Ask yourself, during the pandemic, how successful are your storytelling efforts, both to your clients and with yourself.
In our confusing and twisted world, where the up seems like down, it’s easy to get caught up in downer scenarios.
No doubt you can recite your own litany of woes. They may go something like, “I was on the fast track and now I’m wondering if I’ll ever work again”; “I ran a company for 40 years, and I don’t know if the company will recover”; “My life is just not normal anymore.”
The problem is that these doomsday-type stories can wreak havoc on your life. More than self-talk, they have the power to set you back unnecessarily and keep you from reaching higher standards, especially in personal branding.
That’s because they lock you in time by focusing on what happened—not on what you can do. While struggles may be part of your story, it’s missing a key ingredient: What you’ve learned from your hardship and how you will overcome it. This isn’t to suggest that you turn a horror story into an upbeat tale, but that you acknowledge the pain and move beyond it.
Here are some ways to create a positive narrative, to make the best of any situation.
AVOID THE TRAP OF A FIXED MINDSET
Illustrative of what Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck has called a fixed mindset, these strictly sad-sack stories prevent you from growing and changing. Tell yourself enough times that you can’t do it, or you’re a failure, and you start believing it.
Evan Marie Allison, associate director of the Sanger Leadership Center at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business, says, “We must be intentional with the stories we tell ourselves because they can become self-fulfilling.” The Sanger Center runs Story Lab, a program that teaches Ross business school students storytelling skills to help them to become better leaders and communicators.
What exact stories will help you grow and change?
In my book, Thriving at 50+, I describe a technology executive who survived a horrific car accident. He was so depressed he thought of throwing in the towel. One story he told himself helped him rise from the depths of despair—it was a motto he had heard while working in Japan: “Fall seven times, get up eight.”
He told me, when you suffer a crisis, you have two options: “One is to give up, the other is to get up again. Always get up one more time than you’ve fallen.”
“Stories help you make better sense of your life, increasing clarity, self-awareness, and purpose,” said Allison. They take the jumble of your life and by weaving the pieces into a narrative, shape how you see yourself. Offering a road map, stories both define who you are and where you’re headed.
CREATE A STORYTELLING FRAMEWORK
Especially useful in times of crisis, stories provide a built-in framework for telling your career journey. Think of the beginning of your career story as what you’ve done, the middle what you’ve learned, and the end your future plans.
Here is an example of a story during a crisis: “Hi, I was a journalist for 30 years and loved my newspaper job. During the pandemic, I was laid off. Suddenly, my identity, my newspaper work, was gone. In looking back over my career, I realized that one of my most memorable experiences was interviewing an 80-year-old wounded veteran who had lost his limbs during World War II but remade his life by focusing on what he could do—not what he couldn’t. This helped me realize I need to do the same thing. I have started a memoir-writing business to help people bring their stories to life as their legacy. My first client is this veteran, who’s now age 90.”
Stories are especially effective tools to cope with these uncertain times because they have dual power. Besides changing your self-perception, a story influences how people view you.
As the poet Molly McCully Brown said, “Language has so much to do with how we explain ourselves to ourselves and to others . . .” Wrap the language into a story and you’ll get people’s attention as long as you follow a few storytelling tenets.
Don’t think of a story as a one-time anecdote but as a roster of stories that collectively brand you. Ross business school students are advised to have a bank of stories to use for different situations, according to Allison. Think job interview, networking event, sales call. Says Allison, “These stories signal who you are, where you are headed, and what you want to achieve.”
How do you tell an effective story? Here are five ways:
- Start with a theme. Ask yourself what’s the point of your story. Is it to demonstrate your resilience in overcoming tragedy? Your persistence in seeking something? An incident that made you realize you needed to change careers? Whatever your theme, ensure your story reinforces it.
- Be vulnerable. Allison says that we often think that trust precedes vulnerability when it’s the other way around. By being vulnerable, people are more likely to believe you. When you let down your guard and share something personal but relevant, it stamps you as credible.
- Work on coherence. Does your story make sense, and do the parts fit together? Without coherence, your story will not hold up. Think of it like a TV show with a plot that twists and turns only to confuse the viewer. Once, in applying for a job, I proudly listed my multiple careers only to have a recruiter look at me totally bewildered. I realized then that my story didn’t cohere.
- Edit your story. Eliminate irrelevant details, which will only blur and hide the important aspects of your story. “Great storytellers are intentional about the details they include to support the main takeaway,” Allison mentions. “If they don’t support your theme, they should be cut.”
- Have more than facts. According to Jennifer Aaker, a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, stories are 22x more impactful than a random collection of facts. Think about the pandemic and its impact on you, specifically. Which affects you most? Incidence rates or the story of a friend who battled the virus and survived? Facts by themselves don’t typically engage. Wrap them in a story and the information can be incredibly touching.
Storytelling is an essential tool for your personal and professional growth, including career reinvention. Start following these tips and you’ll discover you’ll benefit from the power of storytelling. You’ll be better prepared to meet the crises and challenges of our rapidly changing times, now and into the future.
This story originally appeared in a slightly different format on Fast Company.