Stand Out in a Sea of Noise with Expert Tips from Author Dorie Clark

Dec. 3, 2014. Boston, MA.Portraits of Dorie Clark.© 2014 Marilyn Humphries

Want to Stand Out? How to Get Attention for Your Ideas

In a world of seven billion people, it can be hard to make yourself – and your ideas – stand out. Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out: How to Develop Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It, offers up tips on figuring out your strengths and making the most of them.

It seems like nowadays, everyone wants attention. What are the key first steps toward standing out?

I talk about this in my first book Reinventing You. The first step is getting clear on what your current brand is. How are you currently perceived by other people? It’s hard to know how you can stand out – how you can build on your strengths – if you don’t have a clear image of what other people are seeing. What I suggest is that people should go to close, trusted people in their life – no frenemies need apply – and ask them, “If you had to describe me in only three words, what would they be?”

The reason that this is telling is that most of us probably have an OK sense of how we’re perceived or what we’re known for, but if you force people to boil it down to the three most important things, you get a sense of what stands out about you in people’s minds.

I’m wondering – what are the words people said about you?

I actually got things I didn’t expect. You’ll see a lot of patterns in what people say. For example, a lot of friends said I was very curious. One of the things they noticed about me was that I asked a lot of questions and was very interested in the world around me. That’s something that I think is true, but I wouldn’t necessarily have identified that as being a crucial part of how people saw me, so it was interesting to discover that.

In Stand Out, you say, “It’s not about self-promotion, it’s about changing the world for the better.” Can you talk a little more about that?

Definitely. A lot of times, you’ll hear a critique of personal branding or self-promotion that it is all about you, and that it’s basically just taking a megaphone and screaming to the world how great you are. Some people do that, but the truth is, that is self-promotion done wrong. That is a bad example, and it’s visible to people because it’s so bad. No one likes that. No one responds well to that.

When we talk about standing out, the message is that if you care about advancing your ideas and your cause, you need to be heard about the noise. Somehow you’ve got to get people to take notice. That doesn’t mean bragging – it just means you have to get really clear on what’s different about you and possibly your cause or your organization, if you’re working on a project. And making sure other people can find that message and can hear about it. Otherwise, it’ll just get lost in the rest of the noise.


Nowadays, everyone has a voice on social media. With so many people vying for attention on these channels, how can we find ways to stand out and attract followers?

The challenge has really shifted. The challenge used to be – before the Internet – how do I get my message out there? How can I have a chance to express myself? It was so hard to be selected to appear in the newspaper or magazines. Now, that problem is gone. Everyone can express themselves. Everyone has a blog, a podcast, and that’s great. But there’s a new challenge has arisen, which is – how do you actually get noticed? How do you make sure that if you are writing or speaking or sharing your ideas anyone will see it and care about it? What I suggest in Stand Out is that there’s actually a three-step process that people need to follow to get their ideas heard and to build a following around them.

The first step is getting a trusted group of friends around you. These could be your friends, teachers, coaches, mentors, or family members, but they need to be people whose opinion you trust, and who have your best interest at heart. Those are the people that are your inner circle and can help give you the feedback and encouragement you need to take your ideas to the next level, so when you move to sharing your ideas with the wider world, they’re ready for primetime.

The second step is making your ideas findable. This is what a lot of people think about when it comes to marketing or promotion – it’s writing a blog post, giving a talk, creating a Tumblr blog or an Instagram account and sharing content on it – whatever it is. You do that because the greatest idea in the world isn’t going to have any impact at all if no one’s ever heard of it. You have to share your ideas so that other people can discover them and say “Wow, that speaks to me. I really relate to that idea, too.”

The final stage is when we talk about an idea going viral, how to really ensure that an idea is breaking through – when you are no longer the only person talking about your idea. I talk about this in terms of building a community around your idea. An idea that is just focused on yourself is never going to be that interesting to other people. If it’s all about you and advancing you, no one else is really going to care. But if an idea has real merit for the world, if it’s about empowering other people, or giving them a way to do something better or live their lives better, that’s something that when they hear it, they’re going to connect with and start talking about, because it has meaning for them. That’s when your idea has really succeeded – when other people become the ambassadors spreading the world.


How does a person attract media attention to her ideas or project?

I have two thoughts about that. The first one is that increasingly, the best way to get media coverage is to do what the experts call “inbound marketing.” Basically, this means, start by creating your own content – your own blog or your own social media account – talking about your issue. The reason that this is useful is that almost all reporters these days discover their story ideas and their sources by Googling. If you’re sharing your ideas and they find your stuff and it makes sense and is smart to them, they’re going to call you, and that’s actually the best position to be in.

The second thing is that social media is actually an important tool in building relationships with reporters as well. I think especially Twitter is useful. Journalists are disproportionately represented on Twitter, although many of them are also on other accounts like Instagram. If you connect with them there and start building a relationship, where you’re tweeting at them and liking their posts, they begin to become familiar with who you are and may check out your stuff. That creates enough of an opening for conversation that, over time, you might have the ability to meet them in person or pitch them your idea.

To stand out, do you have to narrow the focus and define yourself in a very specific way? 

That is one of the ways to do it, but it’s not the only way. One strategy that I lay out in Stand Out is the niche strategy, where you define yourself very narrowly. Let’s say you become the expert on what teenagers think about meerkats, so okay, you’re the world’s expert in that. It’s actually a pretty good strategy, because there’s not a lot of competition. It’s a very narrow topic. The trick at that point is to then expand out from there, so that you’re not stuck with this narrow niche forever, but that you’re able to leverage your relationships and contacts to eventually start commenting on related issues.

That’s not the only way to do it. At the other end of the spectrum, one of the strategies that I talk about in Stand Out is actually combining disciplines. I profile a guy named Paco Underhill. He’s a really interesting guy – he’s a business author who’s written books that basically apply the principles of anthropology to business. I write all about his background, which is fascinating – he used to be a night club owner, and almost all the senior leadership of his business consulting company come from the theater world and were actors. He says it’s this multidisciplinary approach that enables him to see the world in different and distinct ways. You can absolutely succeed by bringing in multiple ideas and multiple disciplines if you are a renaissance person.

When somebody is trying to stand out, are there things you’d caution against?

Overt self-promotion. The best ideas and the most lasting ideas are ones that have relevance to people beyond just you. They’re ideas that help the world in some way. It’s really important to know who you are, and to express who you are, but you do that by being yourself authentically and sharing your ideas and talking about them. You don’t have to say you’re great. If you are creating interesting content that you’re sharing online and if you are making real connections with people and building real friendships and relationships, they’ll know you’re great. You do that with your actions, not necessarily with your words.

Is there anything else you’d say to a young person who wants to stand out?

For teenagers especially, that’s certainly the apex of peer pressure and pressure to fit in, it’s kind of a paradox, because on one hand, there’s pressure to stand out and excel and to be seen as the best, and on the other hand, there’s pressure to fit in and to not seem like you’re different from other people. Figuring out how to navigate that is a real challenge for everyone, but especially for teenagers who spend eight hours a day huddled in a pack with people who are their exact same age looking over their shoulder at everything they do. I think it’s important to mention to teenagers that what is going to be helpful to them long term, both personally and professionally, is standing out and learning to be comfortable in your own skin, learning to understand who you actually are and living that out, because there’s nothing sexier or more compelling in a business context than confidence. Having the confidence to really show who you are – that is what shows people you’re the boss.