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.

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