Series on Persuasive Speakers: Story-telling as a powerful aid

The art of storytelling is often a technique used by successful people to persuade their audience and achieve success.

Once upon a time, a job-seeker underwent a frustrating series of interviews over a five-month period with no job offer. Then the discouraged individual read a book that suggested composing personal stories. Doing so, the job-seeker found, provided him with better interview preparation than any coaching he had ever experienced. Using stories he hadn’t remembered before he read the book, he said, made him more confident, convincing, and persuasive in his interviews. Stories enabled him to present himself in a personable and powerful way to his interviewers. He again used stories during the next round of interviews. The story ends happily with his hiring in an executive position that represented a major advance in his career. The job-seeker is a real person who posted a review on of Annette Simmons’ 2006 book, The Story Factor.

The book, Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling that Propels Careers, from which this chapter is excerpted, extends the ideas of Simmons and other current authors who tout the value of storytelling. It focuses on a narrow yet powerful use of storytelling — telling stories to advance your career, whether by moving up in your current organization or landing a job in a new organization. The title comes from the most commonly asked question (which isn’t even a question but a request) in job interviews, “Tell me about yourself.” Composing stories to reveal your personal and professional self in response to that “question” is just one way to use storytelling to propel your career.

Simmons writes that the natural reaction of an unfamiliar person whom you hope to influence is to distrust you — until you answer two major questions. The first question is “Who are you?” In resumes, cover letters, portfolios, and interviews, job-seekers attempt to tell who they are, but how often do you think these communications really convey a sense of who the job-seeker is? Simmons’ second question, “Why are you here?” can be translated as “Why are you contacting this employer?” and “Why do you want to work for this organization?”

Stories establish your identity and reveal your personality. Stories satisfy the basic human need to be known. Clearly, being known among employers is a major goal of job-seekers, and it is in large part through resumes, cover letters, portfolios, and employment interviews that employers get to know candidates. Job-seekers can gain the employer’s recognition by integrating story into these career-marketing communications.

Stories establish an emotional connection between storyteller and listener and inspires the listener’s investment in the storyteller’s success. When stories convey moving content and are told with feeling, the listener feels an emotional bond with the storyteller. Often the listener can empathize or relate the story to an aspect of his or her own life. That bond instantly enables the listener to invest emotionally in your success.

Stories illustrate skills, accomplishments, values, characteristics, qualifications, expertise, strengths, and more. Employers don’t want to know merely the dry facts of what you’ve done. They want examples, anecdotes, illustrations — stories. You can showcase just about any skill with a story. Washington advises that “using anecdotes to describe job skills is a highly effective interview technique.” Truly scrutinizing the stories behind your life and career enables you to recognize patterns that reveal and reinforce who you are, what you can do, how you are qualified, what you know, what you value, what you’ve learned, and what you’ve accomplished.

Stories paint vivid pictures. Remember when your parents read or told you stories when you were a child? You undoubtedly visualized the story as a sort of movie in your brain. Job-seekers can use colorful and even entertaining stories to imprint lasting visual images onto employers’ minds.

Stories explain key life/career decisions, choices, and changes. Especially revealing to employers are personal and career stories about coping strategies, risky moves, choices made under pressure, imperfections, and lessons learned from mistakes, failures, and derailments.

Stories told well help you portray yourself as a strong communicator. Effectively using stories in job-seeking venues offers the further benefit of demonstrating your communication skills, which is huge because most employers seek candidates who communicate well. David Boje, a well-known scholar in the organizational-storytelling field, wrote in 1991 that “people who are more skilled as storytellers and story interpreters seem to be more effective communicators than those who are less skilled.”