Originally posted on Forbes.com.
A colleague of mine recalls a time when a new boss had taken over her department and everyone was anxious. One of his first acts: handing out New York Times obituaries of distinguished people. “Read these,” he said, “and think about what your obituaries would say.”
His gambit worked. The ice was broken and the team was inspired. And although he didn’t say a word about personal branding, he encouraged his charges to think about it.
After all, what is a more definitive positioning statement than the final words that will be written about most of us? What else cuts so quickly the essence of what we did, what we stood for, who we were?
The Times headlines are indeed great: Michael J. Maye, Scrappy Leader of Firefighters’ Union; Edith Houghton, Rare Woman Among Baseball Scouts; Jake McNiece, Who Led Incorrigible D-Day Unit; and Zhuang Zedong, Skilled in China Foreign Relations and Ping-Pong were among them in recent weeks. Obituaries as slogans or taglines for personal brands. It’s counterintuitive but perfectly logical.
Of course, most people’s accomplishments pale in comparison to those. You can be the star of the marketing department or a chief executive who presided over record profits or an unfailingly devoted spouse and parent, but it’s unlikely that a major newspaper is going to deem your life and death worthy of a three-column headline in 24-point type.
Occasionally, an impartial journalist who didn’t know you will rely on reported accomplishments and interviews with loved ones to write an obituary. But in general, when your death is of more interest to family, friends, colleagues and your immediate community, the text of an obit is written by the loved ones themselves, who make no pretense of (and have to reason to aspire to) objectivity. They can spin your life and position your brand however they want.
This is a relatively new phenomenon. Hometown newspapers used to publish obituaries that stuck to the basic facts: age, cause of death, survivors and plans for memorial services. But now that’s changed, thanks to trends like newspapers letting families write the obits (and sometimes pay by the column inch for the privilege), websites such as Legacy.com that let everyone publish and add to their recollections of the departed, and the general shift in mindset brought about by social media toward radical transparency and constant sharing.
For the most part, that has resulted in revisionist histories or downright hagiographies that play up the deceased’s best qualities. When people write about their parents or partners, they really do brag.
This is how regular people get branded in perpetuity, and their survivors assume a role as perpetual caregiver for their brand, posting new material on Legacy.com on the anniversary of a death, or adding a photograph of their recently lost mother as a young woman on their Facebook page.
Now everyone gets the treatment celebrities get. Their families and friends can fawn over them in the same breathless tone that People writers use to memorialize Mindy McCready or Whitney Houston. They can get the same photographic tributes that Princess Di still gets from time to time.
Or they can get something far less elevated. Connecticut newspaper The Day columnist David Collins once wrote a funny column called “Celebrating Obituaries with Style.” He wrote about some of the more frank tributes families had written, such as “An intelligent, perceptive, artistic and kind man, Peter nonetheless drank himself to death” and someone who had “a real interest in and honest concern for people that made him many friends, despite his total lack of tact. He had a short fuse.”
Lines like that led one reader of The Day, Nina Lentini, to collect her favorites on her blog Life Without End, an endearing compendium of the way survivors thought people might have wanted to be branded, or just the way they wanted to brand themselves.
Admittedly, the site is better for a little comic relief than for serious branding lessons. But Lentini stumbled upon what could be a solution for anyone worried about how he or she will be branded after death: Some had written their own obituaries.
Why not? We write wills that explain what to do with our possessions. We draft life directives for how we want our final weeks and days to play out. We leave instructions for the type of memorial service we want. So why not type up at least some bullet points for our final positioning statement?