Getting ahead and avoiding rejection in the job market is all about knowing what you’ve got to sell: yourself. Read on for the Real World Guide to creating your personal brand
Can you talk convincingly for 60 seconds about your skills and why an employer should hire you? If you can’t, you are not alone, says careers adviser Caroline Haddon. "Very few graduate job hunters spend enough time getting to know themselves and what they have to sell in the job market," she says. "But with so many graduates with similar qualifications, it’s the difference between rejection and selection." On Graduate Futures, a four-week career management course for graduates run by Staffordshire University, one of the first exercises that graduates undertake is developing a one-minute pitch to sell themselves to an employer. "We call it the verbal business card," says Caroline, who is the course tutor. She finds that few graduates are able to talk at any length about what they are good at and what skills they have. "I think the worst we’ve ever had was someone who lasted 12 seconds," she says. "Usually the pitch is quite vague and imprecise. While they usually manage to get across that they are a nice person, this isn’t what employers want to hear and isn’t relevant to the job hunt."
Other mistakes, Caroline says, include talking about skills or attributes that are unrelated to the job or the employer. This means that in a short meeting, at a careers fair or employer presentation, many graduates fail to make an impression. "To sell yourself effectively you need to know what they are looking for," she emphasises, "this means research."
Welcome to the world of career branding…
American career guru Tom Peters, author of The Brand You, says that selling yourself effectively is a question of defining who you are, what is unique about you, and why you should be sought out. Rather than a cynical exercise in trying to sell yourself it’s about uncovering what you want to do.
"Regardless of age, position or the business we happen to be in, we all need to understand the importance of branding. We are the CEOs of our own company – Me, Inc.," he says. "You don’t ‘belong’ to any company. You’re not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description." Your CV, application and your behaviour in the interview all need to reflect your brand, he says. Sounds a bit up in the air? It’s not, says Joaty Bajwa, 23. "Knowing what you have to offer and what you want to do before you launch yourself into the job market will help you avoid rejection," she says. And she knows.
After finishing a four-year BA in International Business at Manchester Metropolitan university in 2005, she hadn’t found a job. "I’d applied for loads of schemes and spent a lot of time job hunting in my final year, but although I was getting to interview and assessment-centres something was always wrong," she says. "By the time I graduated my confidence was low and I didn’t know what I wanted to do any more."
What was wrong, Joaty realised later with the help of a careers service, was that she’d never spent any time breaking down what she was applying for and why. Once she’d understood this and spent some time really focusing on it, she almost immediately applied and was accepted to an 18-month graduate training position at Rentokil International. Now, with hindsight, she advises making use of your university career service, which can often help with personality tests and learning style questionnaires.
Abi Senthilkumaran, 21, found that developing her pitch also provided the catalyst for deciding what she’d like to do. After graduating from Oxford University with a 2:1 in Philosophy, Politics and Economics without "a clue what to do" Abi says she started to panic. "At one point I thought I should do what a lot of people do which is just find the first job on offer, even if it’s one I don’t want to do."
After hearing about the Graduate Futures course through her careers service, she was forced to spend time really thinking about what she wanted to get out of work and had to offer.
"Talking about myself in front of a group was scary but I found the more I did it, the better it got and the more confident I was," she says. "I realised that I didn’t want to work for a big corporation. I wanted to spend a lot of my time thinking on a theoretical level." She’s now secured an internship with think-tank Policy Exchange. "I wouldn’t have got this position before," she says. "Doing my research and knowing what I have to offer and how to present that has made a major difference to my confidence."
It’s not surprising that many graduates lack direction and confidence, says Caroline, university alone is rarely the best preparation for the world of work. "This is where the idea of considering yourself as a brand can be useful -but it must be truthful or you are not doing yourself or anyone else any favours."
*For information on Graduate Futures, which is free to job-hunting gradates in the UK, visit www.staffs.ac.uk
Five steps for building and strengthening your career brand
Step 1. Define your brand
You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop, says Tom Peters, author of The Brand You. To start thinking like a brand manager, ask yourself the following: What is it that my product or service does that makes it different? Take yourself through a few basic steps to identify your personal brand: this means thinking about what you’d like to do as well as what you have to offer employers. Look at recurring themes in your life so far in academia, your social life or at work, think about times that you’ve done well, have received positive feedback and when you were happiest and most fulfilled. Write these down and then try to hone it down to just 15-20 words. This is your pitch or your sales brand. Spend time on this part: it’s important. But if your answer wouldn’t light up the eyes of a prospective employer or if it doesn’t grab you, then you’ve got a problem, says Tom. It’s time to give some serious thought to what will get you out of bed in the morning.
Step 2. Support your brand
Take a look at your CV. It shouldn’t just be a list of your accomplishments. Really spend some time thinking about what your achievements say about you. What are you trying to sell to the employer? You could just write that you spent two weeks doing work experience at a local marketing firm but what skills did you learn, and how do they support the image you’re trying to project?
Step 3. Become visible
Big brands have multi-million pound TV and print campaigns designed to get billions of "impressions" of their brand in front of the consuming public, says Tom. You’ve got the same need for visibility — but no budget to buy it. So think careers fairs, employer meetings and informational interviews.
Step 4. Enhance your profile
Do something that connects with the outside world. Sign up for voluntary work as a way of introducing yourself to new people and learning new skills. Look for work experience or consider work shadowing, as it will put you in contact with a new range of people. Convince them that you are enthusiastic and willing and they may consider you if a job comes up.
Step 5. Word-of-mouth marketing
"Your network of friends, colleagues and customers is the most important marketing vehicle you’ve got.What they say about you and your contributions is what the market will ultimately gauge as the value of your brand," says Tom Peters.
Just as with a product, says Louise Fletcher, US based careers adviser at blueskyresumes.com, your brand positioning must be:
"Successful brands resonate with the consumer – trying to be something you are not just because it matters to your audience won’t work in the long term," she says. Or in the short term for that matter.
Check and double check that you can support everything that you have claimed. If you say that you are an "excellent communicator" then what have you got to prove that? Look at your CV – what in that backs up your claim. Have you held any roles where you’ve had to use exceptional communication skills. And what will you say asked to prove that you have these skills?
The temptation is to try to make yourself look like an all-round star but while you may have many strengths and talents, don’t be tempted to focus on more than one or two, says Louise, or you will dilute your message. "When Apple launched the new iPod, there were many great features to highlight, but I was struck by the simple stripped down approach they took to the positioning of the product."
4. Relevant to your target market.
"Select those abilities and qualities that are relevant to the needs of your audience of potential employers," she says. Getting to know your target market involves quite a bit of research but is vital if you are to sell yourself effectively. Plus, you really want to know that the job will suit you. Try to speak to someone who is already in that company or role.
5. Compelling and unique.
"This is essential in order to make a connection with others," says Louise. "Avoid clichés and don’t try to copy a resumé or words from someone else. Your presentation – both in writing and in person – should be your own."