Promoting Yourself When Self-Promotion Feels “Icky”

Self-promotion may perhaps just be the thing I hate most about working in theatre.  I’ve always been more comfortable letting my work speak for itself and am quick to respond to any accolades with acknowledgment of the collaborative effort of any theatre project.   But you can’t evade self-promotion if you want to expand your network of collaborative partners, which prompted me to boldly offer Dr. Peter O’Connor of the University of Auckland my business card this fall.  

Peter had just spent two days at Arizona State University in which he was giving a talk to the students of the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre and leading in-class facilitation in the Theatre in Education courses.  During his talk (and afterward at a happy hour for the graduate students given in his honor), he shared a bit about his company, The Creative Thinking Project, and their recent work devising theatre with the homeless in Auckland.  His visit to the American southwest coincided with some meetings for a similar project he would be collaborating on in Los Angeles’ Skid Row in early November.  After speaking with Peter and experiencing his facilitation the following day, I knew that I could learn quite a bit form him if I could secure an opportunity to work with him or even observe his work in Los Angeles.  Girding up my confidence and steeling myself against some last-minute jitters, I waited patiently to speak with him at the end of my class.  

As I offered him my card and asked if he might need an assistant on the Skid Row project, he seemed a little leery.  After all, what could I possibly want from him or from these people? He couldn’t pay me or provide lodging for my work, and he rightly wanted to make sure that I had no aspirations of “saving” these people.  I later would come to learn from Peter that my desire to simply learn from this opportunity and the designation of choreographer on my business card softened him to my cause and he accepted my offer to collaborate.

My business card (some details redacted for privacy)

While self-promotion can seem “icky” to some (Peter and I later laughed about how we both personally hate it), the likelihood of securing work without putting yourself out there declines sharply without it.  A couple of tips for those like myself who need to put themselves out there more:

  • Approach the encounter like a conversation, but get to the point.  Observe some basic pleasantries, make that person feel comfortable and acknowledged for themselves first.  Then segue into the offer of your work, services, assistance, etc.
  • Be humble.  You’re approaching them so either you feel that they would help you as much as you might be able to help them.  Be assertive and confident, but not cocky. Humility and earnestness can take you far.
  • Have a business card.  Social media presence seems to be negating the need for a business card somewhat these days, however, there are still people who are old school.  And they may not pull out their phone right on the spot to follow you. However, they are likely to pocket that business card and come across it again.  Your business card should have your name and contact information. Include your titles – or skills if more appropriate. It can also include social media handles.  Mine has a headshot on it too, which can help with memory recognition later on. I made these on Vista Print very easily.
  • I’m also a fan of investing in your own design if your work would benefit from individual branding.  My website was designed by Katharine Friedgen.  But I also recommend Bridget Makes Stuff.  
  • Be brief, be brilliant, be gone.  You want to make an impression, but acknowledge the preciousness of their time and excuse yourself once they’ve pocketed the card and the conversation is over.  With any luck, this will be the first of many. Leave them wanting more.
  • Follow up.  Depending on the time-sensitiveness of the situation, you’ll want to follow up if they don’t.  I recommend waiting about 48 hours to follow up on a meeting if there isn’t a rush.