I used to get really uncomfortable talking about what made me great. Trying to weave my professional strengths into a conversation reminded me how I felt at my first middle school dance: super awkward. Saying “I’m really good at…” made my skin crawl.
Research shows I’m not alone: In the U.S., women feel more pressure to be modest than men, and they are way more comfortable talking about a friend’s accomplishments than their own. In a 2013 study, researchers asked female college students to write a letter applying for a merit-based scholarship. The students were told their essays would be used as examples for others. One group was asked to write an essay about another person’s accomplishments, while the other group was asked to write about themselves. Reviewers awarded the essays women wrote on behalf of others an average of $1,500 more than the essays women wrote about themselves. The takeaway? Students were better at promoting others than they were at promoting themselves.
Why does this matter? When we don’t highlight our skills and experience, we set ourselves back. So much of uncovering professional opportunities lies in who we know and who knows about us. If people don’t know what we can do, they can’t help us get ahead. Meanwhile, those who can sell themselves and their hard-earned skills scoop up the opportunities.
I’ve struggled with promoting myself in my own professional life. For example, I’ve lived abroad and speak three languages — English, Spanish and Portuguese. Even though my language skills often open doors for me, I rarely mention them unless someone asks. It makes me uncomfortable, like people will think, “What a show off, she thinks she’s so smart and cool.” Which is ridiculous — I studied A LOT to learn other languages and know they’re an asset.
In the last few years, I’ve tried to up my “bragging” to get more comfortable doing it. I tell friends and colleagues about my past experiences. I also tell people about the things I’m excited about (like starting a blog), which can feel like bragging, too. (It’s a slightly different issue, but I worry if I tell someone about this blog, then it has to be “perfect,” and if it’s not, they will judge me.)
The payoff to opening up about my skills and interests has been huge. People are constantly offering to help me and connect me with others, which has led to experiences and opportunities I never would have had if I hadn’t opened up. Examples include coworkers inviting me to a conference in Rio de Janeiro because I told them I spoke Portuguese, and being asked to join a group of transportation innovators because I expressed interest in Austin startups.
Getting comfortable bragging about yourself takes practice. Here’s the approach I’ve adopted:
Fake it till you make it
When I interact with someone in a professional setting, I often think of it as acting. For example, there are lots of things I’ve had to deal with at work that I don’t actually care about (sorry federal transportation finance experts), but I need to be, or at least look, engaged.
Bragging is similar. I might feel hella uncomfortable trying to pitch my skills, but I act like I’m not. You know the saying — fake it till you make it. I also try to get away from the negative connotations that bragging has by reframing it as “sharing information.”
Inner monologue: “If I don’t share this information about myself, there’s no way the person I’m talking to will know it. This conversation could lead to an incredible opportunity. Here goes nothing!”
Charm your audience by listening
I know, I told you to brag, and now I’m telling you to shut up. Trust me here.
Though many of us are reluctant to talk about our accomplishments, most of us like talking about what’s going on in our day-to-day lives. In fact, some are willing to forgo MONEY to do so. As gratifying as it is to talk about how cute your cat is, it’s your job to listen to cute cat stories, too. This may sound calculating, but listening is crucial to getting people to like you. In fact, one of the key tips in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is to be a good listener.
If I’m meeting someone for the first time, I ask them what part of town they live in. People in Austin are obsessed with talking about their commute, so that’s a good conversation starter, too. If I know a bit more about them, I ask about projects they are working on and let things go from there.
Here’s your moment. You’ve made a connection with someone by asking questions and listening (you both love designing fact sheets!). It’s time to tell them what you like to do and what you’re good at. And get excited about it.
People tell me that I “light up” when I’m talking about something I care about deeply. And I think this is true for everyone. I once had a friend enthusiastically explain to me in great detail the bike routes he had taken on a trip to Europe. He talked about the terrain, elevation and history of each route. I’m not a cyclist, and under normal circumstances, I don’t care which route you took to get anywhere. But his passion was contagious — by the time he was done I was all “OH MY GOD AND THEN WHAT DID YOU DO.” Use this same type of passion to talk about what you like to do, and others will get excited with you.
Keep tooting that horn
You know how people always want to know what’s new with you? Tell them! Instead of the same old, “I’m good, how are you?,” say, “Actually, I’ve been learning to code/taking some art classes/working on starting a business.” I try to answer questions like “How are you?,” and, “What’s new?,” honestly because it makes me feel more authentic and draws me closer to the person who asked.
But don’t wait to be asked! If I’m excited about something in my professional life, I post about it on social media and I tell my friends and family. Everyone I know has seen my ridiculous video application to speak at the 2016 South by Southwest conference. Even though I wasn’t selected, the video has been a great tool to show what a smart, creative weirdo I am. I’ve shared it with lots of people and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
When it comes to bragging, the more you work on it, the less likely you are to be overcome by a tsunami of unease. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable. A little preparation will ensure that discomfort doesn’t stand between you and opportunities.