You’ve likely heard the media emphasize the importance of “controlling the narrative,” when advising business professionals, celebrities, politicians and influencers. But what does that really mean? To control the narrative or “manage the optics” means you, the subject in question, is driving how, where, when and why your story unfolds, and the perception that results from it. The importance of managing perception has grown exponentially since the introduction of social media and word of mouth marketing and in 2020, that importance soared to new heights as the pandemic sent everyone home.
Professionals, entrepreneurs, executives and thought leaders globally found themselves spending more time online and watching television (cable and otherwise), and our consumption of information drove a need to internalize and process news more quickly. Viewers made assumptions, drew conclusions formed (and then shared) perceptions and added their own perspective to what they saw unfolding online or in the media. This perception created tremendous benefits for some individuals and introduced reputation challenges for others (cancel culture). When the subject of the scrutiny wasn’t mindful or thoughtful of the nature of what was playing out on the Internet or in the media, their narrative often ran away from them and they lost control.
Taking control of your story and driving influence requires a thoughtful and intentional personal brand and reputation management strategy. As an authority on both, I advise clients to:
- Consider how you want to be perceived by the people and communities you serve. Every individual has needs (factual and emotional) and meeting those needs should be closely tied to how you want others to see you.
- Reflect on how you’re seen today: What are the weaknesses and strengths of your current reputation? How do those equate to value in the minds of the individuals or communities you seek to influence, inspire and impact?
- What is the story you want to tell? Narrative is, at its core, storytelling. But narrative must be anchored at all times in values and credibility. When values aren’t shown through actions, audiences become skeptical or critical. When values are expressed and demonstrated in behavior and action, they are trusted and the narrative gains credibility.
Controlling the narrative means you are thoughtful and strategic about how you speak about yourself and your value. You are consistent in how you present yourself (executive presence) and the people you associate and build networks with. And controlling the narrative means that what I see online about you is consistent and authentic with how I experience you in person. Without consistency across all forms of interaction, narrative falls apart.
In my new book, Control the Narrative: The Executive’s Guide for Building, Pivoting and Repairing Your Reputation, I offer this simple example of how narrative works:
Control the Narrative makes your reputation work for you by using the power of personal branding to put you in control of the opportunities you attract.
Years ago, I worked with the leadership team of a global manufacturing company. Their team was internationally dispersed, but for our personal branding training they were brought together in one location. Prior to our session, my team and I deployed a perception mapping study on each of the executives. The study included a survey to each executive’s colleagues, direct reports and key vendors asking several questions about their brand, communication and leadership style. For one executive, Kathy, an obvious pattern emerged: Almost everyone queried described Kathy as “black and white.” They didn’t use candid, direct or straightforward. They literally used “black and white” to describe Kathy. On the day of the training, each member of the leadership team was given the opportunity to briefly introduce themselves. Around the table it went, until it was Kathy’s turn. She said, “I’m Kathy and I lead the R&D team. One thing you learn about me pretty quickly is that I’m very black and white. It either is or it isn’t, and I call it like I see it.” There you have it: Kathy used the expression so confidently and immediately that it was easy to see how she earned the reputation. This example demonstrates how powerful our narrative is in how others see us. Kathy’s self-described black and white style, matched with her direct communication and leadership approach made it easy for those around her to assign her that descriptor without much thought. It made sense, she acts that way and there was no evidence that she was being disingenuous or misleading. Kathy is black and white.
Imagine, then, if she’d used another phrase to describe her approach? What if she’d said, “I’m Kathy and I’m terrible at making decisions,” or “I lack the judgement to hire the right people,” and so on. With repetition and reinforcement, those descriptors would stick to her reputation just as black and white had done.
Narrative is a powerful force in building reputation and creating impact. A recruiter reads a candidate’s cover letter and, because of confirmation bias, draws favorable conclusions from the candidate’s choice of words; an executive shows humility and personal accountability in how they share disappointing numbers to shareholders; a celebrity tries to brush off a Twitter faux pas as inconsequential when a community finds their comments to be tone deaf; a professional fails to tell others why they care so much about their work and is repeatedly passed over for promotions. All of these are narratives. They are the stories of who we are, how we interpret and process information and the biases we attach to how we perceive. When you’re not mindful, strategic and prepared with a personal brand strategy to address the challenges of promoting a strong and compelling narrative, mistakes can become devastating. With planning, authenticity and consistency, narrative can be controlled and promoted to serve others and yourself in meaningful and significant ways.
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