The Importance of Story Telling in Career Development

by: Fredia Woolf Friday, October 15th, 2010

 

By chance more than planning, I have found myself delivering Career Development seminars to MBA students in Massachusetts and California in the past week.  The first group with whom I worked were all women wanting to follow an entrepreneurial path, and the second group was comprised of future arts management professionals.

The key takeaway for me from both these events was that if you are intending to succeed in your career, you need to become an excellent storyteller.

As well as being the author, you are also the main character in your own story.  As your career choices unfold, so the story line develops.  Each position, each promotion, each reversal – all are different chapters.  No plot ever moves in a straight line, so expect villains, obstacles and drama to block the path of the hero or heroine whose courage, skill and ingenuity, we hope, will win the day.  But the way you live your career – every day you spend at work, or, if you are looking for work, each step of your job search, provides the essential elements for the creation of your story.

Living your story is one thing; recreating it in the telling is another.  When you create your resume and cover letter or when you prepare for an interview, you have to become a master story teller.  As you re-imagine your work experiences and accomplishments, you are turning your life into art, if you like.  Selecting events and finding just the right words that capture the essence of what you did to make a difference are key story-telling skills.  And, in these documents and interactions, you must convey a sense of your best self so your reader finds the story so interesting and intriguing that not only must more be known about you, but also that you must be hired.

You have to be your own editor as well.  Take a sharp, critical eye to your stories.  Ask yourself if you have a clear, compelling, BIG story that conveys the whole arc of your career and explains significant turning points and big learnings made along the way.  Then ensure you have several LITTLE stories illustrating every claim you make in your resume.  You will only draw on two or three of them in an interview, but being prepared and practiced with examples of how you have, for example, dealt with conflict, motivated team members or dealt with a specific challenge can give you an edge over job candidates who “um…” and “er…” as they rack their brains for examples on the spot and come up with uninteresting, dry anectodes.

There are three types of stories you should master:

Stories you tell yourself

Are you your own best friend or your own worst critic?  If your relationship with yourself is well-balanced (compassionate but not over-indulgent), if you are capable of knowing your strengths and limitations and if you are willing to do what it takes to leverage the former and overcome or compensate for the latter, then you are likely able to tell yourself empowering stories.  If you find yourself behaving like a cruel disciplinarian or a hostile judge toward yourself, start editing those stories to become more helpful in advancing your cause.

Stories about your relationship with your world

These stories tell others about your real world skills, experiences and accomplishments.  The more curious and open to learning you are and  the more willing you are to experiment and have fun, the greater will be your fund of interesting and compelling stories.  A hallmark of a successful career is an accumulation of these kinds of stories.

Stories that connect you with other people

The primary purpose of developing your story is in the sharing it with others.  Not only does the story itself illustrate what kind of person you are with whom to work, but the way you tell it also gives a good indication to people if they would like to work with you in the future.  Whether you are looking to connect with funders, employers, customers or anyone else, your power to connect through your stories will determine the ultimate path of your career.

Fredia Woolf, founder of Woolf Consulting, blogs to help people improve their workplace effectiveness and optimize their careers.  As an organizational consultant and leadership coach, she works with clients to increase insight, inspiration and impact. She can be reached at fwoolf@woolfconsulting.com.

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