Selling Yourself is Not The Same Thing as Selling Out

Jimmy Fallon debuts as Tonight Show host with an opening that’s both calculated and authentic

This line in James Poniewozik’s review of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show debut caught my eye:

It’s possible to be 100% genuine yet do it in a way that’s professionally smart.

Poniewozik was observing how savvy Fallon was in the way he introduced himself to the Tonight Show audience, many of whom were sorry to see Jay Leno go and wary of the new guy. Fallon and his writers cherry-picked certain details to share about his background and his team’s backgrounds to help paint a picture of the new host as an affable, down to earth guy, not a shiny East Coast liberal snob. As Poniewozik points out, by all accounts, Fallon actually is an affable, down to earth guy — so this wasn’t an exercise in creating a false impression; rather, it was an exercise in understanding your audience and strategically choosing true details to share to communicate a particular idea to that audience.

This is a huge part of what I do every day as a communications strategy consultant working with nonprofits, independent media companies and other champions of good things. Too many people equate marketing with slickness and lying. I’ll admit that I myself am wary of anyone who works in corporate advertising — I hate that there’s an industry that exists solely to persuade the masses to buy unnecessary products, usually by preying on people’s weaknesses (a fear of being too fat, uncool, unliked). I’ll own that what I do exists on this spectrum, but I do it exclusively for people and companies whom I believe make the world a better place — educators, advocates for health and wellness, independent media makers. And unlike ugly propoganda that perpetuates lies, the communication I do for my clients — whether I’m devising a strategy, editing a blog, or writing website copy — tells the truth. Always. 

The thing is, as I’m sure you know, “the truth” is a broad and varied thing. It’s true that I’m a writer. It’s true that I haven’t brushed my teeth yet today, that I skipped yoga class this morning because I was hungover from a friend’s dinner party, that my heart is focused today on two friends dealing with two very different life milestones: the birth of a new baby, and a divorce.

Which details do I choose to share? If I want to connect with other writers… I’ll emphasize that I spent my morning writing. If I want to seem relatable, I’ll emphasize skipping yoga class and forgetting to brush my teeth. If I want to inspire you, I’ll talk about my friend’s baby, and if I want to connect with other people going through a difficult time, I might talk about my friend’s divorce.

I would be telling the truth in any of these scenarios, and I would be speaking from the heart. My story would be authentic. It would also be strategic. It is possible for these two things to coexist.

This is a hard message to digest for a lot of the freelancers and artists and business owners I know. They are afraid of seeming like a-holes if they promote themselves at all. But what is gained by this passive approach? A sense of virtue? Isn’t there perhaps more virtue in sharing your talents and important work with the world? And if doing so means cherry-picking, as the Tonight Show writers seem to have done, which details to share about yourself, and which ones to emphasize — then maybe marketing yourself is part of how you contribute to the world, instead of a way of selling out.

In other words, as the title of this post suggests: Selling yourself is not the same thing as selling out.

Why did I write this blog post? Because I saw Poniewozik’s article and was struck by how much his observation resonated with what I do for a living. I started to share the article as a tweet but realized I had a lot more to say than what I could fit in 140 characters. And then I thought, Maybe this is a way to help convey what I do — maybe some people will read this and be inclined to check out my company, Good Things Consulting. Maybe for others — for freelancers, artists, or others who need to market themselves but are marketing-averse, or shy — it will simply shift how they think and help them feel slightly more open to proactively building an audience for their work. 

This is my personal blog. It’s not calculated, the way my projects are for clients. In the decade that I’ve been a blogger, I think I could count on two hands the number of times I’ve even written about something related to my work. I used to shy away from writing about my business because I was afraid it would seem self-serving. See? I don’t always practice what I preach. But I’m practicing it now. And I hope it helps.

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