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Authentic &
Refreshing

Entrepreneur
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Matt Douglas, Founder and CEO of Punchbowl.com

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What Phrase Best Describes Your Business Persona?

I launched this new blog a couple of weeks ago. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, mostly positive. However, one thing I got a lot of negative feedback about was the use of the phrase “brutally honest” to describe this blog and my business persona. I’ve learned a lot from this feedback, and if you read this entire post, I believe you will learn something valuable that will change the way you look at yourself in a business context. If you want the quick version, you can skip down to the section titled “7 Lessons Learned: How to Build Your Business Persona” (but you’ll miss the context and some juicy tidbits!)

Obviously, it was a conscious decision to use the phrase “brutally honest,” but based on the feedback I’ve received it had some unintended consequences. For example, I heard from people that read my blog for the first time who assumed that the content was all negative. I heard from others who thought the blog was some kind of exposé blog. And still others that called the blog “inappropriate” and said that I apparently “have no regard for others” (of course, these people didn’t read much, if any, of the content).

At first, I was pleased at the response: garnering negative reaction was a sign that my blog is memorable, and that my content wouldn’t be lost among the thousands of other great blogs. But I also felt a heightened expectation that caused me to feel very anxious. Could every post I write really be “brutally honest?” Does my tone always need to be negative and blunt? That’s not what I had intended.

I began to see things very clearly when a person I greatly respect eloquently described his reaction to the words ‘brutally honest’: “Matt, the phrases most typically associated with the word brutal are ‘brutally beaten’ and ‘brutally killed’ and ‘brutally cold’ — you’re probably turning off new readers or anyone who casually comes in contact with your blog.”  

This astute feedback got my attention. Curious, I looked up the precise definition of the word brutal:

bru·tal: ˈbro͞odl/ adjective; savagely violent, punishingly hard or uncomfortable, direct and lacking any attempt to disguise unpleasantness.

I spent some time over the Thanksgiving weekend thinking about the long-term goals for my blog, and whether or not the phrase ‘brutally honest’ helps or hurts. I thought a lot about the kind of people I want to reach with my content and how I want to be perceived. One of my goals for this blog is to build a large readership of executives and entrepreneurs, so I read and re-read some of my posts with fresh eyes to mull over the typical tone and flavor of my writing.

And I reached the clear conclusion that I made a mistake. I set the wrong tone for my blog and my business persona. I chose words that will inhibit my ability to reach the audience I want to build. It’s the equivalent of a bad title for a great book: with poor word choice, I’m starting at a disadvantage and likely turning people off.

After a lot of thought and introspection, I’ve chosen the phrase “authentic and refreshing” to describe my business persona and this blog. I think this phrase does a much better job of communicating to new readers what to expect.

I want to offer a no-nonsense, genuine viewpoint which looks at old problems in new ways. I want the posts to be direct, opinionated, and thoughtful. But most of all, I hope that fellow entrepreneurs and executives will find the posts stimulating and thought-provoking. I want the posts to be shared within companies and among colleagues because of their positive ideas and practical suggestions. That’s authentic and refreshing — not brutally honest.

7 Lessons Learned: How to Build Your Business Persona

Whether you are an Executive or a Dog Walker, you can take what I’ve learned and use it to establish your own business persona. A Dog Walker might choose the phrase “honest and reliable” to describe himself whereas an Accountant might use the phrase “analytic and methodical.” A software developer might choose the phrase “curious and nerdy” and a elementary school teacher might choose “fun and resourceful.” The point is that your business persona can have far-reaching consequences of how others view you and how you view yourself. So choose carefully.

Use this list of lessons learned to help establish your own business persona:

1) People DO judge a book by its cover 

We live in a world with a tremendous amount of new content created everyday. One of the consequences of our information age is that most people are bombarded with an incredible array of emails, blog posts, and websites. It’s important to realize that most people (especially if they don’t know you) will quickly judge a book by its cover — and it’s not necessarily a conscious choice.

I didn’t realize how much my new blog would be judged by people who only saw the phrase “brutally honest,” and didn’t bother looking more deeply. From a branding perspective, this was a huge mistake.

This is an important lesson: people DO judge a book by its cover. The best way to handle this is to accept it as fact, and make sure you’re being judged how you want to be judged. Choose a phrase that quickly communicates how you want to be seen.

2) Positive is more attractive than negative

Most people love being around others who are happy, spirited, and energetic. The best leaders and thinkers of our time share positive visions of the world and about our future. In the business world, positive is more attractive than negative.

One of my trusted advisors illustrated the point to me by referencing Tom Peters, the author of the seminal business book “In Search of Excellence: Lesson’s from America’s Best-Run Companies.” My advisor said that Tom Peters writes in a “whimsical, light-hearted way that makes you want to keep reading.” 

While I don’t expect to be whimsical, I do want people to look forward to my posts. A positive personal brand (authentic and refreshing) rather than a negative brand (brutally honest) will go a long way to attracting more readers to this blog.

3) Listen closely to your colleagues

In the past few weeks, I’ve had numerous people email me after a meeting and use the words “refreshing” and “authentic” to describe our interactions. In fact, a woman I work with closely picked up on this and emailed me within consecutive days writing “This is the second ‘refreshing’ compliment you’ve received in the past 24 hours. Could this be a potential blog post???”  and a day later, “This is your 3rd ‘refreshing’ compliment! Not only fodder for a potential blog post but perhaps we can use it to develop an official culture tagline…”

And my colleagues have repeatedly told me that they can always count on my real, genuine take on a situation: never sugar-coated, and always direct. Looking back, I should have picked up on what others have said about me. They provided me with a positive business persona, all I had to do was listen.

4) Think long-term, not short-term 

As you think about the phrase that best describes your business persona, it’s really important to think about the (very) long-term. This is where I made a critical mistake when I launched this blog.

I thought a memorable, bombastic phrase would help launch my blog and stand out above the rest. But I was thinking too short-term, trying to kickstart the blog rather than placing focus on how I want to be perceived long-term.

Ten years from now, I don’t want to be known as brutally honest — I would much rather be known for being “authentic and refreshing.” Don’t make the mistake I made and trade short-term wins for what’s best in the long-term.

5) Grow into your business persona 

As you think about your business persona, you might find that the words you choose are not who you are today, but who you want to be. That’s fine, go with it.

In many ways, your phrase can be aspirational. For me, the phrase “brutally honest” would lead me to posts that would be scathing and condescending. The phrase “authentic and refreshing” is quite different.

Expect to see original posts that energize people to take a different tack than the status quo. That’s a positive description that fits who I want to be and how I want to be perceived.

6) Your business persona is just that 

As you choose a phrase for your Business Persona, resist the urge to make this an exercise about who you are as a person. This is about how you want to be perceived in a business context, not how you act at home or with your family or friends.

You might be silly, creative, or easygoing in your personal life but that shouldn’t have any bearing on how you want to be perceived in a business context. Your business persona isn’t who you are as you walk your child to Kindergarten in the morning or how you act when you watch your favorite football team. It’s who you are when you put on your best dress shirt and step into an important meeting. We all have a game face for work, this is yours.

7) You can always change your business persona

This lesson was the hardest one for me to accept over the past several days. I launched the blog to several thousand people, and I had a very hard time with the idea of making a change like this right away. However, I’m convinced a change needed to be made.

I don’t want new readers turned off by a phrase that doesn’t really fit my business persona. Most people aren’t paying that close attention anyway, so as you learn more about yourself and how you are perceived, don’t hesitate to make a change. I’m so glad that I did. And this blog post has given me the platform to describe why.

A final thought: The process to realize the mistake I made and determine how to fix it has been very difficult. This new blog has made me feel vulnerable in a business context in a way that I haven’t felt for a long time. I felt a good deal of stress from the idea that I ‘messed up’ the launch of this new blog. But I’m happy that I’ve learned several important lessons and have gained a new perspective. And I’m grateful for all of the people who provided feedback to me over email and all of those who took time to discuss and help shape my thinking. Thank you so very much.

YOUR TURN: Ok, now it’s your turn. What phrase best describes your business persona? Use the list above as guidance to come up with a positive phrase that best describes how you want to be known in the long-term. If it doesn’t come to you right away, mull it over during the next couple of days and then come back to this post. When you are ready, leave your phrase as a comment on this blog post and I’ll let you know my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

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  • https://ramen.is Ryan Angilly

    This is interesting because I did have a negative reaction when I saw the original title, but didn’t think to say anything. Not sure why. My feedback wasn’t on the use of the word “brutal” though. I actually disagree with any feedback that is against the word. If you open yourself up to that kind of nit-picky feedback it’ll be death by a thousand paper cuts. Doesn’t matter how astute the person is. Get 10 super smart, accomplished, astute people in a room, and it’ll probably take less than 10 minutes to find something none of them agree on.

    My thought was “so you’re being brutally honest in this blog? ok. does that mean you’re usually not honest?” :)

    Regardless of the my opinion on whether or not this was actually a mistake, I think the biggest takeaway from this post is that doing things _The Right Way™_ is never as easy as it seems, and anyone who looks like they’ve figured it out is just winging it like most of us 😉

    • Matt Douglas

      I totally agree that you can’t listen to every piece of feedback – otherwise it will be death by a thousand paper cuts. But your initial reaction (negative) was something I heard way too much. I don’t consider myself to be a negative person, and I don’t want my blog to be perceived that way either. I’m not saying I’m a “glass is half full” guy all of the time, but “authentic & refreshing” is how others view me and how I want to be known. And it universally gets a positive reaction. Thanks for the comment Ryan.

©2018 Matt Douglas