Please stop yelling! Whisper to be heard.
(A seven-part lesson in personal branding)

* * *

Day 40 in a row of sizzling-hot sunny days. Hottest season in 20 years. (Trust me to be in the Tropics during that record-setting.)

Suddenly our barefoot toddler jumps up and wobbles off the patio. He follows a big yellow snake across the scorched yard, into the bush.

“Yes, it’s a python…”, our merry landlady concurs over her shoulder, continuing to stir the seventh curry of the morning.

“Do not fear, there’s no danger, it’s just looking for some water…”, she chirps on. I catch my breath from yelling, running, imagining the worst.

“Honey, sweetie, never ever run off like that, ever again, please! OK?”

“Well, because it only looks like bushes. It’s a jungle. And jungles are not playgrounds. Remember that, please.”

Fact 1. I know jungle. First hand.

* * *

“Hm. Not bad, per se. It’s OK. But it’s like any other classified out there. Will it get attention? Will it make anyone contact you? Not sure. And we need them to contact you. It’s our one chance. I think you can do it better. We need it to be better.”

“Dunno. What’s the story here? There’s this desert town, godforsaken, dead calm. A rider arrives, from god-knows-where. Good horse, big hat, pair of guns. Dusty. Doesn’t speak. Doesn’t rush. But everyone looks up. Everyone notices.”

Observer_job_ad_250x380“I dunno how. You’ll find a way. You’re the rider. Dismount and dust off.”

I revise the text in one go. We place that final draft, as a single-run advertisement, in the Sunday edition of the flagship daily, the English-language Island Observer. We await the results for a week of suspense.

Sixteen companies and two NGOs answer my revised advertisement (“STRANGER IN TOWN SEEKS GRATIFYING WORK…”). I get to take my pick and work for the best.

(Off the radar, mind you.)

Fact 2. I know desert. First hand.

* * *

Trust me to relocate straight from the Tropics to the True North. Well, you wouldn’t want me to miss the coldest winter in those same twenty years, now, would you?

“Yes, hi! Thank you for returning my call… Well, yes, in fact there is a problem with one of the documents… There’s a big error on my visa. Typographical, I guess.”

“Well, you know where it says ‘Intended Occupation’?… It says ‘housewife’ on my sheet.”

“Well, the problem is that I am not a housewife. And I don’t intend to be one. So we need to correct that.”

“Who will know!?! Sir, I will know!”

“I’m a writer, not a housewife. I never was a housewife; I never will be. It needs correcting.”

“Well, I appreciate your experience… I can see the statistics are not in my favour… Be that as it may, I am not now, nor do I intend to be – when we relocate and get settled – a housewife. When can I bring it for correction, please?”

“Yes, I’m aware of the 40 mile distance… and of the 40 degrees out there, thank you… and of my advanced pregnancy… Eh, well, 40+ weeks in total, but not quite there yet… Right, right… I’m sure you have my best interest at heart, no doubt. Still, could you please schedule an appointment for me at your earliest convenience?”

“Should I talk to someone else then? Or must I write to someone in charge?”

“Oh, I’ll find the code, I assure you. There cannot be ten million occupations in that listing, right?… OK, if you have no one there tomorrow to type the correction, I can type it and you initial it… Yes, of course, copies too… No worries, I know typewriters inside out.”

“Yes, it is important indeed… I am glad you do… Great, I’ll be there at eleven tomorrow. See you then. Thank you in advance.”




Fact 3. I move mountains. By hand.

* * *

So by now you know I’m into stories. I’m a myth maker by profession. I collect, select and create stories. I use them as communication and training tools. They’ve served me well – in job hunting, parenting, politics, romance, work. (No, not in that order. This is alphabetic sequencing, for Google’s sake. I’m prudent; I don’t discriminate against machines – better safe than sorry!) And I don’t discriminate in favour of either kind of stories – I’ve equally used both kinds.

Yes, there are two kinds of stories. Yes, only two. And, yes, you’re right, this might be a good time to start paying attention. ‘Cause, more likely than not, you too are using one kind of storytelling as if it were the other kind. Almost everyone does. Alas.

You could be the king of the jungle, for all I care. I’ll still have you purr like a kitten and eat out of my hand, when I’ve shown you where you go wrong on my terrain.

Remember. Who controls the storyline, controls the audience.

Fact 4. I tame lions. Through trust.

* * *

The first sign of a jungle is the noise. Deafening noise. Never stops. Birds, bats, insects, lizards, elephants – every living creature contributes. Only predators are silent. If you let out a sound in a jungle, you’re someone’s food. It isn’t unjust. It’s a jungle.

Trust Hollywood, the myth machine, to upturn this natural law and produce a fake sound – an unforgettable, trademarked yell (most recently registered in 2014) – to echo and rule over the vast green canopy and all motley critters beneath it.

And trust me to dig out another true story of a boy from Serbia stranded in a jungle he calls his own. Yes, you may have guessed it. It’s Johnny Weissmuller, most likely born in Pardanj (Međa), in present-day Banat in Serbia, a place his family leaves by 1905, when he’s just seven months old.

Little Johann is only one of thousands of immigrants landing on Ellis Island that year. Or in some other port of entry, this year. Any year.

It’s not a pleasure cruise. It never is. Learn the language, the customs, the rules. Learn to fit in. Learn “How To Deal With Your Immigrant Parents”. (Oh, trust me to find, as a young parent, a book by that title in my local library in Toronto. Enlightening stuff.)

Take up swimming to beat polio. Lose a parent to a World War; never learn his fate. Drop out of college to earn a living. Work as a bell boy, a statuesque lifeguard, or operate elevators all buttoned up. Win a national swimming championship twice, by age 18.

Fake your birthplace on a passport application. That way you can compete for the national Olympic team. Win, in Paris and Amsterdam, five gold medals and one bronze, in two water-based sports.

Return home to promote healthy lifestyle and swimwear (nobody tell Ms. Galek, please!) At age 25, with a handful of medals and world records set, your life seems to be, well, pretty much over.

Then you sign a modest movie contract. All you do is appear as Adonis, wearing nothing but a fig leaf. (No, no, really, nobody tell Ms. Galek!) And this is the roaring twenties. No wonder Hollywood builds you a steaming, sweaty jungle to rule over.

But this jungle Johnny frequents in his late twenties is as fake as that fig leaf. It’s painstakingly designed, built, arranged. It’s bursting with props, lights, animals, hands (not listed alphabetically this time; like everything in moviemaking, this ordering is money-based).

And let’s not forget the daily bustle. It all flares up with early sunlight and goes completely quiet at dusk. It’s a scripted, choreographed, planned-ahead jungle. It’s not a jungle. It’s a job.

Fact 5. I love contrasts. They teach.

* * *

There’s this exercise we do in my career trainings. Do Johnny’s CV before your own, draft his cover letters, his business plans. It’s a fun way to practice personal branding. At first.

Career Highlights

  • Never lost a race, retired unbeaten
  • Starred in over 30 films
  • Selected by Associated Press as greatest swimmer of first half of 20th Century

Honours & Awards

  • Winner of six Olympic medals
  • Winner of 52 United States national championships
  • Set 67 world records
  • First man to swim the 100-meter freestyle under one minute and the 440-yard freestyle under five minutes
  • Owner of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

But it gets harder the farther you go.

Work Experience

  • Elevator Operator / Bell Boy, Illinois Athletic Club (aged 16)
  • Lifeguard; Lake Michigan Beach (aged 17)
  • Model / Promoter, BVD Swimware, New York (aged 24)
  • Film & TV Actor, MGM/RKO/Columbia, Hollywood (aged 25 – 50)
  • Owner, Swimming Pool Company, Chicago (aged 55)
  • Founding Chairman, Int’l Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) (aged 61)
  • Owner, Johnny Weissmuller’s American Natural Foods, California (aged 66)
  • Promoter, Tropical/Florida Wonderland, a.k.a. Tarzan’s Jungleland (aged 68)
  • Greeter, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas (aged 69)

It’s easy to be heard on a soundstage. The real jungle starts beyond studio gates.

Fact 6: I wrangle egos. With hope.

* * *

Oh, you wanna list Johnny’s skills and abilities? By all means, let’s. (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Qualities & Competences

  • Driven self-starter
  • Bold achiever
  • Open-minded, adaptable, unconventional
  • Hard-working
  • Unpretentious, with a sense of humour

How do I know he has a sense of humour? He explains his story thus:

“How can a guy climb trees, say ‘Me, Tarzan, you, Jane,’ and make a
million? The public forgives my acting because they know I was an
athlete. They know I wasn’t make-believe.” (No, sir, you were not.)

His core narrative is about competent swimming. Everything else is make-believe. The three-voice yell, spliced together. His crude manners that Jane polishes (not present in the book premise). The broken Tarzan/Jane phrase he invents. (And I adapt as my headline, through my gentlemen’s agreement with the algorithm – ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ kind of thing.)

But, seriously, there is a lesson in all of this. A simple one.

Please don’t yell.

Firstly, it’s been done before. (To excess. And in way less noise, to boot.)

Secondly, none of us little people is a contender for Tarzan. Medals? Records? Fans? Zilch.

And thirdly…

If you send repeated emails I don’t want, just because you can…

If you incessantly share content about everything under the sun, just because it’s easy and you want to be noticed…

If you blast your daily dose of know-how about stuff you only discovered last year…

… you’re yelling in my ear. Me tired, you loud.

Plus, you’re not the only one.

Here’s the real problem with noise.

“Here everybody was noisy, every voice was loud (…). Whatever was wanted was hallooed for (…). The doors were in constant banging, the stairs were never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, and nobody could command attention when they spoke.” – Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

As I mentioned, there’s only two kinds of stories. The ones you tell. And the ones you write.

Improv vs. script.

Ad lib – you react to reactions. Ad usum – you plan how to draw them.

There’s no other way to live a life, but ad lib. One cannot script it.

One cannot script a career either. Even Steve Jobs did it only in retrospect. But here’s where most of us go wrong.

Most of us little people yell at the top of our lungs, trying to drown out everyone else’s chant. We count the likes, the comments, the shares. We react to reactions of others. It’s like a real jungle out there.

Whereas there is one thing we can script.

I’ve learnt this as a writer – newcomer. There is one rule Canada applies to separate landed amateurs from landed professionals in creative occupations. It has to make that distinction, as it offers forms of assistance – housing benefits, grants, etc. – to artists, movie & theatre folk, musicians, writers and such. Even to the unknown. And newcomers are by definition unknown.

Be it the State, or private funds, or peer refereeing, nobody measures original style, strength of talent or quality of work. How could they? Maybe you’re the next van Gogh. The rule is simple and sensible. (Quite Canadian, I might add.)

If you devote fifty percent of your time to your promotion – that’s how they know you’re a pro. And I don’t mean yelling as loud as you can, hoping to draw a reaction. I mean planned, scripted, strategic promotion. Channels, targets, audiences, brand. You prove it, they’ll believe it. No yelling involved.

Read your script, learn your lines, show up and deliver.

Action! Cut! Print!

And guess what? People remember.

Fact 7: I whisper. I’m heard.