The Author: One day on Twitter, a stick figure caught my eye. It said, “Your Brand Precedes You.” It was a simple tweet, and it made me think. The artist was Ryan Foland, and I have since followed him on Twitter for not only my daily dose of stick figure drawings, but also great insights into what it takes to build a personal brand.
A keynote speaker with four TEDx talks, Ryan is recognized by Inc. Magazine and Brand24 as a Top Marketer and is named by Entrepreneur Magazine as a Top Personal Branding Expert. He works as a Communications Manager for the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at the University of California, Irvine, and is also the Managing Partner of InfluenceTree, a branding accelerator.
He specializes in helping companies and their leadership harness the power of authenticity by teaching them how to create content that reveals their whole self to drive differentiation, growth, and loyalty. Published by McGraw-Hill, his book, co-authored by Leonard Kim, is called Ditch The Act: Reveal the Surprising Power of the Real You for Greater Success. It is available for pre-order on Amazonand Barnes and Noble, and will be in bookstores nationwide on October 25th, 2019.
I sat down with Ryan to learn more about how he got to where he is today, his 3-1-3 Method, and some insights on building a personal brand.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The true backstory of how I ended up in my career today can be traced back to when I was in sixth grade. I was on a ladder hanging Christmas lights. My neighbor, Mrs. Kawaguchi, approached me and asked if I could help her with her Christmas lights. I said yes, and said it would be $20 an hour, to which she said, “sounds good.” I made $386 putting up lights on her house and it changed the way that I looked at working forever. This story is also shared in mythird TEDx talk.
I started a Christmas light hanging business that supported me all through middle school, high school, and even a bit in college. This experience taught me how to think like an entrepreneur. I learned that people will pay me as long as I could solve their problems.
The concept of problem solving as a direction is a foundation that I have followed in my career, through successful and failed startup attempts, as well as the position at the University of California, Irvine, where I help to solve problems that early-stage entrepreneurs have.
I’ve come to realize that people really don’t care what you do as much as they care about the problem that you solve. So, for those searching for a career path, look for problems that you enjoy solving.
My sharpest tool has always been verbal communication. I guess you can consider my passion for communication as the hiking shoes that kept me on my path, whether that is to follow an existing trial or to blast a new road.
The primary problem I see today is that people have an extremely difficult time communicating who they are in simple terms. The solution is simpler than one might think and is often hiding in plain sight. The best way to communicate who you are is to fully accept who you are by “ditching the act,” and become comfortable in sharing the good, the bad, and your version of the ugly.
This is what Leonard Kim and I breakdown in our new book Ditch the Act, which you can follow on Twitter at @ditchtheact.
At the end of the day, humans are creatures of connection. When you try to put up too much of what you think people want to see, it actually moves you farther from what they actually want to know.
The trick to building a personal brand is to let people get to know you first. The real you, not the one hiding behind filters and curated images. And once they get to know you, they might like you. And once they like you, they just might trust you. And if you build a community of people who trust you, that trust will carry you on your journey through whatever career or set of careers that you undertake.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
As I share in my 2nd TEDx talk, I think the most interesting story since I began my career is when I actually thought I was being fired from UCI.
A little backstory first. I was an entrepreneur who started and failed multiple companies, and when I had the opportunity to launch the first-ever undergraduate entrepreneurship program at the UCI, I saw it as an amazing opportunity.
Because UCI’s mascot is the Anteater, we called the center the ANTrepreneur Center. It was a partnership with the Blackstone Launchpadto create an on-campus support system for student entrepreneurs. I treated the Center like it a startup and got creative in the outreach and marketing efforts.
I ran campaigns such as creating a Snapchat ghost that students could wear on campus while riding a hoverboard, seven-foot-tall paper airplanes I’d throw up the Student Center, to other guerilla tactics that got the attention of the students, but also seemed to ruffle the feathers of faculty and administration on campus.
One day, unannounced, my boss told me that I needed to grab my stuff and go with him to my boss’s boss’s office. I felt something weird in my gut. I knew that I was doing things against the grain, as I was often asking for forgiveness instead of permission.
At that moment, I was convinced that I was getting fired.
I remember that meeting and all of the small details, what everyone was wearing, the lighting, and most of all the seemingly awkward look on both my boss and my boss’s faces as they went back and forth to decide who was going to speak first.
When they started to talk, I felt myself zoning out, and it sounds funny, but literally, my entire career flashed before my eyes. From hanging Christmas lights to working in Hollywood to internships that bled me dry, to working in the mortgage industry, to selling bathrooms, to building apps. All I could think about was how frustrating it was that each time a startup failed, or I left a company, I felt like I had to start all over again. And as I was blindsided by being fired, I realized that again I would have to start from scratch.
I felt resentment because so much of what I did was invested into the entrepreneurship center and building the brand of the university, and always putting myself second.
In those moments, I made a decision. From that point on, I was going to focus on myself first. I was going to build a personal brand. I was going to make sure that I was investing in myself in addition to whatever company I was building or university I was working for.
I could feel the denseness in the air as my boss’s boss was finding words to explain what was going on. And I stopped the conversation and said, “look I understand I’ve done things in an unconventional way and I’m sorry…” To which they both seem to be confused, and I said, “Aren’t you firing me?” And both of them started laughing.
I was so confused.
They explain that because of all the creative and new methods used in the marketing of the Center, it resulted in the unprecedented success of the awareness of the program on campus. They didn’t understand it, but people were talking about the Center.
My boss and boss’s boss called this meeting not to fire me, but to actually give me an entirely new position on campus. One that they created specifically for me. One that would let me work with entrepreneurs but also gave me the responsibility of overseeing 25 other undergraduate resources on campus.
I was shocked.
I was excited.
And more so than anything, I was firm on my split-second decision when I thought I was being fired.
And from that point on, I began to focus on building my personal brand as a part of whatever I did. I realized then, and I teach people now, that everyone has a personal brand. If you don’t think you have one, it just means that you are not participating in your own narrative.
When I google you, I see all kinds of information and articles, and podcasts about the 3-1-3 Method? How do you think this new method can change the world?
The 3-1-3 Methodis a process to distill core messaging for a business, idea or person. I found that great ideas that are not communicated concisely, are not great ideas. People who do amazing work but can’t effectively articulate what they do in a way that gets people interested will never reach the levels of success that they deserve. I help people whittle down what they say into the fewest and most powerful elements so that they can communicate more in a shorter amount of time all while sparking more interest.
As a result of working through the process, you will be able to explain your business idea or self in three sentences, then in one sentence, and then ultimately in three words. It’s a powerful exercise that shapes the very foundation of how we communicate. It is also part of our 8-step brand building process that we outline in Ditch the Act. It helps you find what makes you special, and how to best communicate it!
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? What is that story?
Yes, there was, and a lot of it had to do with the amount of time that I was allocated to help student entrepreneurs. You see, when I was at the ANTepreneur Center and created successful campaigns to let students know of the available resource to help them start their companies, we were inundated with student groups full of ideas that wanted to launch their startups.
In talking with these student groups, I would kick off the conversation by asking them to explain the business idea. I learned that that was a huge mistake. Because with such an open-ended question they could go on and on and on, sometimes for 10 minutes or more, just trying to explain what their idea was. Sometimes, entrepreneurs talk too much. And this can work against them.
Because it took them so long to explain their idea, it left less time to guide them on how to research the idea and develop a business around it. I started experimenting with variety of questions that is designed to get to the core of their idea. So, I asked.
The tactic of putting a limitation to the explanation really made them search for the key elements of their problem, solution, and market. Once I got into a rhythm and was able to test out a series of questions over and over and over, I spotted patterns and learned how I can tease out the core information from these student entrepreneurs.
The end result of the conversation is the student’s ability to communicate key ideas in three sentences. When this happened, I summarize their ideas into one sentence. Then I would use metaphors and analogies to describe the idea in three words. This was my ‘aha’ moment.
I realized that I had created a system to describe what you do in 3 sentences, 1 sentence, and then in 3 words.
Students started to call it the 3-1-3 and would ask each other if they had been 3-1-3’d. As soon as this process became a verb, I knew that it was something special.
My 3rd TEDx talk, Why No One Cares What You Do, dives into the core concepts behind why the 3-1-3 works so well.
What pain point were you trying to solve?
The pain point I solve is the reality of people fumbling when explaining what they do, only to end up talking too much. This is a real pain that many people face as they establish themselves as experts in their space.
This problem is also prevalent in larger corporations where employees do not have the tool set to explain what the company does and what his or her job function is. In a digital world where employee advocacy is so crucial for brands to spread awareness, the 3-1-3 becomes an essential tool. It ensures that your employees can articulate what your company does and his or her job function within the company. The next time someone asks you what you do, you will be faced with a very real pain point that I am solving with the 3-1-3.
The 3-1-3 has become a powerful topic that I now regularly teach, speak about, and have a podcast on. The concept is a key part of my new book. The implications of the 3-1-3 have far reaching impact for multiple industries, including healthcare, as it helps professionals find a starting point to define their personal brand.
The Author: I really enjoyed speaking with Ryan and he got me thinking. If you want to try the 3-1-3 Challenge for yourself, pre-order Ditch the Act, and learn how it can help you get one step closer to learning how to build a personal brand you are proud of.