I don’t know how to sell myself

Bisila Bokoko

How to sell yourself at work, in life, to the world

“I don’t know how to sell myself” is a common statement that I hear all of the time. People ask me, “I have been in business for a long time, I have great experience, and I know I am good at what I do, so how do I market myself? How do I get out there?”

I have had this conversation with professionals, entrepreneurs, CEOs, artists, college graduates, and mentees. Knowing how to sell oneself is a challenge for many people in all walks of life.

I have observed that the dimension of this issue varies by culture. Some cultures are more receptive than others are to the concept of selling themselves. For example, in the US it is not perceived as a sign of arrogance to sell yourself openly and show others your gifts and skills. As a matter of fact, this is what you are supposed to do! In Spain and in the Latin American culture, if you sell yourself out loud, you are at risk of being considered too full of yourself.

A few years ago, I watched a motivational video of Oprah Winfrey in which she said, “I consider it a compliment that I am full of myself”. What she meant is that when you are full you are overflowing, and you have so much to offer, so much to give. When she is full of herself, she is also not afraid of “honoring” herself—meaning stepping into her own power. Isn’t that what is required in order to be able to sell ourselves? 

Growing up, I could not help being noticed. Since I was born in Spain to an African immigrant family, I was the only black student in school, and I stood out in a crowd.  Instead, I desired to fit in and to be like the others. I had no interest in standing out. This led to a desire to be seen and heard as little as possible. 

After college, it wasn’t easy for me to get a job. Since I was so used to underplaying myself, during interviews, hiring managers saw in me a person asking for a favor.  I lacked confidence and I didn’t feel I had the right to work for certain types of corporations. I finally started believing in myself due to a combination of the empowerment I received from my parents and the self-development books that I had started reading at that time.

I graduated from college with a Law & Economics Degree in 1997. Next, I began studying for an MBA and taking several other alternative courses in 1998 while trying to find a job. That was one of the darkest and most confusing times of my life. I felt cheated and hopeless. I had been sold on the idea that if I studied a lot, I would have a great job. From June 1997 until December 1998, I was actively searching and engaging in unpaid training, and I asked myself, “What is wrong with me?”

I came up with a brilliant idea. I told my parents that I was going back to study for another degree, maybe even a PHD, and I told them I didn’t think I was ready to join the workforce. My father said, “If you pay for it yourself, it is fine, but not with my financial support. It’s time for you to manage your own life!” 

“Oh no! What do I do now?” I wondered. I knew that, at 24 years old, my days of living at home with my parents were coming to an end. That’s when I knew I needed to start selling myself big time!

I started to apply principles to boost my self-esteem and help me to believe in myself and, eventually, I landed my dream job in the city of my dreams, “New York”. When working for others, you continuously need to sell yourself to your bosses and your colleagues, and that will get you into leadership positions. I realized that selling ourselves is what we all do ALL OF THE TIME, 24/7. From the moment you get up in the morning and you get dressed to go to work, you are already selling YOU.  

As an entrepreneur, it is even more essential that you understand that selling yourself is part of who you are. Personally, I struggled at the beginning to market my services and myself and to believe in my own value. I kept questioning myself and doubting myself. It took time, experience and courage to change my belief system in the direction of my dreams. 

To sell yourself, you need to figure out where your power base is, and you need to work on yourself first. This means you must undertake a deep self-examination to identify your skills and talents and to see how they can help you to make a difference. If you are engaged in this process of improving your capabilities to better sell yourself, here are some keys:

  1. Control your non-verbal language. What you say must be in alignment with what your body says and with your attitude.
  2. Highlight your strengths without hiding your weak points. Remember; no one is perfect, and your weaknesses—if you know them well and accept them—can play in your favor.
  3. Mental clarity. In order to communicate well, you need to have a clear mindset of what you want to communicate, and how.
  4. Identify your audience in order to know to whom you are selling.
  5. Be authentic, be you. Do not pretend to be anyone else. 
  6. Believe in yourself; you are the product. If you won’t buy yourself, what makes you think others will?
  7. Always be positive and optimistic. A positive attitude always sells!

Just because you are not in business for yourself or looking for a job doesn’t mean that the idea of marketing yourself doesn’t apply to you. I believe everyone needs to master this skill. Every word you say, everything that you communicate and do, is a message to the world. After all, you are the person who knows how best to market yourself. In the same way that every company tries to expand and protect its brand, I suggest you protect and expand yours, too. If you do this, you can take yourself much further than you ever imagined.

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