Ask the Expert

The College of General Studies’ some 25,000 alumni are an impressive bunch, working in nearly every field imaginable: health care, advertising, film, law, education, ecology, politics, and more. In our “Ask the Expert” series, we invite individual alumni to share their expertise—from the practical to the peculiar, and everything in between—with Collegian readers. In this installment, we tap the knowledge of entrepreneur, author, and marketing consultant Peter Shankman (CGS’92, COM’94).

How can I improve my personal brand?

Follow these five tips, and you’ll always make a positive impression.

Once upon a time, I helped Tony Bennett with some public relations work for a nonprofit he was involved in. The one thing I remember more than anything else from my time with him was that he stood up when a woman got up from or returned to the table. No matter what else happened, he was old school like that, and old school was remembered.

My longest relationship wasn’t even going to have a second date until I did two things—I asked about my date’s day, and I stood up when she left for the bathroom.

Below, let’s discuss some of the little things you can do that make a big, big impression when people are least expecting you to.

Peter Shankman is a frequent speaker at business conferences and tradeshows worldwide and is the author of two books, Can We Do That?! Outrageous PR Stunts That Work—and Why Your Company Needs Them (Wiley and Sons, 2006) and Customer Service: New Rules for a Social-Enabled World (Que/Pearson, 2010). He blogs at Find videos from Shankman’s recent Boston University appearances on BUniverse.

1. Pay attention. This is probably the simplest one to say, yet the hardest one to implement. Think about it: when was the last time you listened to someone talk and actually comprehended what they were saying, as opposed to waiting for a break so you could start to talk? The thing about a conversation is, it takes actual work. It’s so much easier to listen while nodding your head and checking your BlackBerry, or wondering what you’re going to do for dinner. But at the end of the day, that won’t help you. Listen to what someone says and make notes about key points. Asking about those key points later, or following up on them, separates you from the rest of the people we talk to on a daily basis.

2. Separate yourself from the pack. The pack is stupid. Accept that and be better than the pack. That means doing things your mom (and Tony Bennett) taught you. Stand up when a woman approaches the table. (This obviously doesn’t go for women.) Someone older than you? Sir or ma’am never hurts. (Ma’am can be dangerous, giving the impression you think she’s too old. Imagine doing it with a tip of a cowboy hat, if you wore a cowboy hat.) Be the person who makes the introductions. “Sam, have you met Michelle? Both of you are into gastrointestinal research.” You’ve become, at least, the connector, at best, the person who gets to take the bow when Sam and Michelle get married.

3. Be the go-to guy or gal. You have a purse or a pocket? Here’s what should be in it, at all times. Gum or mints. Two dollars’ worth of quarters. A safety pin and a paper clip. If you have the space, a small multi-tool with a corkscrew. Obviously, a pen and a small notebook (Navy SEALs are required to carry paper and pencil at all times). A few business cards (preferably not creased or stained). And finally, an emergency credit card and a folded-up $50 bill. True story: I was once on a plane and sitting next to a lovely young woman I’d met in-flight. When we got to the taxi line, she found she’d lost her purse. Gone. We tried to go back to the gate, but no luck. The airline told her they’d look for it. I gave her a business card, and my lucky $50 for her to get home. She called me that night; the airline had found her purse, and did I want to be her guest at a benefit dinner the next night at the Wynn hotel? As I hung out with this young lady, met Seal and a host of other celebrities to whom she introduced me as “the wonderful man who saved her at the airport,” I had a lovely, lovely time. I also made some great new friends and several future clients. Oh, and she paid back the $50.

4. Keep a mirror-image bag at your office or the place where you spend the most time outside your home. A mirror-image bag is as simple as it sounds: a bag with enough necessities to get you through 48 hours of extended away time. A suit if you wear them, a freshly pressed shirt and pair of jeans if you don’t. Toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, underwear, socks, and (important) aftershave or perfume. One of my favorite scenes in True Lies is where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets out of his wetsuit, dons a tuxedo, and has a little compartment for cologne. You always want to be the person most put together in a situation where no one expects to have to be put together. This gets you remembered, not simply recalled.

5. Remember: Your brand is 24/7 and is everything you do. You no longer have the luxury of being able to do stupid things and think that no one will see them. Your brand is a constant DVR of every single one of your actions, and thanks to the Internet and social media, anyone can pause, rewind, and play back your greatest (read: stupidest) hits at any time. Getting beyond drunk at a party? It’s a guarantee that there are countless people with cell-video cameras uploading your stupidity to Facebook as you do it. Get into a screaming match with your boss? Trust me, it’s on YouTube. It’s not a lot harder to lie, but it’s impossible to get away with the lie anymore. You simply have to be smarter. The good news, though, is that very few people will actually heed this advice. So if you do, you’re a step ahead of the pack to begin with. And in the end, chances are, that’s all you need.

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