I decided not to go to college because I believed it would slow down my rate of learning. Although I was hungry for knowledge and loved to learn, I hated sitting in a classroom. So instead of following a degree plan, I followed my curiosity and designed my own educational track based on my interests.
Following my interests led me on many adventures. I studied meditation in India, led teenagers on 40-day backpacking and climbing expeditions in Alaska, worked on a farm, built and remodeled houses, and started a business making commercial composting equipment. My learning and development accelerated because I was fully engaged and interested in what I was learning.
But when my business failed, I was twenty-eight years old and had to get a job. And although I had a diverse set of useful skills and experiences, I didn’t have a college degree. I was scared that no one would hire me or that I would be stuck in a job I didn’t like. I needed to learn how to effectively tell my story to influence people to hire me—even when I didn’t meet the minimum requirement for a college degree. Necessity can be a powerful motivator.
Instead of allowing others to see my resume as the record of someone lacking education and blowing in the wind trying out different jobs, I anchored my story on my unique background. Using the threads of intense curiosity and drive, I stitched together my narrative and emphasized my rare skill combination (construction trades and taking my startup idea all the way through manufacturing composting equipment.) My experiences leading expeditions in Alaska and starting a business from scratch highlighted the desirable traits (self-starter, ambitious, responsible, problem solver, high integrity, effective communicator, self-aware) that employers want.
That experience taught me how the power of a well-crafted story can flip a disadvantage into an advantage. Learning to tell a compelling story enabled me to beat the competition — and the college requirement. I received multiple job offers and took a position as executive director of a professional training organization that aimed to design, build, and renovate housing for a clean energy future. And although I was only in my late-twenties, I successfully negotiated a path to a $175,000 base salary within 18 months of being hired.
Your story is your most valuable asset
If you learn to craft a clear and compelling story, you can earn more money and land a job that gives you a sense of purpose. Effectively telling your story is key to persuading, influencing, and inspiring the people you want to work with. Don’t settle for making less money in a job you don’t like because you don’t know how to communicate your strengths and your potential. Your story matters. Get the job you want by learning to tell it well.
Over the last 20+ years, I’ve interviewed and participated in hiring dozens of smart, qualified people with talents and skills in engineering, marketing, design, sales, and operations. Job candidates who could not tell their story effectively were at a big disadvantage.
Humans love stories. We’re all storytellers and consumers of stories. Every decision you’ve ever made was influenced by a story, and we use stories to create and extract meaning from our experiences and to understand who we are. Stories are stronger than steel, more valuable than gold, and more powerful than nuclear weapons. They provide the foundation for us to build trust and collaborate. Without stories, money, government, religion, companies, and culture would not exist. Stories build connections and are one of our most important innovations.
Whoever tells the best story wins
Your story can help you stand out from the crowd. The job market has gotten more competitive, and many companies are quickly moving to a distributed workforce. You are no longer competing only with people who live within commuting distance of an office. Now you compete head-to-head with a global talent pool, many of whom are willing to work for less money.
Recruiters and hiring managers are busy, so they don’t invest a lot of time reviewing your resume and application materials, which tend to be impersonal lists of credentials and work history. However, you can grab their attention by crafting an impactful story mapped to the job selection criteria.
You don’t convince people to hire you with facts. Adding more skills, certifications, or success metrics to your resume is not the most effective way to help you stand out and influence decision-makers. You convince them by changing how they feel and react to you. You don’t change minds without winning hearts.
Instead of providing a list of achievements, provide a memorable story that shows how you overcame a challenge or resolved conflict and describe how you were changed as a result. Your stories can help build trust and connection with your audience.
Nike does not pound you with facts about how many athletes wear their shoes. Instead, they showcase the personal stories of professional tennis star Serena Williams or golfer Tiger Woods, describing how they overcame adversity and rose to the top.
How to craft a good story
All humans tell and appreciate stories, but not everyone is born with the storytelling gift. Fortunately, storytelling is a skill you can learn. There’s a proven formula, which is known by authors, corporate marketers, Hollywood filmmakers, and gifted public speakers. Great stories have a particular structure that elicit an emotional response in a listener or reader — making them more meaningful, memorable, and impactful. To elicit this response, you must reveal information in a particular sequence.
A story consists of a character (you, in this case), in a circumstance, facing a challenge and a choice that leads to change—whether it’s a slight change in perspective or a life-altering transformation. The purpose of your story is to get your message noticed—and believed. Best-selling author and professional story advisor Bernadette Jiwa shares the following principles and story framework to illustrate how to create compelling stories.
Three storytelling principles
- Beginning. Engage the audience. Arouse interest
- Middle. Show the challenge. Make them care.
- End. Show the change or transformation. Share the insight.
5 Cs Story Framework
Use the following structure to outline your stories.
- Context. This is the intro and backstory. Arouse curiosity and engage your readers or listeners by leading with something surprising, compelling, or provocative. Set the scene by providing the who, what, where, and when.
- Catalyst. The event. Something changes in your world. What event sparked the change in your situation?
- Complication. The obstacle. You were faced with a problem or choice. Elicit empathy by sharing details of the struggle, what was at stake, and your emotional state. What choices were you facing?
- Change. The transformation. You decided on a path. Show how you overcame the challenges. What was the outcome? How did you resolve the conflict? What did you learn?
- Consequence. The resolutions. How has your worldview changed or been altered based on this experience? How does this event impact how you make future decisions?
Tailor your story to the audience
Even if you follow Jiwa’s principles and use the 5 Cs story framework, your story won’t be effective unless you tailor it to your audience and what they are interested in hearing.
If your audience is a hiring manager, reverse engineer your desired job by mapping your stories to the job selection criteria. Select five stories to showcase your skills and experience for a specific role (e.g., software engineer, account executive, operations manager.) To select the right stories, start with the selection criteria for the role you want. Most jobs list qualifications and responsibilities, typically from most to least important.
If you are applying for different roles, you need to adapt your stories appropriately. For example, if the role involves managing people, showcase a story around your communication skills and leading by example. But if you are applying for an individual contributor role, use a story highlighting your initiative and conscientiousness.
In addition to mapping your stories to relevant job qualifications and responsibilities, I recommend crafting stories that highlight the traits listed below. When I’m reviewing applications and interviewing candidates, I prioritize these traits and ask myself these questions about a candidate.
- Curiosity. Have they demonstrated a high rate of learning? Does the candidate have a curious mind?
- Integrity. Are their values aligned with the company’s values? Do I respect and admire this person?
- Intelligence. Can they deconstruct ideas, think critically, and see important connections between concepts and second-order effects?
- Energy. Have they shown the ability to move fast and get things done?
- Communication. Can they communicate their ideas clearly and persuasively? Would I enjoy working for this person?
Write down your stories to gain leverage
Use writing as a tool to help you think and communicate more clearly before you head into a job interview or other situation where you may be telling your story. Clear writing becomes clear thinking, and writing helps you formulate, organize, and edit your stories into a clear and persuasive form before you talk with decision-makers, who will have limited time to engage with you.
Often you will not have the opportunity to speak directly with all the decision-makers, so look for other ways to share your written stories more widely. Include relevant stories when answering or asking questions through your email or other communication during the hiring process.
Share your stories online through a personal website, blog, and social media and make sure that potential employers know where to find these sites. Create a personal website to showcase a portfolio of your ideas. Portfolios are not just for designers or artists; knowledge workers who create online portfolios showcasing stories of how they think and solve problems will have a big advantage over the competition.
Writing that showcases your domain knowledge and experience is not only useful when you are applying for jobs, it can actually attract opportunities. Anyone who understands sales knows it’s easier to sell something when the buyer is coming to you. Become a magnet for potential employers through your writing, whether it is online or in traditional publications. If you’re job hunting, want to make more money, or you are not happy in your current job, invest the time to craft better stories.
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