Where’s the Empathy?

Here’s What Happened when I Gave My Students a Personal Branding Assignment

I wound up my Fall semester class in Branding back in December with another great group of students at USC in the Annenberg School’s Communication Management Graduate Program. This was the first time I introduced a module on personal branding, a skill set that’s now needed more than ever in this challenging job market.

It was no surprise that they struggled. When it comes to branding ourselves, I have always maintained that the fundamental human inability to see ourselves clearly and objectively, the way others see us, is difficult bordering on impossible. That’s one reason why it’s important to seek outside, professional help when embarking on your personal branding journey.

However, one struggle stood out, one I generally do not encounter when working with older (30+) clients. With one or two possible exceptions, my class of 21 students could not seem to muster up even a small dose of empathy.

The idea, which I communicated clearly, was to start each thought from their colleague’s perspective. For example, “When I work with Linda, I feel inspired.” Or, “I always feel safe when I work with Linda. I can take risks and raise any issue I want to talk about without fear of negative feedback.”

Yet when assigned the task of writing a few sentences on “How it feels to work with me,” none could break free of a self-centered attitude, one that focused on their own skills, not their potential coworkers’ feelings. Rather, I got submissions like these.

  • Working with Lisa makes everything efficient. She has demonstrated in her studies and work experience over the years that her attention to detail and observant nature enables her to “read the room” and guide her team to understand what evokes certain lifestyle aspirations.
  • Being associated with Jerry is like having a best friend and brand advocate simultaneously. Throughout his years in promoting and expanding the reach of entertainment, automotive, and aviation companies, he has truly mastered the craft of effective communication.

It’s not that they’re bad people!  But this is self-centered boasting, not empathy.

The lesson here is that it’s never about us as sellers, whether we’re marketing a brand for a large company or promoting ourselves. What it’s all about is forging strong, emotional connections with our prospects and how our offerings fulfill their needs. We can talk about ourselves until we are blue in the face, but we won’t make progress without a relentless focus on how we fit into to the worldview, values, and self-perceptions of those we whom we wish to engage.

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