Storytelling Your Career: Finding the Stories

Storytelling Your Career: Finding the Stories

“But I don’t have any stories!” As a storytelling professor, I’ve heard this many times, and every time I have the same thoughts: everyone has stories, but some people just haven’t noticed them or developed them yet. While we tell stories every day, we may not think of them as such, nor do we structure them in ways that would make sense beyond our closest friends and loved ones. But the good news is that our minds inherently think in story. So, whether or not we know it, we all have plenty of stories to tell.

Mining Your History for Stories

When the pressure is on, especially when we are launching new careers or contemplating big transitions, it can be much harder to identify the stories we need to tell. For this kind of storytelling, we want to mine our successes, triumphs, and learning experiences. After all, we want to present our work in the best possible light while being truthful about our experiences, free from exaggeration or embellishment. Unfortunately, this desire to look our best can put more pressure on the situation, and as a result many people freeze and forget their history. Preparation is key.
To start mining your history  for your career stories,look for times when you have either accomplished something specific—hopefully with tangible, documented outcomes—or have contributed effectively to a process. For example, when have you...
  • Failed and learned something valuable?
  • Pushed for a necessary change?
  • Communicated your work effectively?
  • Led by example?
  • Demonstrated flexibility?
Questions like these, along with a blank document or piece of paper, are the first step in seeking out your own stories. Seeking is messy, so start by listing anything that comes to mind. These answers don’t have to be in story form when you first find them, they just have to be relevant to actions you have taken at some point in your work life.

Practice Telling Your Stories With a Friendly Audience

But is it really just a matter of finding the right question and writing down the answer? If we take seriously the idea that storytelling is a dynamic and transformative exchange between the tale, the teller, and the audience, we should first tell our tales to a friendly audience. In other words, start with internal reflection, but take your stories out to an audience as soon as you can.

Recently, I spoke with a student who was working on a statement of purpose for an application. In his statement, he had described a detailed technical project, but when I asked why and for whom the project would be significant, he was stumped. This is often the way that our minds work, segmenting our technical expertise from our broader sense of purpose, and this segmentation is at its  worst when we’re under stress. I gave him two suggestions:
1) Talk to a friend about your work and what it means. In that conversation, seek feedback on what you’re describing, and see if you can develop a better sense of why this project matters.
2) Set yourself up for success with this reflective story mining process. If you’re hampered by a sense of the final product, then set that aside and work in a different medium. If you’re writing in a language that’s not your first language (as this student was), then start over in your first language. Go back to words and forms where you feel most at home. From there, you’ll have a better chance of remembering and making meaningful the material you need to tell clear and effective career stories.

Structure Your Stories for Effective Communication

After you have some sense of the moment—whether long periods or brief—that have been most important to your career, your next goal is to structure your stories. You can do this organically or organizationally. Organically, the approach is simple but takes time: tell your story many times to several different audiences. As you begin to feel the form of the story more clearly, you will also know where to ask for input from your audiences. Don’t be afraid to tell the same story to one audience several times, as they will be able to give you good feedback on what changes from version to version, and to help you keep and refine the best parts.
Organizationally, the approach is slightly different. This can take less time initially, but, since you always need to rehearse your career stories in advance of an interview, it won’t entirely replace the organic approach. The organizational approach is to take the events and categorize them into three parts, which are structurally the beginning, middle, and end. Two common formulae for this are:
  • Challenge, Action, Result
  • Situation, Action, Result
The beginning of your story (challenge, or situation) will depend on its content and context. The middle action portion should recount some action that you took. Most of the time, this will be a decision, a new process, or an unexpected solution to a technical or social problem. Even if the action was nothing but an excellent judgment call to pause before overreacting, the middle part of a good career story involves action. The ending is about the result. In some cases, a result might be clearly defined through metrics, while in other cases the result may be averting a crisis or disaster. No matter what, always highlight a spectacular result!  

Tell Your Stories When Under Pressure

In very short versions of career stories, particularly in time-limited interview settings, you can choose to put the result first to get the audience’s attention, and then work backward to the challenge or situation and the action you took. For example, if you increased widget production efficiency by 80%, start with that fact and then work backwards to the challenges of inefficient widget production and the actions you took to solve that problem. Even if you don’t reverse the order, which won’t always make sense (check with your rehearsal audiences and see what they think), if you have achieved an outstanding result in your work, tell that story.

Once you work through the process of collecting moments in your own work history and developing them as stories, then you are ready to prepare for writing cover letters and handling any interviews that happen to come your way. You arrive on the scene of an interview with stories that you’re ready to tell, stories that capture key moments in your professional career and, hopefully, demonstrate how your abilities align with the opportunity before you. While you must listen carefully to the questions asked, you are also already prepared with descriptions of your work, in story form, that would answer multiple kinds of questions.

There are no shortcuts to gathering, preparing, and rehearsing/refining your stories. The investment of time may be significant, but the products as well as the concomitant process of reflection are highly valuable to your ability to articulate what you have achieved, explored, or started in your career so far. Before moving on to interviews (in the next blog post), take a moment to celebrate the stories you already know as well as those you will be gathering and refining soon, along with the successes or moments of professional growth that they represent.

Storytelling Your Career: The Basics

Sometimes the most basic forms of creativity are the most difficult to master. For many of us, this comes up when we attempt to tell the story of our career, whether aspirationally or in retrospect. In forms such as cover letters, personal statements, or research/teaching statements, we strive to mobilize our stories.  We attempts to go beyond flat descriptions of our goals or accomplishments and toward a vivid sense of our commitments and abilities in action. This is usually much harder than it sounds.

Stories are about action. True stories from our own experiences require us to step outside of ourselves and focus on what these stories mean about us from the perspective of someone else. That someone else may be considering hiring us, evaluating us, or trying to assign us work that best fits with our abilities. In other words, they are taking action. We tell our stories to show how we are able to take action to gather data, solve problems, and advance the mission of our workplaces.

There are at least two major barriers to telling our own career stories. The first is emotional. We can be timid creatures, easily overwhelmed and frightened by the necessity to exhibit our abilities and expose ourselves to scrutiny. This barrier explains the deep fatigue that can accompany the work of writing documents that represent our career.

The second is practical. It can be difficult to discern which parts of the ongoing chronology of our lives are story worthy. While The Moth podcast always wishes its listeners "a story worthy week," that doesn’t mean their every week feels like a story. This is because stories are made from life only when the continuous chaos of life is distilled into episodes. Finding the right episode is difficult, and requires us to face barriers of memory and clarity. Sometimes, in the moment, we have an insight that this will make a great story. More often, we muddle along and then occasionally dig back into the past to try to unearth our best stories, polish them, and make them shine.

The cover letter is a variant on the romance genre. The story is that of you, me, and us. You start with acknowledging the job. Then you move to sharing about yourself, focusing on your actions rather than your attributes, and telling several mini-stories about how your experiences make you the perfect romantic heroine for the job. In the end, you give a brief sense of how you might join them to make an "us," how you might belong in that work or that workplace. 
Romance and lego blocks are two of the metaphors I use to help remove emotional and practical barriers to effective career storytelling. Situating a cover letter as the start of a relationship helps explain and soothe application jitters. Visualizing a cover letter as a series of lego blocks that fit together helps to make the goal and the writing process concrete.

In my Storytelling Your Career workshops, I use storytelling strategies, narrative theories, and interactive story exercises to facilitate story sharing. Then, based on my decade of teaching, I offer real-time feedback on structure, content, and potential audience. At the same time, I invite the audience to give feedback, with one rule: if you think you have a criticism, ask a question instead. This leaves the teller in control of their own story and keeps the audience in the position of helping to refine the storytelling rather than tearing down the teller or taking over the story. I usually start feedback with my own questions, partly to model this behavior and partly to help the person who just took the risk of sharing their story to stay in power as the storyteller.

There is power in storytelling workshops because of the collective attention of an audience. We love to hear stories, and others’ stories often make us recall our own stories. As long as the group consists of about 10 or more people, I find that one person's story sharing will spark several others to share their stories. The mere fact of having a live audience for these stories encourages some people to take risks that they would not think to take while sitting alone with a piece of paper. Storytelling is the best way to learn storytelling, and there is no storytelling without an audience. 

It's not every day that we reach major moments of change in our careers. When we do, it’s time to dig in, find our stories, and to polish them up with telling and retelling. Only then are we ready to draft our cover letter, or to prepare for an interview. Then, with these stories firmly in mind, it’s time to listen for the questions that the job ad or interviewer poses to you, and to answer them with your stories of work, learning, triumphs, and persistence. You put your stories to work by planning how they might connect to the questions we are asked, and to the overall work of the organization. Take action and tell your stories.

From Trouble to Struggle

 If you want to tell a story from your life, Donald Davis says: look for trouble. I've been talking with workshop participants lately about person, place, and problem as a basic set of necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) story elements.(1) The trouble comes with this word, "problem." Sometimes we tell stories that have an obvious problem, where we or the protagonist encounter an obstacle, barrier, or a mean old villain. If all stories had obvious villains, it would be easier to develop them as stories! But much of the time it's hard to identify exactly what the problem is, especially if you're doing something like telling a story related to your career, your path to success, or your organization's successes or challenges. Sure, you know you need some trouble to keep the audience interested, but is it really okay to talk so openly about a problem? If you or your organization has faced a serious problem, then you might not feel comfortable talking about it. Let's face it, the things that get most humans and organizations into real and serious trouble aren't polite dinner conversation. 

However, it's vital that a storyteller take risks. It's vital that the tale contains tension. Even relatively small obstacles in life, like not knowing what major to choose or being unsure of which grant to apply for, can make for good stories. The trick is that trouble has to be faced and amplified, resisted or engaged, so that trouble becomes struggle.

Trouble has to become Struggle.

For a story to be powerful and meaningful, the troubles you are facing have to increase in intensity in ways that correspond meaningfully with your mission and/or connect meaningfully with your audience. I'll start with a fun example and then take on something more serious.

Alumnus Daniel Burkhalter (MS/LIS) once told a story at the annual Storytelling Festival about a time from his childhood when his family had a big square TV. He really wanted to watch it while his parents were away at church on Sunday nights. But every time he did, they would catch him--trouble! He discovered that they knew he had been watching because the TV was warm. And he came up with a plan, involving ice cubes, to cool down the TV so that they would not know if he had been watching--from trouble to struggle

Struggle is what happens when you dig in and do something about trouble. You either start digging your way out or digging your way in deeper--either way, your audience will want to know what happens next. If an organization faces a funding crisis, the story starts to take off when people pull together to try something new. If a library is devastated by a flood, the struggle to rebuild and the community that pulls together to make it happen are key to the story. 

Struggle is taking a risk in the face of trouble, and not knowing yet whether the risk will actually pay off. That's what helps to captivate an audience. That's also what shows commitment to your own ethics and ideals, without your having to explain them.

You either start digging your way out or digging your way in deeper.

So when you don't think you have a story to tell, look for a time of trouble when you took action. Whether that action had good or bad effects will determine whether the story is funny, inspiring, or a cautionary tale of what not to do. If you've ever had a difficulty and made a choice, you have a story to tell.

(1) inspired by a conversation in a recent podcast of The Moth on storytelling