastic job in the interview, but there was no way I would hire him. Anyone who was so clueless about professionalism and image making was not suited for a managerial position at a reputable college. The moral of the story: Always assume you are being watched and evaluated.

Rule #7: Embrace Professionalism

Your behavior and image are critical parts of self marketing.

One of the most important things you can do to get ahead is to be nice. Unfortunately, too many business people are the opposite of nice. They think that business success comes from being shrewd, aggressive and selfish. Perhaps they watch too much television or too many mafia movies, but these people believe they must never show kindness, warmth or even the slightest hint of emotional vulnerability. Such people are obsessed with not only winning but thoroughly vanquishing anyone whom they consider a rival. If you practice this type of behavior at work, flush it and get a new outlook.

To succeed, you must be assertive, but aggressive behavior will have a long-term negative effect on your career. A truly professional person is nice, sincerely nice, consistently nice. By being friendly and likeable, you will actually be more successful in a competitive environment. Many of the business negotiations in which we engage are inherently adversarial. That’s a fact of life, but it doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Civility is not just a moral-social norm; adopting it is in your best interest. Nice people eventually finish first.

In addition to treating people well, professionalism implies a certain image. If you want to market yourself, make sure you have the right look. You never know when you will run into a member of your personal target audience, so make sure you always look presentable.

Professionals should always be sharply dressed. Some people with big jobs act professionally during the business day. Then you run into them at the supermarket, and they look like hell warmed over. Even when you are “off duty,” you are still being watched; the higher you go, the more people will be constantly judging you. That means you can’t afford to be seen at the mall looking like a bag lady. Clothing should be neat, clean and appropriately pressed. Shoes, bags and accessories should be in good shape. Personal hygiene is critical. A professional image means you always have a supply of your business cards with you and a pen to write notes. Your car should be uncluttered on the inside and clean on the outside. It would be silly to spend all sorts of time and money promoting yourself when your basic appearance is flawed.

Rule #8: Communicate Clearly

Before stepping into the public arena, think about what you have to say and how you will say it. An effective self marketer knows that communication is critical. Your peers will judge you in large part based upon the quality of your communication. Study your area of expertise and be prepared to field questions about it. Have answers ready, so you don’t fumble like an idiot, struggling with an unexpected question.

Your communication with other professionals needs to be interesting, engaging and at times, curiosity-peaking. Just as important is the need to be clear and concise. To be concise, I recommend you develop a personal 30-second “elevator speech.” That means you can give a person a basic understanding of who you are and what you do in half a minute, or about the time it takes to ride an elevator in a typical office building.

When devising your elevator speech, be committed to clarity. I go to a lot of networking events. Inevitably, I’ll meet someone who can’t explain who or what they are. I’ll ask such a person, “What do you do?” I might get an answer like this: “I facilitate broad-spectrum, strategic and integrated solutions for financial-service providers, who are re-engineering their organizational paradigms.” What on earth does that mean? Sadly, there are way too many people who utter such gibberish at cocktail parties. Instead of sounding important and impressive, they’re just annoying. If you want to impress people with what you do, explain it enthusiastically, confidently and in clear-spoken English.

A better elevator speech might sound like this:

“So many companies struggle with strategic planning, especially financial services companies. What I do is sit down with business owners, and for a flat fee, I examine everything they’re doing right and wrong. I then create a strategic plan in a format that’s easy to share with employees and investors. If they’re interested, I’ll also hold a workshop for the entire staff. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and have clients nationwide.”

This elevator speech gets to the point and places an image in the listener’s mind. As you craft your elevator speech, be brief, descriptive and paint an interesting picture.

Moving Forward

We have now established what self marketing is and why you must engage in it. We’ve laid the ground rules you must follow. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The next several chapters will give you practical ways you can actually get your message out, promote your personal brand and build your reputation.

Self Marketing Power is an award-winning book about business and career success released in 2008 by Keynote Publishing. For more information, please go to