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What, Me Brag?

How many times have you started a sentence with the words, “I don’t want to brag, but…?” For most people—especially women—“brag” truly is a four-letter word. Our parents taught us that bragging was immodest and distasteful, so we experience extreme discomfort when faced with the necessity of tooting our own horns.

Peggy Klaus, a respected Fortune 500 communication coach, is here to tell us that not only is bragging OK, it’s an art. In her book, Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It (Warner Books), Klaus explains why keeping quiet about your accomplishments won’t get you anywhere. Having taught thousands of professionals how to communicate their strengths and accomplishments without appearing opportunistic or egotistical, she now shares her secrets with the rest of us.

AMA’s Shari Lifland interviewed Klaus about the “art of the brag.”

AMA: My trusty Webster’s defines the verb “brag” as “to talk boastfully, to engage in self-glorification.” Do we really want to embrace that kind of behavior?

Peggy Klaus: No, of course not! If we all acted like big blowhards, our clients and co-workers would make a mad dash for the door. That kind of behavior is bad bragging. Good bragging is completely different; it’s highlighting a few memorable tidbits of information about yourself in an interesting and entertaining story expressed with passion and delight.

AMA: In the introduction to Brag, you write about an experience that you had at age nineyou won a tennis match against an older neighborhood boy who was a star on the school tennis team. When you tried to brag about your glorious accomplishment, your father told you, “Don’t toot your own horn; if you do a good job people will notice you.” What convinced you that dear old dad was wrong?

PK: I graduated from college and went to Hollywood, the tooting capital of the world. I kept losing out on jobs in theater and film production because I couldn’t get comfortable talking about myself and my accomplishments in a way that was convincing and memorable to others.

AMA: Why is self-promotion more difficult for women than men —or is it?

PK: It’s definitely more difficult for women. It has to do with the cultural and sociological myths that we’ve grown up with since emerging from the womb—about how we should behave, how we should look, how we should think. One of these myths is that people won’t like us if we brag. We won’t get boyfriends. We won’t get husbands. Certainly, there are also men who were taught that it was bad to brag and who have a very difficult time with self-promotion. But I have to admit that there are many more men on the opposite end of the spectrum, who are really bad braggers in terms of being self-aggrandizing and obnoxious.

AMA: You teach people to “brag artfully.” Where do art and bragging intersect?

PK: Here’s the right way to brag: talk about yourself (interests, ideas and accomplishments) in a memorable, storylike manner with pride and passion. The art of the brag is knowing your audience and keeping the talk interesting, entertaining and short.

AMA: Is the ability to brag effectively more important in today’s workplace than it was in the past?

PK: Today, we are living in the “Age of the Entrepreneur,” even if you don’t work for yourself! Given the constant changes—mergers, management shifts and downsizing—it has become imperative that people both inside and outside of your organization know who you are and what you are accomplishing. Otherwise, you’ll simply be overlooked for assignments, bonuses and promotions.

The truth is: If you don’t self-promote, you won’t get promoted.

AMA: What advice can you give to someone whose boss or co-worker repeatedly grabs all the credit for her accomplishments?

PK: Stop focusing on the credit robber, and start focusing on what you need to do to make your accomplishments and contributions known. Take action: get to work putting together your “brag bag.”

AMA: What’s a “brag bag” and why is it important?

PK: In my BRAG workshops, when I ask participants to share in 45 seconds their proudest job accomplishments over the last two months, a cloud of silence suddenly hangs over the crowd. Everyone is deep in thought, trying to figure out what they are going to say. The fact is, with life moving at such a frenetic pace, many people can’t remember what they did a week ago, much less two months or two years ago.

A brag bag is a running collection of all the information about one’s best self that can be easily accessed--accomplishments, passions, interests--the colorful details that underscore who one is both personally and professionally. (Store your brag bag on your computer so that you can print it out for easy reference.)

Keeping an up-to-date brag bag has many uses: you can pull out tidbits about your background and accomplishments to customize “bragologues” for performance reviews, networking events, job interviews, and so forth. 

One way of getting started on your own brag bag is to check out the “Take 12 Self-Evaluation Questionnaire” at www.bragbetter.com. The questions are designed to help you begin to think about your history: where you have been, what you are doing now, what you have to offer and what makes you memorable.

AMA: What are the top bragging mistakes?

PK: What I call “brag bombs” are usually a result of one or more of the following: misreading your audience, bad timing, a lack of preparation or going on and on and on. Here are a few examples: tooting about your new promotion with an acquaintance who has just been laid off; deciding to update your boss on your recent contributions when he’s in a hurry or stayed up all night completing a project; not customizing your “bragologue” for a job interview to match the assignment requirements; or when asked, “What do you do for a living?” you respond with your entire life history.

AMA: Who is the most effective self-promoter you’ve ever met?

PK: Ted Koppel. When asked to talk about himself, he weaved his accomplishments—travels around the world, meetings with foreign leaders, covering news events—into incredible and memorable short stories. He knew how to brag and get away with it. Remember, good bragging is invisible bragging.