Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Does Your Career Tell The Right Story?

Let's say someone held a taser to your chest right this minute and said: "Tell me the story of your career." Could you do it? I'm not sure I could -- being zapped by a taser is bound to make me a bit nervous and the most I might be able to do is give my name and e-mail address.

But more and more, people want you to tell them career stories. They want to know of a time when you handled a problem at work, when you dealt with a difficult customer or when you led an important project. Oh, yeah, and this story has got to be quick, concise, compelling, riveting and memorable.

I found it interesting that one of the commenters on this blog noted that when I wrote about the "Seven Random (and Sorta Weird) Facts About Me," he said he "can never think of the simple things who make us who we are."

That got me to thinking about how difficult it sometimes is to come up with stories that illustrate our career. I think part of the problem is that we're so busy with our jobs and everything that goes along with it (answering e-mails, phone calls, Twittering, checking Facebook) that we just don't get the time we need to think about what makes us "who we are" on the job.

So, as this year winds down, I think it's a good time to stop and reflect on what we know about ourselves and our career. What really makes us unique? What is something we have brought to a job that makes us valuable? What stories can we tell to others that will make us memorable?

At a time when everyone fears for their job, when we may be facing an important job interview or performance evaluation, let's look at some ways to shape our career stories.

1. Keep if professional. Try to avoid a lot of references to your family and friends. Those are certainly great stories, but you want the listener to see you in the primary role, to have a vision of how you impacted a particular situation.

2. Showcase your ingenuity. I've interviewed many management experts over the last several months, and the one thing they all agree on is that the companies that will survive are the ones who will come up with new and innovative ideas. Think of times you showed you could roll with the punches and still come up with a creative or innovative solution. This not only shows you can handle adversity, but are adaptable as well.

3. Be truthful. I love Aesop's Fables as much as the next person, but anytime you tell a career story, make sure it is true. And believable -- try not to embellish too much.

4. Don't be offensive. Your story loses its power when you use profanities, racial or gender stereotypes or otherwise show you need diversity training. Never tell a story that would embarrass someone else.

5. Keep is short. A story should never be more than a couple of minutes long. If it's a great story, look for ways to shorten it and just highlight the key points.

6. Be interesting. While you should know your stories well enough that you could tell them even if you're nervous (envision that taser), you don't want to sound like you're reciting the Gettysburg Address for a fifth-grade teacher. Tape record yourself, or ask someone else to listen to you tell your story. Does your voice have good inflection? Do you pause for effect? Do you sound and look confident?

7. Do you sound sane? I've heard career stories before that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. While the tellers of these tales thought the stories made them sound tough, or forceful or innovative, I just thought it made them sound a bit deranged. You want to make sure that your stories are logical. They should show that you understood a problem or issue, thought of an appropriate response and then acted professionally.

What are some other tips for telling career stories?

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Anonymous said...

Hi, Anita, I think you've actually hit a nerve here, in that people have a tough time toothing their own horn, and that's underlying this request. As a publicist I promote other folks every day. Then I have the challenge of allowing myself to be on the flip side--much tougher (not in charge?). I recently had the unlikely experience of being interviewed for the front page of the local paper for a charity project I created. Wow. That was really hard. I wanted the story out, but front page?? So telling one's own career story probably starts with the willingness to even be front and center. Thoughts?

Robert Hruzek said...

For years now I've had a section, right up at the front, that highlights five or six "career stories" that illustrate something applicable to the particular job I'm applying for. Very useful for getting their attention!

My advice: Don't make then ask! Look for an opportunity to "tell" it! They'll make note of your enthusiasm.

Also, make sure the stories you tell are relevant to THAT company, and more specifically, to THAT position you're applying for. Otherwise you may get the dreaded, "That's nice..." reaction.

Anonymous said...

Last year one of my daughters got a great job directing and managing a lab research facility for a topnotch cancer biology company in Cambridge, Mass. Her first week she had several conversations with her new boss, his colleagues, and HR. She got the same response from all of them: "You had great credentials, superb references, and 'great stories.'"

Often, when interviewing with potential clients they ask for stories about my successes and a failure or two.

I think it's important that all workers have a number of stories in their toolkit, and regularly update them for future reference. I suggest stories about unique problem solving experiences, strategy implementation, decision making, employee relations, vendor relations, etc. It's smart to have plenty of success stories, but also some illuminating failures--so that you can talk about what you've learned from them.

David Benjamin said...


This is better advice than most of what I hear and read from fellow recruiters. What I think you're saying is, "What is your value proposition?" If you don't know it off the top of your head, figure it out and store it in memory.

Make it consice and make it impactful. Career stories should include: Not only what you've accomplished but what you are looking to accomplish. What is your plan and how do you anticipate getting there?

Again, really enjoyed this post.

Anita said...

I understand completely what you're saying. In submitting my book proposal, I had to learn how to promote myself. That was good prep work for when the book came out -- you must promote yourself even harder! But what I learned was that it didn't make me a braggart or a blowhard -- I was promoting something I felt was important and in order to do that I had to show that I was confident and knowledgeable in myself and what I had to say. So, I think it goes to those favorite words these days -- "being authentic" -- that makes the difference.

Anita said...

Great advice! Love the way you note that it must be "relevant." And, using it as part of a resume is another excellent idea. Thanks for sharing!

Anita said...

What I love about your comment and others posted here is that they tell me a story. Very appropriate for this subject!
I think you're right on the money about making sure that if you share a problem or failure, you can demonstrate what you learned from it.
Thanks for adding such valuable tips.

Anita said...

That's a good way of putting it: What do you have of value? Everyone has something, no matter what their job or experience. The key is taking time to really come up with something that grabs someone's attention. And, as you said, everyone should include in their list a story about where they want to go in their career. Great suggestions.

Unknown said...

I completely agree with Kathryn. As a PR account exec, I promote other people all day long and when it comes to myself - I kind of put my career story (and even resume) on the back burner. I just don't even think about it. I realize that I need to take the time to develop MY story - and your post has motivated me to get started :)

Anita said...

Terrific! I also think that sometimes women have a harder time promoting themselves because we think that our hard work will be noticed and rewarded. But the truth is, we've got to be more creative and determined to tell stories of our success -- not just those of our clients, friends, children, etc.
If you're like many PR people I know, you're creative, energetic, organized and a terrific networker. Now, just put those attributes into stories, and you're well on your way. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Promoting yourself is one of the hardest things that you can do, especially if you are feeling insecure and low after a job loss. This is great, practical advice.

Anita said...

Great observation. Maybe just reminding yourself of all those times you did a good job could really help you feel better about yourself.

Anonymous said...

I once heard a career expert say you should have a story for every item on your resume. If you don't, then that item shouldn't be there. At any rate, make sure your stories are relevant somehow to the prospective employer and their organizational needs/goals.

Anita said...

That's a great suggestion -- your story about telling a story instantly makes it more compelling. Great advice!