How to toot your own horn

Most people find self-promotion icky and uncomfortable. Here’s how to do it well.
How to toot your own horn

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With the exception of a few super-confident types (including a certain US president), self-promotion often feels fraudulent, arrogant and uncomfortable. Whether it’s encouraging people to come to your show, see your work or hire you, talking yourself up can take a lot of practice.

It happens to everyone

Read: 50 ways to conquer creative self-doubt


The biggest barrier to feeling comfortable with self-promotion is doubting yourself. One thing that prevents people from promoting their own work is the mistaken belief that they, or their work, doesn’t deserve promotion. It can help to remember that everyone from Sigourney Weaver to Andy Warhol have spoken out about their own self-doubt.

‘It definitely doesn't come naturally and most of the time it does feels icky,’ said Tess McCabe, a Melbourne designer and publisher. ‘I think it's because in many aspects of my life I abhor that which is fake, and thereby I assume that everyone else would be able to spot instantly that I was faking anything that I talked up too much. Is that impostor syndrome?’ 

Imposter syndrome is a psychology concept where high-achieving individuals struggle to internalise their accomplishments and have a fear of being exposed as a fraud. It can often strike people who found success early, are just beginning in their careers or who have taken a sharp turn in their career.

Marnie Cunningham began her floristry business Poppy's Getting Married with no formal training or qualifications. ‘It was just a love for flowers, a hobby and some practice/experience that I turned into a business,’ she said. ‘It's taken me three years of hard work, blood sweat and tears to confidently call myself a florist.

‘I always thought I was a bit of a fraud. Self-promotion just feels like I'm talking about myself and as an introvert I've never enjoyed that.’

Letting go of the emotion

Read: Nine ways for women to stop self-sabotaging

Many people in creative industries or self-employment find it difficult to promote their own work, particularly when just starting out. ‘Often the work comes from a personal or emotional place and the fear of rejection or humiliation stands in the way of being too confident about it,’ said McCabe. ‘There's probably a bit of comparison with other creatives too (even though there is always someone more creative and doing something more awesome than you), and that breeds the feeling 'why would anyone care about me and my work?'

Cunningham agrees. ‘As a small business/sole-trader it's hard to separate yourself from your work, so by promoting your business you feel as though you're talking yourself up and saying how great you are. What you're really saying is: “I'm great at what I do”, and that's not just okay, it's necessary.’ 

Difficulty with self-promotion can often strike women more than men. Part of this is because women are socialised to believe that men have professions and women have hobbies, and there is less visibility for women in creative and professional industries.

‘It’s strange — even though self-promotion gives me some anxiety — I don’t usually mind when others do it. Especially women. Maybe that’s unfair,’ writer Lauren Bans told The Cut last year. ‘A real brassy female show-off is like a rare unicorn. I want to pet her.’

It doesn’t help that our brains actively try to resist self- promotion. 

Psychologists have found that we also tend to overestimate how much others are paying attention to us. This is known as the “spotlight effect.” We think people are watching our every move and silently judging us, when in reality they are instead focused on what we are thinking of them.

Use the interwebs

Read: Why we are burning out in the arts

The days of awkward networking events where you were forced to make small talk and distribute business cards are mostly over, as introverts or people who are not naturally confident can turn to social media to make connections and promote themselves without the need for face-to-face confrontation.

'Online you can pretend to be whoever you want to be,' said Cunningham. ‘I often self-promote on Instagram or Facebook saying 'we' or come and check 'us' out as though there is a great big team behind the brand and not just me sitting in bed with my laptop replying to emails a week late.’

McCabe agrees that social media has made self-promotion easier. ‘Definitely - we are able to hide behind the screen, revel in the 'likes' and nice comments, and be sheltered from people who make a funny face when they first see our work.’

Social media can also make self-promotion feel even more contrived. Because we all have a megaphone and therefore feel like we have something to say, it can be easy to post a barrage of flattering reviews and positive feedback and consider it done.

But effective promotion on social media is about engagement not just retweeting the accolades.

Developing a community of followers – and clients – means striking a balance between sharing behind-the-scenes snippets, asking questions of your followers and maintaining a conversation. The most effective social media self-promotion is subtle, which makes it more enjoyable for you, too.

Make it yours

Find a way to self-promote using your own voice in a way that you feel comfortable with. It can help to focus on the work you create, not on yourself as a person.

‘Create a 'loophole' for yourself - mine is self-deprecation,’ said McCabe. ‘That seems to even out the grossness of self-promotion talk. Being authentic and honest about stuff, whilst being relatable to others, is also a good way to talk about your work in a way that doesn't feel sale-sy.

‘And also, create work that YOU like and you would consume... that way you know it's coming from an honest place and it makes it easier to promote.’

Cunningham found it was helpful to place herself among similar businesses and brands.

‘I gained confidence after putting myself out there through marketing, social media, advertising and promotion at a wedding fair,’ she said. ‘Looking around, I was suddenly alongside other great brands, artists and florists who I admired in the field and that helped to make me feel less of a fraud.

‘Social media is a great place to start. That instant gratification you get from 'likes' is not to be underestimated.’ 

Emma Clark Gratton

Thursday 15 June, 2017

About the author

Emma Clark Gratton is an ArtsHub staff writer.