How to Build Your Personal Brand: Q&A With Terri Trespicio

Headshot of Terri Trespicio.

Whether you’re trying to land a new job, gain freelance clients or rise through the ranks of your company, your personal brand matters. Here are tips from branding strategist Terri Trespicio on how (and why) to cultivate a compelling personal brand.

Terri Trespicio coaches creative visionaries, entrepreneurs, businesses figures, freelancers and everyday employees on how to get the attention they want for their work and what to do when they get it. A frequent speaker at professional conferences, Trespicio’s TED Talk on the concept of career passion has been viewed more than 1.3 million times. She’s also the co-creator of Lights Camera Expert, an online program to help industry experts grow their media careers. We chatted with her about the dos and don’ts of personal branding.

What is your definition of the term personal brand?

Terri Trespicio: Your brand is what you do and how you do it, but it’s also why your work matters to someone else. It’s what your work means. It’s that simple. But if you want to get fancy, I say your personal brand is a combination of these things:

1. Your promise (what you say you will deliver)
2. 
Your presence (your personality and energy)
3. ​Your practice (how you plan and execute your work, and how you respond to others)

It’s part what you put out there intentionally, and part reputation and whether you live up to that reputation — or, in some cases, prove that impression wrong.

Your brand is not a logo, a website, a font. It’s not a tagline.

What are the most common mistakes you feel creative professionals make when it comes to building their personal brand?

The biggest mistake? Trying to be all things to all people. The less specific you are, the less special you are, in my mind. The key is to find your zone of genius and amplify that. I find many creative pros are afraid to choose a niche because they think it will limit their role, their business or their income. Wrong. The more specific you are about what you do amazingly well, the more likely you are to be chosen to do that thing.

You argue that personal brand building is just as important for employees as it is for freelancers and job seekers. How so?

Your personal brand is not some jacket you reach for just when you’re about to head out the door. It’s who you are all the time. If you really think you disappear into a company and that you don’t matter as a separate entity when you’re there, well, that doesn’t bode well for your career.

The reason we disregard, neglect or forget that we even have a personal brand is because it’s easier. It’s hard work to maintain and support yourself as an entity, whether you’re inside a larger organization or not. When you decide that your brand doesn’t matter it’s hard to get upset when you get passed over for assignments and promotions, when your work goes by unnoticed, and when you feel invisible. Our brands are our business, no matter who pays you or how much.

I speak to entrepreneurs, freelancers and business owners, but I also do quite a bit of speaking to audiences filled with full-time employees. The idea of “brand” is still relevant because, again, we all want our work contributions to matter regardless of whether it’s an employer or client paying us. Building your brand is really about cultivating a consistent reputation for the creative work you can deliver, and why anyone should care about it.

Far too many people treat their jobs like a parking spot at the mall. They pull in, turn off the engine, and go inside. When it comes time to leave (sometimes years later!), they walk out and don’t remember where they are or even who they are. Sometimes it’s hard to get that engine going again.

Your personal brand is a lifelong investment that’s not tied to any one job or title. And whether you’re changing jobs or shifting careers, the strength of that brand will determine how well you transition and how in demand you are.

The elevator pitch is often mentioned during discussions about personal brands. What are the key components of a killer elevator pitch?

Why do I groan when I hear “elevator pitch?” I think everyone does, probably because no one actually likes being “pitched” per se. People want a sound bite, a snapshot of what you do, yes — but most importantly they want to know why they should care about what you’re saying. 

Whether you’re networking with someone one to one, doing a presentation or introducing yourself to a group, always come at it from the outside in by asking yourself, “What would someone who has zero to go on need to know to keep listening?”

Use language a fifth grader would understand. Explain the services you provide, to whom, and how it benefits the people you serve. Adjust your pitch based on the audience because otherwise it will sound canned. And find a few handy examples or cultural shortcuts to explain who you are and what you’re like. Metaphors create instant meaning for people, so identify a few that work in your favor and use them liberally. “The Uber of (blank)” used to be the thing. I think that moment has passed. Find something else.

And you shouldn’t need a whole minute for your elevator pitch either. In fact, when I make my pitch it takes about 30 seconds.

You said you advise fellow creatives to avoid coming across as “canned.” What do you say to the cynics and skeptics who roll their eyes when they hear the term personal brand? There are some people who seem to view building a personal brand as an obnoxious, inauthentic endeavor.

There’s something about the personal branding conversation that makes eyes roll because it feels too slick, too precious. It can come across as artifice to convince others of something we don’t live up to. People can sniff that out in a heartbeat. That’s why I say you don’t need to — and shouldn’t — explain your brand as this “other” thing, because it’s not. Personal brand is just shorthand for communicating who you are, what you do and how you do it.

When you think about where the term “branding” comes from, it’s when farmers seared their names into the haunches of steer. I don’t know about farming or steer, but if we can get literal for a second, branding is about the impression you give, not some other made-up entity you stick in a box and sell at retail. That means for a brand to make a real impression, it has to be real.

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Photo courtesy of Terri Trespicio.