Crafting your ‘Story of Self’: Effective Storytelling for Conversation, Interviews, Presentations, and Networking Success
When giving presentations or meeting and networking with colleagues and potential employers, storytelling is an often-overlooked aspect of engaging communication and self-presentation. In certain social situations, a concisely-told story communicates more than a resume of facts and accomplishments ever could. More importantly, storytelling builds trust and leads people to feel connected to you by understanding your journey, your motivation, and your view of the world. Because they create an emotional impact, well-told stories may cause a prospective employer to remember you and the impression you created weeks and months after you’ve met, creating goodwill that makes your name sift to the top of the pool of candidates.
Why tell stories in the first place? Stories are not just effective means of communication and persuasion. More fundamentally, human beings think and make meaning out of the world around them in terms of stories. By using descriptive language storytelling activates visual and sensory receptors in listeners’ brains, encasing verbal and semantic meanings in a multi-sensory stimulus that activates their imagination, self-projection, intuition, and empathy: as they listen, they put themselves in your shoes. Through this shared imaginative experience—which may last 30 seconds or 30 minutes—they feel intimately connected to you.
So, what is a story? A story is a sequence of events with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Storytelling generally means uniting an idea with an emotion in a way that enables you to connect to people by showing vulnerability—and, in some cases, to motivate or inspire them. There’s no one formula for telling good stories. Although not necessary in all cases, remembering just a few of the following tips will cause your story to stand out compared to 93% of everyday conversations:
- Develop your story around the question, “What do I want?” Then, frame the climax or resolution of the story around the answer—“Did I get it?”
- Identify the theme of the story. Stories are generally one of two types. Either there is a transformation (the protagonist transforms) or there is an affirmation (a premise stated at the outset is reaffirmed). Identifying these themes is what allows us to unlock the emotional effect of the story for our audience.
- Within this template of question and answer, stories should have a beginning (the character, setting, and problem); a middle (the stakes, the conflict, the tension); and an end (crisis, climax, and consequences). For example, a common storytelling template is as follows: “In the beginning, life is balanced, calm, and predictable. Then an incident occurs that throws life out of balance. The protagonist tries to restore balance by taking an action, but his plans come up against an uncooperative reality. The protagonist must dig deep, make difficult decisions, take risks, and uncover the truth.”
- When telling stories, it’s often a good idea to speak in the first-person voice (to take an ‘I’ perspective). It’s also effective to tell your story in the present tense (for example, “It’s last Wednesday, and I’m on my way to the subway. And lo and behold I see this guy…”).
- It’s important to just tell what happened. Leave out judgments, recriminations, explanations, and analysis, as these tend to interfere with the listener’s ability to put themselves in your shoes. The listener only knows what you show them, so stick to the story as much as possible.
- Physicality, visual language, and emotional authenticity are useful tools: physicality helps storytellers convey a sense of space and time (e.g. “squatting to drive a mock car”, “performing a breakdance move,” “speaking in a high-pitched voice”); visual language paints a picture for the audience of a specific place, person, or thing (e.g. “Bed-Stuy in the 1980s,” “a nasty math teacher with bad teeth,” “a rusty red gym locker,” etc.); emotional authenticity keeps you connected with the listener.
- Speak clearly, people want to hear what you have to say.
- Don’t force anything (a joke or an emotional moment) on your listener. Be authentic!
- Know your listener and deliver what you promise. If your listener is expecting a story about politics and you tell a story about how you hate golf, people will be angry. Unless, of course your story is about playing golf with a politician.
- Have fun! If you’re not having fun telling the story, then the listener isn’t having fun either.
You may be asking yourself, ‘but how does this apply to me? What kind of contexts would I use storytelling in?’ Look out for our follow-up blog post coming soon, in which we will discuss real-life examples of how current GC students have used storytelling to enhance their personal and professional lives. In the meantime, it’s often easiest to learn by example. You can watch two great examples of people who are really pro’s at storytelling here:
Steve Jobs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc
Louis C K: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1iXJPFnFyA
Some Selected References:
Ganz, Marshall. “Appendix: Telling Your Public Story: Self, Us, Now.” National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources: Welcoming Toolkit. Accessed from http://www.mlp.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/MarshallGanz.pdf, on 8/26/2016.
Linderman, Andrew. Storytelling 101. Workshop held at Brooklyn Brainery on 9/16/2015.