Career experts often advise job seekers or networkers to “tell your story.” But what does that mean? Should you share how you won the school science fair in third grade or how you once locked your keys in the car with the engine still running? It’s difficult to know exactly what story to tell at the right time – and how to make it interesting enough that eyes don’t start to glaze over or someone pulls the fire alarm just to get away from you.
There is a skill to telling the right kind of stories at the right time so that you not only gain the interest of an employer or contact, but also will enable the person to recall you more vividly later. One important key: Make sure emotion is evoked. Telling the story of winning the science fair might work if it conveys a sense of joy gained through hard work. Even locking your keys in the car can become a funny tale that underlines the sense of satisfaction gained by overcoming an obstacle.
Dan McAdams, a Northwestern University psychology professor who has studied storytelling for more than 10 years, told a publication for the American Psychological Association that stories “help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives.” That means someone who doesn’t know you well will gain a deeper understanding through your stories of who you are and what makes you tick. Bragging about how you developed a new product can turn some people off, but telling a story of how a mistake you made actually helped you find a better answer can be much more appealing and convey the same message. Here are some tips for telling memorable and appropriate stories:
It’s too easy to verify facts these days through the Internet or social networking sites, so don’t fib to a boss or potential employer.
Great stories are those that can retold to others. If it’s too lengthy, others will have trouble remembering key points.
What do you want others to walk away with after hearing your story? Don’t tell a tale that shows how you want to win at all costs when you’re trying to get a job with a team-based company. Try to talk about skills that will appeal to a particular company or contact.
People are most drawn to those like them. If your research has shown a job interviewer spends time coaching youth baseball, tell the story of one memorable youth sport that helped hone your sense of self.
It can be hard to convey your personality in a piece of paper, so use stories to add punch to important skills. Think about a story that conveys, for example, your ability to be organized, flexible and cool in a crisis.
Not everyone can be Chris Rock or Tina Fey, so don’t try to imitate someone else. You want to tell an authentic story that’s about two minutes long, sprinkled with enough detail to keep it interesting and relevant. Often, stories about how you persevered through adversity or how you turned a frustrating experience into a positive one are the most appealing.
While you don’t want to tell a story as if you were performing in children’s theater, facial expressions and hand gestures can be used to underscore key parts of the story. Raising your eyebrows, for example, can be used to convey surprise and gain more interest from your listener. Remember that telling someone you’re a “people person” doesn't really reveal who you are or why they should want to get to know you better. Dump the trite phrases and instead offer a deeper connection through the stories you share and you’ll develop the kind of connections that will lead to happily ever after in your career.