Need a good pithy self-descriptor to put on your business card?
Before you cast your net for an eye-catching and accurately representative adjective to describe your personal business style, a word of warning. Some personal branding adjectives have been so overused they have become non-words: practically invisible or downright off-putting. Using these adjectives as descriptors for your services or your approach to your industry, whether that’s writing, editing, or something else, is basically like admitting you haven’t taken the time or don’t have the necessary experience to create a personal brand that is committed to standing out and effectively filling a need.
In order to avoid becoming just white noise in a sea of people trying to promote themselves in person and online, avoid these ten cliches like the plague. (See what I did there?)
Almost every personal branding and marketing expert agrees that you should not be calling yourself a “guru.” Reputation strategist Davia Temin says that “a random walk through LinkedIn profiles will reveal an unending parade of self-descriptions that are guaranteed to turn off any mainstream potential employer.” Guru is top on her list of things that “are only things others may call you; you can never, ever, say them about yourself.”
Besides being a little too braggadocious, guru also could be seen as cultural appropriation. Actual gurus are part of the Sikh religion, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. While it’s effectively entered realm of hackneyed business colloquialism, it still is potentially insulting. The last thing you want to do when trying to make a first impression is make someone wince.
This doesn’t even really make sense. Ninjas are silent, acrobatic assassins from feudal Japan. (There’s also a historic element of dishonor that accompanied ninjas, whose methods of covert warfare were seen as beneath the Samurai.) How that relates at all — especially positively — to your ability to develop content or sell a product might evade potential clients. Also, forgive the pedantry, but ninjas probably wouldn’t advertise themselves as ninjas to begin with. Combined with the fact this term is also potentially culturally appropriative, I’d suggest definitely avoiding it in the future.
Maybe let’s just stop with the references to Eastern mystics and warriors altogether? Also, unless your marketing job somehow requires divination, ritualistic healing, or contact with the spirit world, potential clients might be a bit unclear about why you’re calling yourself a “shaman.” And if you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know what a shaman is or what one does, the adjective is not bringing anything helpful to the table.
I once took an online course on the history of intellectual property and copyright law. After every lesson video, the instructor would say: “You’re one step closer to becoming a copyright maven.” Every single time, I winced. This is just one of the words that rub me the wrong way, and I know for a fact I’m not the only person who considers it “barftastic.”
It’s also super overused. According to one poll, more people are calling themselves “maven” (21,928) on social media than any other self-branding adjective (“Ninja” is second with 21,876). Advertising and marketing adviser Chris Matyszczyk blames Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point for this word and considers it one of the worst things you can call yourself on LinkedIn.
It doesn’t matter if you’re addicted to something positive like “results” or “leads” or “productivity” or even something benign like “coffee” or “words.” The word “addict” has negative connotations (and could even be insulting or off-putting to someone who has personally dealt with or knows someone battling addiction). It also suggests a certain lack of self-discipline or overall gravitas, which is never a great foot to start out on.
#6. Thought Leader
Thought leader, I’ve noticed, is a growing trend among the more serious personal branders. You might not be the type to call yourself a “guru” or an “addict,” but “thought leader” has a kind of authoritative, Gen-Y ring to it. But it turns out the phrase is problematic, and has become something of a much-hated cliche itself.
Business coach and industrial psychology writer Steve Nguyen says: “I cringe every time I see the words “thought leader” or “thought leadership” on a website or by a person’s name.” Why? Because people don’t call themselves thought leaders, they get called thought leaders by other people.
Cheryl Kim writes in the Financial Post that “most people talking about thought leadership have no clue what it means. And most content labeled as ‘thought leadership’ is actually missing the elements of both ‘thought’ and ‘leadership’.” Meanwhile, LinkedIn influencer and ghostwriter for actual thought leaders Bruce Kasanoff says you should never, ever call yourself a thought leader, likening it to when Wile E. Coyote pulls out a business card that simply reads: “Genius.”
This one is super problematic. Not only does it co-opt and commercialize a term that is used to describe a syndrome concurrent with certain developmental disabilities, it also simplifies and stereotypes the term. Ableism is unfortunately not something that is talked about very much, so it makes sense that this descriptor gets used as frequently as it does without backlash. The success of movies like Rain Man, influenced by real life savants like Kim Peek, also explains this phenomenon. However, unless you are actually a savant and are struggling to overcome being born without part of your cerebellum or corpus callosum, I’d suggest not advertising as one.
#8. Rock Star
Esquire expressed confusion about the use of “rock star” as a positive qualifier for a professional, saying that “rock stars — real ones — are an odd choice for mass mimicry. When we did have them, they weren’t considered pillars of the community or anything.” They’re not the only ones to make this association: “A rock star is an heroin-addicted egotistical maniac who rakes up enormous hotel bills by throwing TVs out the window and has clauses in their employment contract like ‘my poodle requires a foot massage by a 6’2″ Russian model.’”
Also, to me, this descriptor sounds super dated. Kind of like what your dad would say if he were proud of your report card back in the 1980’s.
Oh, stop. Besides being pretentious and hard to spell, being a “connoisseur” automatically positions you as a passive recipient, a judge of others’ work. Accurate or not, connoisseurs are not viewed as hard-working or willing to put their noses to the grind stone. Connoisseurs sip expensive beverages.
Kind of like “thought leader,” the descriptor “expert” seems like a good, professional fit. A bit bland, perhaps, but innocuous enough to keep you out of trouble with the self-branding police. However, there are still a few issues with this word. First, so many people call themselves an expert that it’s basically a non-word. Why use a word to set you apart that will only serve to make you blend in with the crowd?
Secondly, similarly to “thought leader,” this is something that other people should be saying about you. Organizational consultant Justin Bariso says “a self-proclaimed title is the last thing that will help” when trying to brand yourself. The website Job Mob reminds readers that they will need to prove they are an expert by providing recognized credentials, many testimonials, referrals by other experts, and a proven track record of success, among other things. Unless you have all these things — unless it is industry consensus that you are an expert — it’s probably safer not to call yourself one.
What Are Some Personal Branding Adjectives That Work Well?
Now that you know ten descriptors to stay away from, you might be wondering how you should be branding yourself. The key is to stay away from any adjectives that currently oversaturate the market, or that spark problematic or confusing connotations. Instead, try reaching for an adjective that:
A) Sparks a question — “Oh, what does that mean?” is a great way to keep a conversation with a potential client or connection going.
B) Sounds proactive — Words like “creator,” “developer,” or “generator” imply a certain level of energy that some of these other adjectives lack.
C) Isn’t overused — Come up with your own job title that is as fresh and unique as the service you offer.
What are you calling yourself as you start your personal branding journey? Are there any personal branding adjectives that you particularly like or dislike? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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