The Wisdom of Ken Grant: Be Interesting, Or Else!

You’re interesting, whether you know it or not.  You are an incredibly alluring and interesting person by default, simply because you are a human being with a unique background and a lifetime of stories to tell.

That’s what Ken Grant believes, at least.

Who is this Ken guy?  Ken is a long-time ally of the firm who is not only a partner in one of Seattle’s top advertising agencies, EXCLAIM, but also a former brand strategist for several top-shelf organizations in the retail and consumer products sectors.  And among his many talents, he is a master at taking any boring/generic “commodity” product (like, let’s say, your average job seeker) and shaking it down, via merciless rhetoric, until the person behind the product recognizes and takes ownership of its unique, special, and differentiated attributes.

Just this morning, in fact, I was fortunate enough to have him come address one of my networking groups.  And just as he’s done in several previous presentations, he really laid the “differentiate or die” message on the line for the audience of unemployed folks who were in attendance.  It was a beautiful thing.  This is a message that every person going through career transition needs to hear.  And while I can’t fully do his talk justice, since his energetic, off-the-cuff presentation style rises almost to the level of performance art, let me try my best to capture at least a few of his key insights.

For starters, Ken espoused the idea that the nucleus of personal branding starts with looking holistically at your life and unearthing the compelling skills, strengths, values, and convictions that make you, well, you.  Branding, to him, is far more than a superficial veneer or punchy set of buzzwords.  It’s the authentic truth of who you are and what you stand for, both personally and professionally.  And again, as stated in the opening sentence above, he maintains that everybody is inherently fascinating– whether they realize it or not.  People these days just aren’t allowing themselves to be authentic or to stand out.  They’ve become cowed, either by society or by the increasingly mechanical hiring process, into hiding the interesting parts of themselves and not putting these more personal aspects out there for people to see.  This approach, in Ken’s mind, will equal job search failure the vast majority of the time — since if people can’t get a read on who you are, and how you fit into their culture, they won’t hire you.

Case in point?  As he demonstrated time and time again in his presentation, most people have become conditioned to talk about themselves in generic terms and boil their “brand” down to a tired list of cliched adjectives.  “What’s unique about you?” Ken would ask.  “I’m a focused, results-oriented problem-solver!” the person would respond.  These qualities not only fail to qualify as unique, since unerringly at least five other people in the audience had already said the exact same thing, but responding to questions in such a canned way is almost certainly guaranteed to put the hiring manager or recruiter you’re talking with to sleep.  So his advice is to let go of the formulaic thinking and focus instead on helping the people you encounter get to know you not merely as a walking, talking resume — but as a PERSON.  As somebody who knows what their unique gifts are and can offer proof, in both a personal and professional context, of how these gifts consistently produce meaningful results.

This ability to get the interviewer to see you as a person, and not just as a job candidate, is critical.  While admittedly an extreme comparison, the Stanford Prison Experiments come to mind.  While it’s become easy to ignore and marginalize a quote-unquote job hunter, it’s much harder to ignore a highly self-aware human being who opens up to you, shares some interesting things about themselves, entrusts you with a sense of what they’re all about, and has the guts — unlike the last 20 people you’ve interviewed — to be “real” with you.

During the course of the seminar, in fact, Ken singled out numerous people around the room and challenged them to answer simple questions about what made them tick.  Or what they did for fun.  Or what made them different from everybody else.  And after he called you-know-what on canned responses like “I’m a team player” or “I’m highly analytical” we’d inevitably get to the good stuff, each and every time, and would learn some fascinating things about the people sitting around the room with us.  One individual let us in on the fact that he was a competitive tournament water skier.  Another fellow admitted to being shy, but then shared that this quality had always given him an edge in climbing through the executive ranks and building authentic, trusted relationships.  Yet another person, a female marketing consultant, grabbed our attention by pointing out that her incredible natural intuition and ability to “read markets” for companies was highly parallel to her ability to “read a stream” when out fly fishing, which she revealed as one of her personal hobbies.

The takeaway from all this?  Does this mean we should all rush into every interview and start telling lengthy, no-holds-barred personal stories about themselves?  Or pack our resumes with juicy data about our personal passions and interests?  Not necessarily.  There’s a time and place for everything.  And while certain components of your job search, such as your resume, should likely stay pretty buttoned-up unless you’re in a highly creative field, don’t forget that these documents are a tiny fraction of the game.  You’re still left with a huge opportunity to “let yourself go” and be much more genuine and unfiltered in your cover letters, networking meetings, interviews, social media interactions, and other assorted job search activities.

At the end of the day, interesting trumps everything.  And as experts like Ken have preached to companies for years, if you can’t find a way to differentiate yourself and resonate with your customers on an authentic level, the party’s over.  You’ll blend in with everybody else.

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4 Responses to “The Wisdom of Ken Grant: Be Interesting, Or Else!”

  1. Matt,

    Well put ( for Diane ) Ken has a valuable point which I know has served him well at his comany. Our job as marketing firms is to differentiate our clients from their competition,it’s no different in the personal world. If I’m interviewing someone sure I want to know their competent, that’s a given but I want to know what makes them tick, what unique qualities are they going to bring to my firm that will then differentiate my company from my competition.

  2. Diane: I can understand some of your confusion, given that you weren’t privy to the full discussion we had yesterday about this topic, but I think the main point is that you don’t have to share EVERYTHING about yourself — you can just pick the aspects of your personal background that you ARE comfortable with and weave them into your discussion with employers to make yourself more memorable, interesting, and distinct. For example, you could talk about how you’ve become a downright wizard at multi-tasking, having had to juggle the schedules of five children, and how this makes you a more effective sales professional. Or you could talk about how you’re a person of strong religious faith — and that this faith allows you to remain very positive, stay optimistic, and keep an upbeat attitude in the face of adversity. Sure, there may be some facets of your background that you decide are a little too polarizing to share, but if you allow at least SOME of your interesting personal pursuits to cross over into the professional realm, you’re going to instantly distinguish yourself from a lot of the “professional automatons” out there. And since employers are (hopefully) human beings, too, many of whom share some of your same hobbies and personal characteristics, you’ll connect with them on a more deeper, personal level that can be hard to beat in the interview process. Something to consider, at least…

  3. I’m enjoying your blog posts Matt, but this one has me in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, I of course get the point about being interesting in order to differentiate yourself. On the other hand, what “makes me tick” has very little to do with what would actually happen in a job interview. I’m a professional singer, always have been, and just because I have a “real” job it doesn’t make me any less of a musician. But I can’t bring it up; people think I’m going to leave them and go on the road (which of course I haven’t done in years, but they don’t really believe me). Oh, and I lead worship…. another thing you’ve advised me not to mention. And I have five kids, another thing no one really wants to know in an interview (“is she going to be unreliable if one of her kids is sick?” etc).

    I feel like I’ll have to make up a different “more interesting me” LOL.

  4. David Lightfoot April 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Great post. While I decided to go the self-employed consultant route rather than have another W-2 job, this advice is even more appropriate for me. There are way too many self-employed consultants out there! How do I stand out? Ken Grant has got one answer and it’s a good one.

    Thanks, Matt!

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