What Do People Say About You When You Leave the Room?

“Brand” is another word for reputation, and we all have one, according to marketing strategy consultant Dorie Clark. Whether we think so or not, we have a personal brand that defines us in the eyes of others.

“People think something about you,” Clark says. “You’re not a tabula rasa.” The trick, she says, is to figure out if there is a gap between how you want to be perceived and what people say about you when you leave the room.

Closing that gap is where the work of personal branding comes in, according to Clark, CEO of Clark Strategic Communications. Forbes.com says she “has hit the ball out of the park” with her book on the subject, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

Clark knows a little something about reinventing the self. She grew up in Pinehurst, N.C., a tiny town of 3,000 where she says everyone watched the same TV shows and nothing ever happened. She read a lot, played sports and dreamed of being a spy.  

At 14, she went off to Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., to a special academic program for teenage girls, and two years later, transferred to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., which she describes as the “best town in America.” She graduated with a degree in philosophy at the age of 18.

She says she loved accelerating at that rate. “I was incredibly happy because, as a kid, I always felt a little older than I was chronologically.” Early on, Clark understood who she was, and has been both optimistic and fearless in her efforts to move herself into spaces where her strengths take root.

At Smith, the study of philosophy opened up “big, what’s-the-meaning-of-life questions” that fascinated her, spurring her on to pursue a master’s degree in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School. After a brief stint in journalism, Clark turned her energies to marketing, where she says her habit of probing the truth about individual existence has shaped her philosophy about marketing the self.

“You hear all the time — so much that it’s like a mantra — that the secret of success in social media and marketing is authenticity,” Clark says. “How do you have an authentic voice? If you really dig down and engage with that question as more than a cliché, it very quickly leads you to questions about life.”

A tough economy can also turn people philosophical as they try to position themselves within the clamor of job ads and self-promotion that crowds the Internet. But Clark says we must resist the temptation to worry about where we fit into all this complexity.

“Since the 2008 recession, employers have the upper hand,” she says. “Many of them feel that they can or want to wait and be picky and hold off for the absolute perfect candidate who fits 10 different criteria for a job. If you’re trying to compete on the axis of those 10 ten criteria, then you have bought into their narrative.”

The only way to fight back, according to Clark, is to be different, be exceptional, be famous within our own realm: “We have to become so well known on our own terms that the balance of power shifts.”

This is where authenticity comes in, she says, because it is the core of the personal branding that distinguishes us in the market. “The first really critical step is reckoning with who you are, what you’re like, what you care about, and what you’re capable of. You can never be authentic if you don’t understand who you are.”

It’s not about bragging, she says, but about manifesting our strengths and taking charge of our own narrative.  Being proactive about “showing your stuff” is challenging and time-consuming, she acknowledges, but in the context of today’s media-rich employment market, it is also critical.

“There is more work involved in having a good professional reputation than 20 years ago,” she says. “Most people don’t know how to successfully do personal branding, and they are not going to put in the effort to learn how. But if you do, that immediately sets you far, far ahead of the competition.”