Stellar Women: "Brag Better" with Author Meredith Fineman

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Stellar Women had not one, but two special guests on the podcast this month: Exiger Global Head of Marketing Kody Gurfein co-hosted with me as we chatted with Meredith Fineman about her book Brag Better.

During our conversation, Meredith details her writing process, how to brag strategically to advance your career, and why we should talk positively about our professional accomplishments. And she shares why it is important for professionals to know that their accomplishments are worth talking about.

Krista Deurmeier

Meredith Fineman

CEO, FinePoint

Author, Brag Batter

Krista Deurmeier

Kody Gurfein

Global Head of Marketing

Exiger

Transcript

Mary Rechtoris: Hey, Stellar Women fans. I’m your host, Mary Rechtoris. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech. Today, we have two special guests on the podcast, the first being my co-host for today, Kody Gurfein. Kody is the global head of marketing at Relativity Partner Exiger and she is also the co-chair and founder of Exiger Women's Initiative Network, aka Exiger WINS. Kody, hey. Thanks for joining!

Kody Gurfein: Thanks Mary! Today, we are so excited to welcome Meredith Fineman, CEO of FinePoint and the author of Brag Better, to the Stellar Women podcast. Meredith, thanks for chatting with us!

Meredith Fineman: I’m excited to be here and chatting with you both about all things Brag Better and beyond.

Mary: Before diving into Qs, my co-host and co-producer of Stellar Women Mila Taylor started a new section for Stellar Women called “Highlight of the Week” to start things off on a fun, positive note. I can share mine first. I had a bittersweet highlight of the week as I finished binging “The Crown”… Kody, what about you?

Kody: LOVED “The Crown.” It’s what I call the perfect “puzzle show.” Fun fact: Emerald Fennel who directed the amazing movie Promising Young Woman plays Camilla Parker Bowles on the show. Okay, love this, my highlight of the week is that Laura Tulchin and I (who are co-chairs of Exiger WINs) have tickets to the NY Botanical Garden to see the Kusama exhibit on Friday—so art is back! Meredith, how about you?

MF: That is so lovely. I'll do a professional one and a personal one. I am starting my Brag Better bootcamps and I have sold out. I’ve sold a couple of corporate ones and that's really exciting. That's my new focus. Personally, I'm finally going to buy a new couch. I'm in my thirties, but couches drive me insane because the only ones I like are a bazillion dollars and they take eight weeks to get. I do not understand why they have to be so expensive.

MR: I've been looking for a dresser. I'm like, “Oh, maybe it'll be a hundred bucks.” How naive I was.

MF: You know, another thing that I do is sustainable fashion by way of resale and secondhand and vintage. So I'd say for most of my stuff, you can totally find a dresser for a hundred dollars. It depends on what condition and depends on how down and dirty you want to get, which is very much not the case for couches. You really can't do that.

MR: So, Meredith, you are the author of Brag Better. I would love to hear about your book. I am a writer and think that it's so cool when people publish a book, so I'd love to hear about your purpose for writing the book and tell me a little bit about the writing process. I'm curious.

MF: So first and foremost, I'm a writer. I am 34 and I started freelance writing when I was 18. I'm a writer first, business person second. I don't even see them as mutually exclusive, which is what some people always told me. But they're not at all. I think writer is an identity and entrepreneur is an occupation. Anyway, that's a different podcast. I co-wrote a book that came out in 2018 called Microtrends Squared. I do a lot of advising in the book industry. I've done book press for about seven or eight years. I am more of a poltergeist than a ghost writer, which means that I usually like my name on things. I’ve written dozens of proposals with a lot of that. So I feel very, very lucky that Brag Better was not my first book. It's the first really with my name on the door and all of my IP and ideas and methodology. And I mean, I fought for it to be published for, I don't know, seven years. And it was a real whole long fight for many years. People told me it just wasn't a good idea or there wasn’t a place for it or don’t use the word “brag.” The basis of this book is the idea that your accomplishments are worth talking about and there's a strategic and comprehensive, tactical way to do it so that you get what you want. People won't know what you've done until you tell them. And so this is a skill to learn and muscle to flex that you'll be using throughout your entire career. It’s one that you can learn, even though it's scary and hard. It's absolutely necessary, particularly in times like this, where you literally cannot drop by your boss's office and update him or her on your wins. It's just incredibly essential. So the process, I came up with it in October of 2013. So it's been a very long time coming. A lot of publishing is hurry up and wait. You know, we don't have time to get into the whole story. But I wrote the book itself very quickly. I wrote it in six months. But I had been toying with these ideas for a long time. It really tested my ability as a PR person, as someone who understands media and messaging and visibility and voice, to have it come out at the height of COVID. I mean, we're still at many heights. But what I mean is that it came out in June 2020. It was supposed to come out in May. It was at a time when it had to be delayed because Amazon was prioritizing medical supplies. I mean it was really just a very wild time. I found deft ways to promote it and get the word out, which I really have to walk the walk since I wrote this book on it. It's been a crazy, crazy process, but overall a great one.

KG: Let’s start out with the terms you use in your book to make sure we’re on the same page. At Exiger, people always ask me how to position themselves, or post on LinkedIn about their work; they crave the tools that you provide. You call these people in your book the “qualified quiet.” What is that and how do you know if you are one? 

MF: Yes. So let's back up and do sort of like a glossary of terms. So I started my company, FinePoint, which now is leadership and professional development, speaking, and training, Brag Better bootcamps for corporate and interpersonal. I started as a PR firm. I also had always simultaneously built this personal brand for myself and started to represent people. I realized that nobody knew how to talk about themselves and it was very frustrating. But I also realized that the habits of publicists [which is] the packaging, the pitching, the storytelling, and the understanding how to craft a compelling pitch and get what you want was super valuable to everyone around me. The word “brag” popped into my head in late 2013 after a client of mine didn't go on TV because she didn't feel qualified and she had been in a presidential administration on the topic. It was not a question. And I hung up the phone with her and I wrote “braggarts” in the margin of my book, and I put parentheses around the word “art.” So it was virtually the art of bragging and how that became Brag Better, I honestly don't know. But that's how I've chosen to encapsulate this idea. I define bragging as stating facts about your work strategically and cohesively to advance your career. And so then my audience, which you could argue is everyone to some degree, is the Qualified Quiet. The people that have done the work. We don't know how to talk about it. That is a strength, not a weakness, and it is irrespective of gender and irrespective of level of seniority. Those are the two main things. This is how I define bragging and what bragging better means. This is how I define people who know what they're doing and then I see other people who have done a third of what they've done and get all of the prizes, whether that is recognition or projects. It's just terribly unfair and it comes from also my frustrations being in and around media and seeing that we just straight up reward the wrong voices. We reward loud. Being the qualified kind of quiet is a strength because the difference between you and someone who is just bragging and hasn't done the work is that you have. And so the one-two punch of having done the work and knowing how to talk about it is unbeatable.

KG: We’ve established people don’t want to “self-promote” or “brag.” In your book you say, “bragging is hard.” Why is bragging traditionally a dirty word that you’ve reclaimed, and can you give us some examples?

MF: You know, many people have told me not to use the word “brag.” I'm also in the business of getting your attention. I wanted a phrase that I felt was compelling, that I thought would capture people, and that I thought I could build a framework around. We don't have a vocabulary to talk positively about professional accomplishment, and that's why it feels scary and icky and anxiety-producing. As women, that's a whole other thing and as anyone who's not a white man … That's a hell of a thing. But these words don't exist so much so that as a writer, as someone whose first stop is language, I'm forced to use a word that is a big hurdle. I mean, braggart is not a pretty one. So I decided to redefine it instead of make up a word which is almost impossible to do and break through with. That is too hard. I could have used a cutesy phrase. We have a couple things. Hype yourself. That is how I did it and decided to reclaim it. It was a fight for the title, but it's ultimately one that I'm glad that that I did. But it's not a pretty word. It elicits the exact same feelings in everyone. But really all it is showcasing your work so that people can say yes to you. I mean, that's all that it is. Nobody will know unless you tell them because they're not going to seek it out. We're still in an emergency. We’re all traumatized. We're all at home. Everybody's dealing with joblessness. They're dealing with childcare. They're dealing with other medical crises. So you have to tell them because they just won't know. And if they don't know, they can't give you what you want. They can't give you the recognition, which could look like money, which could look like time, projects, or a new job. They just straight up won't know. And so it wasn't as effective to be like, you know, this book is called “Communicate Your Work,” so that's really what it is.

KG: You're showing not telling by being as explicit as you'd like people to be.

MF: Yes.

MR: And I love the point you used earlier. Your manager or whomever is not going to, in their 10-minute break, be they like “Oh, what's Mary or Kody doing? Let me go see.” You have to speak for your own work. It's not going to speak for itself. And on the Stellar Women podcast, we like to give very specific takeaways. So if someone's a little bit more hesitant to talk about their work or don't know directly how to go about doing that, what would be one or two recommendations you have?

MF: There are a couple of core messages, which is that your accomplishments are worth talking about. Full stop, the best brag that I’ve ever heard was not from the most senior [person] and they're never the sexiest. It's whatever you're excited about. It is never, ever about reinventing the wheel. I have trained, spoken to, and worked directly with thousands of people on these issues. It's never like, “Oh, I have to go get this degree. Oh, I just have to kill this project in order to start bragging about X, Y, and Z.” You work with what you have. You have enough, enough, enough, enough, which we have a lot assigned to that word too. And then understanding that you're so not alone in these feelings of anxiety or doubt or dread or fear or disgust or disdain. A lot of times your feelings are anxiety based. They can be very alienating and [you may] feel very isolated, but it's pretty universal. Understand those things and start to think about opportunity. Basically every time you open your mouth, and that opening your mouth could mean typing something out, you're communicating about your work to someone else. [Maybe it’s on] social media or while you're waiting for Zoom or in person some day at a networking session. These are opportunities and not burdens. It’s all of those small actions, whether it's making sure to introduce yourself thoughtfully and strategically to the right people or having a business card that you're excited about that’s fun and memorable. All of those little pieces about you and your work end up building this mosaic of who you are and what you do.

KG: Do we sometimes need to find sponsors to help talk about your work to decision makers? How do you locate those people and is it harder in a virtual environment?

MF: Yes. So bragging better is a team sport. It's part of your job if you're someone that people listen to. I talk to men about this a lot. I talk to white people about this a lot. If you are someone we listen to, which means it's very tied to privilege, the ability to be heard and to use your voice freely and be someone that people listen to is a right. But it ends up being more of a privilege more than anything else. It's part of your job to brag on behalf of and in service of others. And then conversely, yes, you need to find advocates because what breaks through in messaging and communicating and telling people what you do is repetition. Are you saying these things over and over and over again? Are they coming from multiple sources consistently? How many times are people hearing this and how similar is that message? Because that's how people retain information. You want to brag on behalf of others and you want to ask them to do so on your behalf. You cannot do this all yourself. It can be mentors. It doesn't have to be, but it's starting to have those conversations. Say, “How can I help promote your work? I'm really proud of this project. Would you be open to sharing it with your network? Would you be open to sharing it on social media?” Or, say, “I have this point. I want to make it a meeting and I'm nervous about it. I also know that the more times someone hears multiple voices, that reinforce a message. Are you open to echoing my sentiments? How can I help you look good?” So do those sorts of things. Start to have those conversations with coworkers, colleagues, bosses, and direct reports. It is really important.

KG: One of the topics we’ve discussed prior to this podcast is that if you give the “qualified quiet” the tools to vocalize their very important views, you likely end up with more diverse voices representing an organization in market. This feels like a natural progression of your work. Are you helping forward-thinking companies navigate increasingly important diversity initiatives by empowering them with your tools? What's next for you? 

MF: I work with a lot of companies to have these conversations to make sure the women in their companies feel like they're heard. Allyship is also sometimes shutting up on behalf of others and amplifying their voices. But yeah, we need to have a landscape of voices that reflect what people look like racially, ethnically, and having gender parity. A lot of that is really pie in the sky because, what will it take to get there? I think a lot. But it’s definitely important. And it's funny because, you know, more diverse boardrooms, companies, and leadership teams only lead to more money. So like at its baseline, it has been proven over and over and over again that the more diverse leadership of a company, the better it does. So you can't really argue with it at that point, save for certain people wanting to retain power.

KG: There’s innovation, better business case, and as you said, bottom line.

MR: Kody, with your WINs group and I'm part of RelWoW, we're very involved in ID&B initiatives at our respective companies. And I know this topic is personal, but I think it's true. The statistics show diverse teams thrive and it's going to help your company. So I think relating to different stakeholders on that level and also that it’s the right thing to do for your fellow human is super important. That's really great that you're working on that as well.

MF: It's free to echo someone's voice. It's free and it's easy to promote their work and post them in your social media. It's a great habit to practice.

MR: Meredith, as we wrap up here, how can our listeners get to know you, see what you're up to, and most importantly, get your awesome book?

MF: Yes. So I'm inner editable because I have to walk the walk. You can find me on meredithfineman.com. I'm on all platforms out there. You can get Brag Better wherever you get books. If you go to brag-better.com, there's a full list. We're on Bookshop and Amazon. There's a list of Black independent bookstores that carry the books. You can get the Kindle and the audiobook. If you do get it, give me a shout because I try to be good about sending out the plates, which are signed stickers. You can have a signed copy because I can’t be “IRL” and sign in person.

MR: Listeners, I am going to be posting a link to where you can purchase Meredith's awesome book in the blog transcript and we'll be posting about it on our social media. So I really, really encourage you all to check it out. And I want to thank Kody for being an awesome co-host. And Meredith, I am so excited you could join us. It was such a pleasure talking with you.

MF: I'm thrilled to do it. Thank you so much for having me.

MR: For Stellar Women. I'm Mary Rechtoris.

KG: And I'm Kody Gurfein.

Kody & Mary: Signing off.

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