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How to Make Yourself Stand Out in Business

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Over your working life, the question you’ll have been asked most frequently is “What do you do?” Generally, people take this to mean, “Tell me about your job.” But the deeper question that is really being asked is why the person asking you should find you interesting.

It is equally important in a social context and for the same reason. We all need to know what makes us interesting; it is our added value. If you don’t know your own added value, you will probably say the wrong things about yourself.

A very high proportion of business presentations fail because they tell the wrong story. They talk about what they do, not about the benefits they offer. Similarly, most elevator speeches fail for the same reason.

So, let’s see how some people get it wrong, and you can decide if that applies to you as well.

Second class? Really?

Recently, I was asked to review the CV of a young man in his mid-20s. As it stands, the CV will fail. It follows an old-fashioned format, opening with his education – second-class honours, averaging 67% across all courses. Then his A levels and GCSEs.

Whatever the intention, the term “second class” is a definite turn-off. He’s telling the world he’s an average guy, fresh out of university, second-class (67%). Unexceptional. Why look any further? In the bin.

In reality, this is who he is: a young achiever with a 2:1 in economics and political science and a track record of excellence in a range of sports. Numerate market researcher and proactive networker with conversational Spanish and an eclectic mix of work experience, including insurance, marketing, and dealing with the public.

Personal attributes include advanced communication and social skills, an admirable work ethic, and exceptional integrity. That’s who he is. He’s been saying all the wrong things about himself.

Margaret’s added Value

Margaret is someone else who needed help getting a new job. She was quite senior in industry and was badly shaken by being made redundant. All her job applications were being rejected. 

We met on Skype, and I set up a mock interview. I said, “Tell me about yourself,” and she ran through her job history. I stopped her, saying, “Wrong story. They don’t care where you’ve been. They prefer to hear where you can take them – how they will benefit from taking you on.”

I showed her the picture of two men holding up placards. One stated, “Hire me. These are my qualifications.” The other stated, “Down but not out.” I asked her which was the more interesting person. She picked the latter.

Based on her understanding of the point in that picture, I helped her to realise her own added value, telling her, “This is what you bring to the table. This is who you are, and this is what you tell them you are offering.” I re-wrote her CV and coached her in handling an interview. She sent the CV to six companies, got five interviews, and got four job offers. All because she told the right story and believed in her own added value.

It’s not enough to tell an attractive story. You need to believe what it is saying about you.

John Sim the artist

John Sim was painting an underwater scene depicting a sunken man-o’-war with a couple of divers exploring the wreck. He called it the “final resting place”. Someone had upset him by saying no man-o’-war had ever sunk completely, as he was showing it. But he did some research and discovered that the Royal George had done just that.

I quoted, “Toll for the brave, the brave that are no more, all sunk beneath the wave, fast by their native shore.” Startled, he said, “What’s that?” I told him it was a poem called “On the loss of the Royal George.”

I picked up his leaflet promoting the new painting and said, “The Final Resting Place” is simply about a ship that sank. It’s a literal description. You are saying you have no imagination. The Royal George is about the valiant men who went down with their ship.  It’s a better story.” So, I redesigned his leaflet with the headline, “Toll for the brave, the brave that are no more.” A much more evocative story.

Last August in St Ives we invited John Sim for dinner. He thanked me for my help and said I had helped him sell many copies of the painting. And then he paid for dinner!

The exceptional Hilary Mayes 

An artist called Hilary Maye asked me to help her with her leaflet. It stated: Hilary Mayes, wildlife artist. I said no; that’s the wrong story. You are way better than most other artists in your field.

We added one word, “the”. To read: Hilary Mayes, The Wildlife Artist. What a huge difference that made! Another change was to add, “She captures the essence of the wildlife she portrays.”

This positioned her as distinctive and better than all the other artists who paint animals and birds. She now had the right story to tell.


Finally, take a close look at the way you talk about yourself. Is it linear, is it formulaic, or is it just plain ordinary? And is that who you really are? Are you defined by what you do or by your added value?

Here are a few words of advice:

  • Identify what will encourage people to deal with you rather than others
  • What is your added value?
  • Can you style yourself as “the” something or other?
  • Avoid taking the linear timeline approach 
  • Don’t use negative terms about yourself
  • And, most importantly, don’t let your job title define you. What’s the benefit of what you do?

Phillip Khan-Panni is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs.

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