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by Mark Crouter, PCC, Certified Strengths Coach

We all have stories to tell about our experiences--stories of success, disappointment, resilience, learning, and growth--and these stories can be powerful ways to represent ourselves to others. But many of us have never been encouraged to speak about ourselves in authentic, positive ways. We may have even been actively discouraged from talking about ourselves in the workplace. And it’s sad to say, but in our culture, women can be disproportionately affected by these biases and may get subtle (or not so subtle) pressure to refrain from promoting themselves. Were you ever told, as I was, “your work should speak for itself,” or perhaps “if you do good work, people will notice it; you don’t need to point it out”? Maybe you were told that talking about yourself was bragging or self-promotion, and somehow unseemly.

That may have been good advice at one time, like sometime in the industrial age of the mid-20th Century. If you only had one simple, well-defined job to do, and one boss, you could—perhaps—have relied on that boss to evaluate, assess, and recognize your value. But those days are gone.

Today we live and work in a complex, dynamic world where jobs are multi-faceted and can change quickly. We may work in a matrix environment where we work on different teams and projects with multiple combinations of supervisors and colleagues. The ultimate expression of this complexity may be the gig economy, where you have to continually market yourself and shape your talents to meet the demands of the market.

If this sounds like the world you work in, then storytelling is critical to conveying your talents, capabilities, experience, accomplishments, and even your character. Stories are powerful because stories stick. If your stories are memorable, you will be memorable, and people will remember what you convey in your stories.

There are specific positive reasons to be able to tell stories about ourselves. They can help you find better jobs, projects, and assignments; they can demonstrate impact; they can build trust, and they can help you develop better working relationships. Underlying all these reasons is the main one. If you need accurate, reliable, and relevant information on some topic, you would be well advised to find an expert. Well, YOU are the expert on YOU. You know more about yourself than anyone else, and it is a service to others to help them understand you.

But not just any story is a good story, and a good story needs to be well told.

How do you do that? Several elements are common to storytelling that can make your stories memorable, authentic, and powerful. These elements are common to heroic tales going back millennia in many civilizations, and although you don’t need to write an epic tale, you should think of yourself as the hero of your own story, and make sure your story includes at least these five elements:

  1. Your goal: what you wanted to accomplish
  2. Some kind of hurdle, obstacle, or constraint
  3. Your approach to the problem and what you did
  4. The result—what happened?
  5. The value or importance of that result. *

* Hint: Your story says something memorable about your skill, ability, talent, or character.

Most people can probably come up with #1 (a goal) and #4 (a result), and if you’re answering questions, in a job interview, for example, that would be a simple way to answer a question about your job experience. But it wouldn’t be a compelling story, no matter how great the result. Why? Without an obstacle to overcome, no one knows how hard it was. Without understanding how you thought about, addressed, and solved the problem, they won’t appreciate the talent that you brought to it. And without understanding the value, they may not understand WHY what you did was important—to you, your company, your customers, your family, or others.

Here’s something you can try for yourself. Think about a time when you especially enjoyed yourself doing something—

  • that gave you special satisfaction to participate in or complete,
  • that you were able to do significantly well, quickly, or of high quality,
  • that you learned quickly, or
  • that someone noticed, praised, or pointed out to you as especially valuable or talented.

That’s your first story idea. Now think about the five elements above. Can you identify all of those elements in the situation you’re thinking of? If so, it’s also a GOOD story idea. Notice that it doesn’t have to be job-related or something you were paid to do. Some of our best stories showcase how we use our talents off the job as well as on it.

Now write that story. Writing may not come easily, and if you have to struggle a bit, your story will be better for it. How to write is a different topic, and you may benefit from some advice from other writers and feedback from readers before you have your final draft, but you will have a story that will be authentic, memorable, and powerful!

Next Steps:

To dig deeper into developing and refining your stories, enroll in the course “Telling Powerful Stories—Yours!

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