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‘Some forms of self-promotion aren’t only forgivable, but actively welcome’

If there’s anyone in the modern workplace more annoying than an obnoxious self-promoter, it’s surely the self-promoter who’s apologetic about it: “I don’t usually send emails like this, but…” Beyond the workplace, there’s a third, even more annoying type: the celebrated novelist who retweets praise from readers. (Sure, Midnight’s Children won the Booker, but look: some random bloke you’ve never heard of liked it, too!) Yet these people deserve sympathy. The question of how to blow your own trumpet is a distinctively contemporary one; the rules are still evolving. We’re told we need to do more of it, now that more of us are working freelance, and more applicants are chasing fewer jobs. Women, especially, need to get over their aversion to bragging, Sheryl Sandberg argues in her much-discussed book Lean In. But for anyone with a smidgen of self-awareness, it’s a minefield. Can you really (to quote one book on the topic) sell yourself without selling your soul?

Numerous self-styled experts – themselves pretty good at self-promotion – purport to have the answer. But much of their advice involves learning to care less about coming across as obnoxious, which feels like winning the battle while losing the war: wanting to be non-obnoxious is a good thing! You could likewise “solve” your marriage problems, I suppose, by becoming the kind of person who doesn’t give a monkey’s what your spouse feels or does, but I think we’d all agree you’d be missing the point.

More useful is the shift in perspective hinted at in Peggy Klaus’s thoughtful 2003 book Brag! The Art Of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It. The trick is to see your self-promotional efforts from the vantage point of others. Ironically, there’s actually something self-centred about being highly allergic to self-promotion, as if the world might end if you put a foot wrong. Step out of self-absorption, and it becomes easier to see that some forms of self-promotion aren’t only forgivable, but actively welcome. In a job interview, when you detail your accomplishments, you’re providing much-needed information. As the writer Clay Shirky notes on his blog, this rule can be generalised: the people dispensing opportunities want to make sure they’re going to the right recipients, so when you tell them why that should be you – using facts, not bluster – you’re helping them out. Indeed, Shirky adds, the willingness to do so is helpful information in itself: “Raising your hand is… a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.”

This perspective-shift also ensures you’ll pick the right audience for any given bit of horn-tooting. Your friends probably don’t mind being kept abreast of your activities; what they mind is mass emails phrased in such a way that they don’t feel acknowledged as friends. Similarly, the praise-retweeting novelist has misjudged his audience: since they follow him, they probably already like him, so he looks desperate. (A better way to self-promote on Twitter is to link to actual stuff: articles, interviews, etc.) And if you still can’t stomach bragging, try this entry-level idea, adapted from Klaus: keep a list of your accomplishments for yourself. That way, they’ll stay near the front of your mind, and next time you’re in the lift with the chief executive, a few may unobtrusively leak out. No obnoxiousness required.

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