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  • Kirsten Bell

Anthropological tips on how to become a thought leader on LinkedIn

After eschewing social media for years, I recently joined LinkedIn.1 Nine months later, I am not what you would call a LinkedIn superstar. When not badgering me to upgrade to a premium account (only £35 a month!), LinkedIn sends me messages about how badly my few posts are performing, the need to post more regularly, and reminds me of all the people I might know and should be connecting with to reach a respectable – or at least less embarrassing – number of followers.

Now, I appreciate that these revelations might make you question how one of the least followed people on LinkedIn can provide you with useful tips on how to become a thought leader on the platform. However, where I differ from the multitudes of people offering advice is that my tips are informed by anthro-vision as opposed to anything as passé as becoming an actual LinkedIn influencer. This, according to Gillian Tett, is basically a hidden super-power that enables me to ‘see around corners, spot what is hidden in plain sight, gain empathy for others, and fresh insight on problems’.2

After months of participant observation on the site (otherwise known as ‘using it sporadically’), I believe I’ve cracked the code to becoming a thought leader on LinkedIn. The key assumption you must disabuse yourself of is that your LinkedIn profile is a straightforward representation of your qualifications and experience. That kind of old fashioned thinking has no place on the platform and will only get you into trouble. Instead, you are engaged in an act of marketing of you, or, rather your brand, which is something far more important.

Users of the site are constantly engaged in what the sociologist Erving Goffman described as a kind of theatrical performance where we seek to control the impressions others have of us. But what we see on social media is impression management elevated to performance art. This is because our online performances are not fleeting, contextual and limited to those we directly encounter, but permanent, decontextualised and accessible by potentially anyone. For this reason, the sociologist Bernie Hogan has argued that social media is best thought of as an exhibition space rather than a performance space: what we are producing on social media are not performances but artefacts.

Kind of like the latest Ai Weiwei exhibition, these artefacts ‘explore the tension between past and present, hand and machine, precious and worthless, construction and destruction’, except that the object we are meditating on is not ‘value and humanity, art and activism’, but something far more important: ourselves. Every day on the platform you will see artists – LinkedIn Ai Weiweis, if you will – who leave you breathless with their sheer mastery of the medium. It is from studying these masters that I have gleaned my central insights.

1. The power of threes

A lot of people on LinkedIn assume that the key information in your profile, aside from your name, should be your job title. Look, I get it, but this is precisely the sort of naive thinking you must overcome if you are to succeed on the platform. Your keywords should tell your followers and connections something fundamental about who you are. That’s not your job, silly; that’s your brand identity!3

For example, let’s say you’re an unemployed environmental science graduate who occasionally posts comments in The Guardian under the name ‘angry_environmentalist560’. You’re a Researcher | Writer | Activist4 or a Scientist | Writer | Environmentalist. Alternatively, you might work in HR – but don’t, for the love of god, say that! Your appropriate tagline is People | Management | Teams or Projects | People | Productivity.5 Or maybe you’re the CEO of a company – your brand is Leadership | Strategy | Insights or some variant thereof.

Have you noticed a theme yet? Basically, you can put any words together you want; the only rule is that they must come in threes. This is because three is the most powerful of all primes – as evidenced by the Holy Trinity and home decorating advice.6 Put any random three words together, separated by a symbol that only cool people can find on their keyboard, and suddenly they become significant; profound, even (e.g., Teacher | Father | Storyteller7). If you feel that three words or phrases simply aren’t enough to describe your brand, other primes like five (and, very rarely, seven) are acceptable – but only if you’ve reached the hallowed thousand follower mark.

2. Humblebragging is LinkedIn’s main currency

Okay, I’m stating the obvious here, but if you want to succeed on LinkedIn, you need to master the art of humblebragging. I’m not talking about the kind of over-the-top humblebragging that leads to rants about the toxicity of LinkedIn. Think more along the lines of the humblebrag’s subtler sibling: demure boasting.

Everyone on LinkedIn does it; it’s basically LinkedIn’s default setting. Try updating your job on the platform and it will practically force you demure-boast about it, with an automated ‘I’m happy to report that…’ notification pushed to your followers, along with a jarring accompanying image of members of a cupcake-worshipping cult.8

In essence, it’s important not to just state that you’ve done something that readers might be interested in knowing about. Instead, you must preface your post with a statement that conveys your amazement, surprise or disbelief at your good fortune. Key phrases to employ are: ‘I’m thrilled to share that…’, ‘I was humbled to learn that…’, ‘I was proud to be involved with…’, ‘I’m glad to announce that…’, ‘I’m delighted to inform you that…’, ‘It was a real privilege to…’.

An alternative strategy is to provide the announcement whilst simultaneously deflecting in some way from it. My preferred approach is ironic commentary suggesting that you’re not taking this news very seriously and are sharing it in an eye-rolling sort of way. But an alternative method is ostensibly shining the spotlight on someone else in the post – such as an individual, an animal or an organisation (bonus points if you can add a cute image!). For example, if you’ve won an award for your work for the World Wildlife Fund, you might post a picture of Gu Gu, the giant panda, and a statement like ‘It’s fellas like this big guy who convinced me to get involved in the WWF; I dedicate my Lifetime Achievement Award to Gu Gu’.9

3. Post a constant stream of inspireamingless messages

Anyone with a LinkedIn account will have a feed full of pseudo-inspirational quotes and meaningless professional advice – what I like to call ‘inspireamingless’ messages. While not an actual word, it’s an amalgam of the three core attributes of the ideal LinkedIn post: 1) it should sound inspirational, 2) it should be completely meaningless, and 3) there should be reams of it, in as many formats as possible. I’m talking quotes from our spiritual elders,10 short videos prefaced by your completely unrelated takeaway message, story posts framed like Aesop’s fables insofar as they end with a lesson you’ve learned (and frequently involve animals), or pithy nuggets of advice that sound hard-won, but are largely an exercise in stating the bleeding obvious.

Although inspireamingless messages are the platform’s most derided feature, providing endless inspiration for LinkedIn shitposters, the ubiquity of such posts is what differentiates LinkedIn from its more psychotic sibling, Twitter, where seemingly innocent exchanges quickly devolve into death threats. One of the reasons for this is that LinkedIn is a social networking site for professionals – namely, people wanting to sell themselves to potential employers. This leads to a very particular form of ‘expressive control’: Goffman’s term for the constant self-monitoring we undertake on the social stage.

According to Goffman, while we rely on our audience to interpret minor cues that form part of our everyday performance, they also rely on unintentional cues we emit that potentially divert from the impression we are trying to create. Because we’re aware of this possibility, we try to ensure that the minor events in our performance ‘convey either no impression or an impression that is compatible and consistent with the over-all definition of the situation that is being fostered’.

In an environment where our fleeting social performances have become elevated to the status of permanent public artefacts, the safest option is to give the appearance of saying something whilst simultaneously saying nothing at all. This explains how the quote ‘True leaders don’t create followers. They create more leaders’ has over 38,000 likes, thumbs-up and hearts on LinkedIn and well over 5,000 reposts. The LinkedIn effect is so powerful that even posts about how to succeed on LinkedIn follow this rule – like this one from a guy with over 36,000 followers that includes tips like ‘Shine on LinkedIn™ by prioritizing quality’ and ‘Personalize exchanges and invitations’.

4. Make sure your picture speaks the right words

Look, we all know that a picture’s worth a thousand words, so while you’ve probably chosen a flattering picture for your profile, you may have given less thought to the fact that your picture is presenting your ‘brand’. In essence, you need to make sure your headshot is communicating the right genre. Although I haven’t yet had the chance to give this topic the serious scholarly attention it deserves, here are some general factors that you will need to consider.

If you’re an academic or scientist, it’s important to avoid a professional photograph11 – what you want is a flattering photo that has been clearly taken by an amateur (or gives the appearance of such), ideally with something representing your profession in the background. For example, if you’re a geologist, you might be in the field, or at a mine, or wearing a hard hat or high vis gear (or both12); if you’re an ecologist, try to have some foliage or animals in the background and wear a field vest! Conversely, if you’re an academic – or at least a social scientist – make sure there are books in the background; add beakers or a white board with equations on it if you’re a bench scientist.

But ignore these rules entirely if you’re an academic or a scientist that has moved into a corporate role. In that case, make sure your photo is a professional shot (or gives the appearance of such) and that you are wearing business attire. If you’re a man, this basically means a suit, although if you want to look casual, lose the tie, or add a jumper over your collared shirt – although be careful not to veer too far into Bill Gates territory. If you’re a woman, a collared shirt or a blouse (plain colours only, please!) is the way to go; the jacket is optional.

Now, if you’re corporate but an entrepreneur or in the tech industry, forget everything I’ve just said. You’ll want to be wearing a t-shirt or a mandarin-style button up.13 The point is that collars are not your friend: they symbolise staidness, while you, my friend, are a rebel. You might also want to add accessories – a baseball cap, a funky necklace – but beware of veering too far off-piste. Richard Branson might be able to get away with a spacesuit, but you’ll just look insane.

So there you have it! Once you have your three-word brand and your genre photo in place, you’ll be ready to humblebrag and inspireamingless post your way to LinkedIn success. As the great hairstylist-philosopher Vidal Sassoon (or was it the wise American football coach-philosopher Vince Lombardi Jr?) once said: 'the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary'.



1 Did I write this piece purely to increase my number of followers on LinkedIn? I’m not saying I did, but I’m not saying I didn’t, either.

2 Sadly, I’ve had less success than I would like in convincing family and friends of the existence of an anthropological version of a spidey-sense. ‘But I’m an anthropologist’, I frequently say in arguments as a clincher, only to receive a dismissive eye roll in response. All I can say is that my life would be easier if more members of my family had read Anthro-Vision (or, at least, subscribed to its central premise).

3 I must confess that I haven’t followed my own advice here, but that’s only because I haven’t yet narrowed down my brand identity. Am I an Anthropologist | Scholar | Writer or an Anthropologist | Writer | Thinker? Or maybe I’m an Anthropologist | Writer | Cat Lover – to show off my quirky side. Or maybe I’m not an anthropologist at all, but simply a Writer and a Thinker. But what’s the third one? ‘Drinker’ springs to mind, and has a pleasant rhyming quality, but makes me sound like an unrepentant alcoholic.

4 If, like me, it takes you ten minutes to find ‘the pipe’ (a.k.a. the ‘Where’s Waldo’ symbol) on your keyboard, full stops will suffice (as in Writer. Scholar. Activist) or, if you’re desperate, dashes (as in Writer – Scholar – Activist). But if you want to look cool, learn to find, and love, the pipe! It’s basically the surfer dude of keyboard symbols.

5 Alliteration is your friend: use it!

6 I have a whole chapter devoted to this topic in my book Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour, for those wanting to learn more about the power of primes. (Did I write this piece purely so I could mention the book? I’m not saying I did, but I’m not saying I didn’t, either.)

7 If you can read those three words without tearing up and humming ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’, you’re dead inside.

8 I’m not sure who copied whom, and don’t care enough to find out, but between this image and the cult of the Everything Bagel in Everything Everywhere All At Once, I wouldn’t be surprised if the American Bakers Association is involved.

9 Newsflash, WWF awardee: Gu Gu doesn’t want your award, Gu Gu wants to maul you.

10 You know, like Audrey Hepburn, the attributed source of the quote beloved of LinkedIners everywhere: ‘Nothing is impossible, the word itself says “I’m possible”!’

11 If you feel compelled to use a professional photograph, make sure it’s years out of date to give the impression that you’re far too preoccupied with weighty scientific and scholarly matters to care about your LinkedIn headshot and used the first picture you found lying around on your computer. But do not go full renegade and avoid a photograph entirely; down that path, LinkedIn purgatory lies.

12 Cough, Andrew Ham, cough.

13 Avoid turtlenecks; Elizabeth Holmes has turned it into a stereotype by copying Steve Jobs too overtly.

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