The great Danish author, Isak Dinesen once said, “To be a person is to have a story.” Indeed, storytelling is one of the most human of activities because our very lives are shaped by the stories we tell, the stories we hear and most certainly by the stories others tell about us. And yet I am still amazed by how many people aren’t able to convincingly tell their own professional story when called upon to do so: a story that reaches beyond the facts and information in their resume and effectively conveys their personal brand.
To illustrate: about four years ago a long-term client asked me to interview a candidate for the Communications Director position they were trying to fill. For the record, I have never been the best interviewer. As the consummate middle child, my primary motivation during any interview always seems to be helping the interviewee feel good about his or herself, walking out of the room feeling more charmed by me than challenged.
My client knows (and I choose to believe, adores) this about me. And so in asking me to interview this candidate he also asked that I not coddle her while doing so. “She has strong experience Bill,” he said, “I just want to get a better sense for what lies beneath that. So no questions like, ‘What’s your favourite TV show?’ or ‘Are you a dog or a cat person?’”
Five minutes into our interview, after my usual opener of pleasantries and small talk, I paused and said, “So, tell me your story.” In response she started to walk me chronologically through the facts outlined in her resume. “No, no, no…I’ve read all of that already,” I said, “Tell me your story.”
“Ummm…what do you mean, tell you my story?” she asked.
“You know…your story. Give me a sense about what shapes and defines you; what gets you out of bed each morning; what made you decide to get into communications.”
[SFX: More crickets. I think a tumbleweed rolled across the floor.]
“Oh…I’ve never really thought of that before,” she admitted. And then she tried to answer my question to the best of her ability, but in doing so gravitated quickly back to what she knew, which was the information on her resume. I felt bad that my question had stumped her, but was also surprised that it had.
To effectively present yourself as a professional, you need to reach beyond the facts of your resume to convey what motivates and drives you as a person. Make no mistake, your skills and experience certainly play a role in defining your career, but in an increasingly competitive marketplace, they rarely differentiate you. What can distinguish you, however, are the concepts, philosophies and character that lie beneath your skills and experiences: the essence of who you are and how you both think about and approach the work that you do. What can distinguish you is your story.
To stand out and truly engage others—be they potential clients, employees, bosses, etc.—you need to personalize your professional story. And to accomplish this, I always suggest a two-pronged approach.
ONE: Explore, uncover and define your Personal Brand Story — When we work with companies at an organizational level to help them uncover the strategic story of their brand (or branded initiative), we start with developing their Core Brand Story. This isn’t a narrative per se as much as it’s defining different facets of their brand in a more storied and human way, steering clear of the overly wrought, inhuman mission or vision statements that plague so much brand planning work.
In our Leadership Through Storytelling training we do the same with executives and managers, compelling them to dig beyond the facts and chronology of their careers to uncover what shapes and defines them as professional people. We get them to answer questions such as:
- What’s the higher purpose driving your efforts: the ultimate impact that your work enables you to achieve?
- What difference do you want to make in people’s lives? In the world?
- What are you fighting for or against?
- What is it that you value most about yourself as a person?
- What do you find most meaningful and fulfilling about the work that you do?
As an example, I used to think that the higher purpose of my work was storytelling. Only when my executive coach Linda Oglov kept relentlessly pushing me to dig deeper did I figure out that storytelling was really a means to an end, and that that end is really about helping companies and organizational leaders bring more meaning and humanity to their work…and their workforce. This is the higher purpose that drives my work and the rest of the BB&Co team. It was quite an epiphany.
TWO: Develop a library of exemplary stories (narratives) that bring to life the core elements of your Personal Core Story — Looking back on your career and your life, what stories can you identify that epitomize the different threads of your Personal Core Story and make them real for others? For instance, do you have…
- A story around the original trigger or catalyst that launched your career?
- A story about a time when it all just “clicked” and you knew this was what you were meant to be doing?
- A story from your youth that could serve as the perfect predictor or precursor to what you do today?
- A story around a key turning point or transition in your career and why it had to occur?
- A story about the best time in your career…and/or the worst?
Never forget that your resume or CV speaks to the facts; your professional story speaks to your character. It provides context to the facts and makes them meaningful, serving as the thread that weaves those facts together into a larger narrative that speaks volumes. So the next time somebody opens a door by asking you to “tell me your story,” be ready to walk through it. And in doing so, don’t just tell the facts, tell a story.