Photo by raneko
A few years ago I felt like a liability to my business.
I was working as a consultant, running coaching and training programs for large corporations. I worked really hard to do a professional job and project a professional image.
I had a smart suit, smart shirt and tie, and carried a smart briefcase. We had a professional logo on our business cards, brochures and slide deck.
And I’d learned enough business lingo to understand what people were talking about, and couch my suggestions in terms they understood.
But I had a secret.
I was a poet.
In case you’re wondering, this isn’t the kind of thing that will help you bond with a group of middle managers or warehouse foremen on a wet Monday morning. So I kept it quiet.
I also tried to keep a lid on my flights of fancy during training sessions. But they kept slipping out – I’d get bored with the usual corporate anecdotes, and illustrate my point by drawing an analogy with aliens, or cavemen, or those little creatures that live in volcanic chimneys at the bottom of the ocean and aren’t dependent on sunlight for their energy.
One time this happened, I noticed the blank stares and asked the assembled managers:
Tell me honestly: Do I seem a bit strange to you?
They all nodded, smiling sympathetically.
I finally took the hint, took off the suit and went to work in the creative industries. It was a relief to ‘come out’ as a poet and start talking about my creative enthusiasms to people who actually shared them.
I remember my first sales call under my new identity – to Chris Arnold, creative director and founding partner of an ad agency.
When I told Chris I wanted to help his team develop their creativity, he was pretty blunt:
Chris: Do you do anything creative yourself, or are you one of these consultants who just tells other people how to be creative?
Me: Well, I write poetry…
Chris: [Bursts out laughing] I’ve never had a sales call from a poet before! Why don’t you come in for a chat?
What had once been a liability was now an asset.
Reveal What’s Already There
I was by no means the first creative person to discover the benefits of revealing a little more of the ‘real me’.
The Beatles did pretty well as loveable mop-tops, but they became a lot more interesting when the took off the matching suits and let down their hair.
Kraftwerk released three experimental albums in the so-called ‘Krautrock’ style before getting into their electro-pop stride with Autobahn, appearing on stage immobile behind synthesizers, their voices distorted by vocoder effects.
The technical term for projecting an image like this is ‘branding’. Now you probably hate the word ‘brand’ as much as I do, because of its horrible advertising associations.
But I’m not talking about dreaming up some tacky marketing gimmick. Just being aware that when you go out into the world as an artist, creator or small business owner, you inevitably project some kind of public image – and it’s in your interest to make sure it’s an image you’re comfortable with, that communicates what you’re all about.
And the thing is, if you’re a creative person, chances there are already aspects of your character or your business that would make you fascinating and charming to the right people – if they knew about them.
So rather than try to concoct an artificial ‘brand’ based on the way you think you’re supposed to be, I suggest you have a good look at what makes you genuinely unique and different – and find a way to communicate that to your audience.
When you focus on revealing what’s already there, instead of adding on something extra, your branding becomes a revelation.
A Creative Brand Is Born
Jarie Bolander had a decent website going over at TheDailyMBA.com, writing about innovation, entrepreneurship and technical management. Jarie really knows his stuff, and he was putting out some solid advice. But he felt he wasn’t reaching his full potential and couldn’t put his finger on what he needed.
This was the scenario Jarie emailed me, for one of the Orienteering sessions for my Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap program.
Looking at his site, I was impressed by his writing and passion for his subject. But I agreed that he wasn’t quite grabbing his readers by the scruff of the neck.
Then I read this:
I am an Endurance Athlete: Which means I spend a inordinate amount of time working out. This frustrates my wife to no end since she can’t figure out why I am not rail thin. The truth is, I eat like crap. I’m working on fixing that but it’s hard as hell since that is one of the benefits of working out so much.
Now I was intrigued. I felt I had a glimpse of a real person, full of enthusiasms and energy, who was probably a lot of fun to be around. Even the fact he could be frustrating was endearing – at a distance. 🙂
“So what exactly is endurance athletics?” I asked him.
It’s basically any athletics event that is so demanding you have to eat while you’re doing it in order to finish.
Now I was fascinated. I’d never done anything like that. I didn’t know anyone else who had done anything like that.
Why would you want to do that?
What’s it like?
How do you get through it?
Is it popular?
Are you mad?
The questions kept coming. This is a genuinely fascinating subject – even if, like me, you have no intention of ever doing an endurance athletics event yourself.
And as Jarie pointed out, “Being an endurance athlete is great training for managing innovation and technical people.”
- Sometimes, it’s just not your day: There are days that seem to drag on and go nowhere. Your heart is just not into it and you want to stop. This struggle makes you stronger if you don’t let it kill you.
- Attitude is everything: I have competed with blind people, one-armed people, one-legged people and even people in wheelchairs. All had a great attitude. They took what life gave them and ran with it. No excuses. No complaints.
- We are all in this together: The best part about competitions are the complete strangers that cheer you on and your fellow athletes. For some reason, it always happens when I want to give up or stop. Encouraging people allows us to prop each other up. It’s infectious. Their success is our success.
When you put it like that, endurance athletics is the perfect metaphor for leadership – or come to that, for achieving anything significant. It demands commitment, persistence, practice, cameraderie, a sense of humour and the ability to endure pain for long periods.
“Jarie”, I said to him, “you have to do something with this”. We batted the idea back and forth via email and some coaching sessions, and worked it up into a new identity for his next venture:
EnduranceLeader.com was born.
Once he took this aspect of his character and placed it centre stage, several things happened for Jarie:
He got to paint his site in snazzy colours
The Endurance Leader logo and theme isn’t designed for harmony. It’s jazzy and snazzy and in-your-face, like the sight of athletes running past in day-glo running kit, proclaiming how fit and active and pushing-the-limits they are, compared to the rest of us bumbling along on in our comfort zone on the pavement. Like it or not, you notice it.
His creativity was unleashed
Jarie found endurance athletics-themed ideas for articles pouring out of him, including:
- The Endurance Athlete’s Creed
- 7 Leadership Mantras Honed By Endurance Athletes
- 52 Marathons in 52 Weeks: on the Road with Endorphin Dude
- 3 Letters Every Endurance Athlete Dreads and So Should You
He has a sustainable source of energy for his business
One of the biggest challenge facing creative freelancers and entrepreneurs is simply keeping going, month after month, in the face of distractions, obstacles, pain and adverse conditions.
And if Jarie doesn’t know about that stuff from running, cycling and swimming ridiculously long courses in all weathers, I don’t know who does.
So not only does the Endurance Leader brand give Jarie the chance to enthuse about one of his favourite topics, it allows him to harness all the learnings he’s gained through his athletics for the benefit of his business – and his audience.
How to Reveal Your Own Creative Brand
Here are some questions to help you identify the quirky, fascinating, charming or plain odd aspects of your personality or company that can help you reveal a more enticing image to your audience:
What are your passions?
Have you ever been the odd-one-out in a group? What made you different?
Do you have a secret passion, that you only reveal to trusted friends?
What stories do your friends keep repeating about you?
Do you ever bore your friends and family with your enthusiasms? Is there another group of people who could be charmed by them?
What do your customers or clients say about you – especially when they are referring new business to you?
Who Can You Be Now?
Who or what are your favourite creative personalities or brands?
Have you ever reinvented your public image?
How do you like the idea of revealing a new dimension of yourself in your communications?