Alba Sort MCIL looks at personal branding in a digital age

First published in The Linguist 56/4

The rise of digital has brought substantial changes to the way language professionals market and sell their services. Improved internet connections worldwide, and the boom of freelance sites, have increased competition. At the same time, online searches have become pervasive. The chances are that your potential clients and partners will type your name into a search engine to find out more about you before they get in touch. Both changes are fuelling the importance of personal branding.

It used to be the case that you had a professional reputation; your clients knew how you worked and would tell others about it. But to stand out in today’s environment, you need to ‘supercharge’ your reputation. A personal brand does just that: it helps you differentiate yourself from your competitors and enhances the perception that others have of you. The difference is subtle but significant: a brand communicates the value you offer in a punchy way, adding sharpness to your unique set of skills, values and experience, and making you more memorable.

The good news is that today it’s easier than ever to build a personal brand. But before you start, you need to do some thinking. Consider what your brand stands for: what do you do and how do you do it? What combination of talents, knowledge and expertise do you bring to the table? Think about your ideal client. Who are they and what problem do you solve for them? How do you add value to their lives or businesses? And don’t forget your competitors. What makes you different from them? What do you better than anyone else?

The answer to these questions will give you your brand statement, which is useful for many reasons. A brand statement can help guide your business, so you never lose sight of your vision. It gives you clarity when you present yourself to the world. You can add it to your CV and social media profiles to ensure you stay consistent across all channels and mediums. You can also use it as your ‘elevator pitch’, and when networking, to ensure that you never falter when someone asks you what you do.

Crafting a story

Your brand doesn’t exist in isolation; it should reflect both your values and your personality. Your values are your internal compass and determine your attitudes, choices and actions. What is important to you? What gives you a sense of direction? Is it loyalty, compassion, respect, innovation, reliability, intuition, leadership, independence, stability, freedom? Your brand personality is closely linked to the way you communicate. Think how your clients, peers and professional contacts would describe you. Are you bubbly? Razor-sharp? Creative? Motivated? Thorough? Direct?

Next, you need to craft your brand story. Explaining who you are, what you do and why, with honesty, transparency and coherence, can help you appeal to others. How did you get started? Why do you specialise in certain areas? Was there a turning point? Who have you worked with and what did you do for them? What have you learnt along the way? Human beings are hardwired to love storytelling, so a solid narrative will make you more memorable, and act as a reminder of how uniquely positioned you are to help your clients. You can use your brand story on your website, and whenever you have the chance to engage at a deeper level. Remember, people buy from people – people they know, like and trust – and a strong story can help you connect with your target audience.

Working with style

Once you’ve set the groundwork for your brand, consider your brand style. A good start is to be consistent in the use of fonts and colour palettes, but other things matter as well. What’s your tone of voice when communicating with your audience? Are you serious, cheeky, self-deprecating? Don’t force yourself to sound ‘corporate’ if you’re a hippie at heart. Your voice should be consistent with your values and personality – it will be much less work for you, and you’ll effortlessly come across as authentic.

Getting professional help to define your brand style is worth it. However, if you feel you can’t afford it just yet and are reasonably confident about your design skills, many free online resources and tools can help you – from articles on branding to colour palette generators and design tools such as Canva.

Cover all spaces

Next, it’s time to roll out your brand across all your professional assets. First, you will need good headshots and images. We live in a visual world, so professional quality photographs make a huge difference to your credibility. They don’t come cheap, but if you know a photographer, you could offer a labour exchange. A friend of mine who has worked as a portrait photographer agreed to deliver a comprehensive set of headshots in exchange for marketing coaching sessions.

Make sure any premises or spaces that you own, both online and offline, reflect your brand. Premises in the real world may be an office that is open to the public or a stand at a professional event. Online spaces are very diverse and may include a website, blog, online portfolio, social media profiles, directory profiles and entries in third-party sites. All of them need to be consistent with your brand.

Few things do a better job at giving your brand credibility than quotes and testimonials from third parties. Approach current and former clients, partners and colleagues for referrals and endorsements. LinkedIn has a built-in feature to collect recommendations from people in your network, but remember to ask for permission if you want to use them elsewhere. See every compliment as an opportunity to get an endorsement – if someone is happy with your work, they are unlikely to object to your request.

Content with content

You may have heard that content is king in the world of digital marketing, and this is mainly due to the importance of online searches. As your brand manager, it’s up to you to monitor the online search results that appear for your name. Keeping your online brand presence consistent, and updating your online spaces with unique, quality content on a regular basis, will help you gain exposure on search engines.

Content comes in all shapes and sizes. Blogs are ideal, but if writing doesn’t come naturally to you, look at other options. It may be that you like taking photographs of the progress you’re making on projects, or perhaps you’re a fan of microblogging. You may decide that a blog requires too much commitment, and opt instead to publish on reputable third-party blogs, industry websites or established publishing platforms such as LinkedIn Publishing and Medium.

Generating content is only half the battle; you need to disseminate it afterwards, which is where your networks come in. Building and maintaining a strong network, both online and offline, is paramount in your professional life. Keeping in touch with your existing contacts is just the beginning; you have to go where your clients, partners and colleagues go. Events – from conferences and training sessions to local networking opportunities – are a good bet. Online there is a host of possibilities, including closed industry groups and forums, networks built around online publications and industry blogs. If used wisely, social media can also be a valuable tool to build your online networks.

Crafting a personal brand requires a good deal of reflection and some serious action. Invest some time into thinking about what you have to offer the world, what matters to you, who you are and what your story is. Define a brand style that fits with all of this. Build or update all of your assets, so they are consistent with your brand. Enhance your credibility with the help of third parties. Finally, get out there, grow your network and engage with others. It may seem like a big investment, but you will reap the benefits of having a good personal brand for years to come.