Telling Your Story Well, part 2 – In The Beginning

The Beginning of the day at dawn

As I shared in the last post, I think there are really three basic parts to your story that you want to be sure to convey:

1. How did you start?

2. What have you discovered that you are good at (and why do you think that)?

3. Why do you want to keep going?

In telling your story something that pretty much everyone will want to know is how you got started. It’s always interesting to hear how people get started – sometimes it’s down right entertaining. This is your opportunity to convey what you are passionate about and how it relates to where you are now. Share what it was about this field that drew you in.

Personally, I would challenge you to avoid the phrase “I’m really passionate…” It feels really overdone (and if you are one of ten interviews that someone has to listen to then they probably feel the same way). Besides, talk is cheap, right? What have you done to show that you are passionate about this subject? Did you take extra classes? Did you volunteer for a project after hours? Did you pay for a training course out of your own pocket for the sake of your own learning? Share those things and your passion will be obvious.

Here are some basic, but terrible, mistakes you will want to avoid:

Mistake #1: An Underwhelming Start

I’ve heard many people, myself included, breeze over how they began in their career of choice as though they had never really thought of it before. Now that you are reading this, hopefully that won’t be the case with you. But if your thinking of using “I needed a job” as the sum total of your ‘beginning’ then you’re in trouble. It’s fine to start out that way. We’ve all been there. But if you’re trying to convince someone that you have something to bring to the position in question that is different/better than anyone else you had better have an answer that is more unique. What interested you in the beginning? What is it about this opportunity that rings true to what excites you? What is it about this opportunity/job/position that beats out all other options?

Mistake #2: Don’t Go Chasing Rabbits

You have a limited amount of space to convey this part of your story so get to the point fast. When you think about how you began your journey to where you are now there are a million details that will come to mind. Think about the details that will add to the point versus those that may detract. Not everyone is going to be interested to know the nitty-gritty in how you started, so give them just a teaser. If it’s intriguing to them, let them ask for more. Otherwise, move on to the next question. The worse thing you can do is go into too much detail on something that isn’t even the main point and bore your listener.

Mistake #3: Skipping Practice

Sometimes you’re just too close to something to have any real objectivity to determine if something is really interesting or not, so be sure to share it with a lot of people. The more you share the more you may find that what is most interesting to you is not what is most interesting to others. Also, be sure to share your story with people who know you well. If they know the details of how you began your career they might even have a different take on what is most remarkable about your history. A fresh set of eyes is always a good thing. A friend of mine once summarized my history as an example of ‘reinventing’ oneself. I had never looked at it that way before and it inspired me to rethink how I tell that part of my journey.

Mistake #4: Leaving out the details

Sometimes, in an effort to reach more people or shorten our stories we leave out all the details. Too many details can distract from your point, but no details at all makes for a very boring and uninteresting dialogue. For me, I could say that I went to a three-month hackschool for front-end engineering. That’s the generic version. Instead, I share that I went to a three-month hackschool for front-end engineering based in South Carolina, leaving my wife and 4 kids in Texas. The details convey a much more compelling story that almost always causes people to want to know more. What school in South Carolina? Why did you choose it? Was it hard to leave your family?

It’s been a while since I have worked through these questions and this series is inspiring me to go back to the drawing board and re-examine my own storytelling. Not to sound too much like a therapist, but this process really is about self discovery as much as it is about communicating well. As people we are always growing, changing, evolving… it’s good to take a look at this time and again.

Photo by Ed Dunens.

Telling Your Story Well, part 1

Students listening to a story

I had a great conversation with a very good friend of mine the other day about the importance of telling your own story well. He is in the process of establishing his own service based business. In his research he found that entrepreneurs like himself were consistently able to communicate their own unique approach to how they help their clients. They were selling themselves in a compelling way that felt very matter of fact and genuine.

This made me think of all the interviews I had this past year, trying to establish myself in a new career. Telling my own story was something I had to do, again and again. It wasn’t great at first, but with practice I got to be pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. Even with those positions that I ended up not being offered, I consistently received feedback that I had interviewed well (it was my lack of experience that was the drawback – surprise, surprise). I credit my positive track record in interviews to my newfound ability to tell my own story well.

The main reason telling your own, unique story well is to save time. A story is like a fishing net. If your a tuna fisherman, you don’t want to catch sharks, you want to catch tuna. When you cast your story net, particularly in respect to your career path, you want to let people know up front who you are, what your are good at and what you are looking for. Why do you want to appeal to everyone who hears your story if you know that you aren’t going to be good at any position that comes your way? Don’t be afraid to exclude people. The idea is that while you may not be offered every position, you are narrowing the pool to what you really want.

Learning how to tell your story in a compelling way that connects with people is something that can be learned and honed. There are some people who have a natural gift for this, but I would say that for most of us it takes work. I know that in my case, when I focused on learning to tell my story well, I got exponentially better at telling it (and more confident).

In trying to learn to be a better story teller, I did a lot of research (internet, podcasts, books, etc.). I also thought a lot about those stories I had heard from others that made the greatest impact on me. Here’s some tips/questions that I used to better my own story telling skills that I want to pass on.

Structure is Your Friend:

First, limit yourself to one, single page. With only one page you will be forced to really think about what is the most important pieces of your story that best communicate who you are. Our tendency is to meander without much direction (or feel the pressure to fully explain our first point before moving on, which can encourage people zoning out pretty quickly). Trying to limit yourself to one page forces your to think about your direction and not waste words (or time) in getting to the point.

After you get comfortable with the one page length, challenge yourself to distill your story to only five bullet points (if you need more, go up to seven but absolutely no more than that). It may help some of you to actually do this exercise first and work up to the one page length (especially if you view getting to a full page will be a challenge). Do whichever you feel most comfortable with, but definitely do both. You’ll find yourself in situations where you may have only 60 seconds to communicate your story, other times you may have more room to elaborate. These exercises will help you stay on your feet and not miss out on the most important points you’ll want to include, no matter what the time frame. It’s important to remember that all you really want to do at this point is make the right kind of people curious to know more about your and let those kind of people/situations you don’t work well with know up front so they don’t waste their time (or yours).

Main Points to Cover:

Now that you have your limitations is how much to tell, you need to focus on what to tell. Basically you only have three questions that you need to answer.

1. How did you start?

2. What have you discovered that you are good at within this field and why do you think that?

3. Why do you want to keep going?

That’s it. Three simple questions.

Of course, there are important nuances in how you answer each of these because lets face it, it’s entirely possible to answer these questions in a completely boring and unappealing way. Believe me, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in that area.

I hate to be a tease, but I’m gonna end it here and get this posted. First, each of these questions really deserves more thought/discussion so I’ll elaborate more on them in future posts. Second, I have a tendency to ‘sit’ on posts for too long and then decide to never post them. So, in the interest of progress, I will leave you here. But I will definitely be back.

Photo by The Het Nieuwe Instituut.