Your story – tell all or tell a little? 5 Tips to Developing a Career Story That Hits the Mark

When you send out information about yourself, what do you say?  Whether its applying for a new job or contract, or simply sending out your biography for a speaking engagement, there is often a dilemma about what and how much to say.

We’ve all had the painful experience of working through pages of a resume or CV (curriculum vitae) that seems to start from the second the person was born and crawl agonizingly to present day – with far too much detail along the way!  And often, assuming you actually take the time to read it all, you still don’t have a clear picture of who the person is or, more importantly, what they want to do and why.

Rather than going the traditional resume route, there is currently a popular school of thought that suggests a career story can be the answer.  Unlike a resume or curriculum vitae, the career story allows you to tell a story about your life.  Knowing that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” (thanks Simon Sinek), the career story gives you a platform to get at the why of what you do, as well as talking about the what and how.

My friend and colleague Bill Baker calls this “strategic storytelling”: not just telling any ol’ story about yourself, but being more purposeful and strategic about the stories you tell (especially stories about yourself and your career) to get your audience to think and feel in a specific way. But what and how much to tell?

Assuming you have identified your purpose (for example, applying for a new job, seeking input from experts on whether you might be suited to move into a particular new field, promoting your company services, etc), here are some tips that might help you craft your career story:

1.  Lead with what is most interesting about you – we can be inclined to cling to the big picture stuff – “Experienced advertising executive who likes working with people”.  Really?  Is that the most interesting thing about you?  What about “Experienced advertising executive with a passion for social change, wild mountain biking and spicy food”?  Depending on your purpose, chances are that there may be more people reading your story who can relate to what you are passionate about or do with your non-work time, as there are who identify with your profession. I learned this when I sent my professional bio to the organizers of a conference I was speaking at.  For a reason that I no longer remember, I made reference to the fact that I was a horse wrangler in my early days (true), amidst all the other info about a career in the Olympics and other major events, business coaching and so forth.  The person introducing me at the conference chose to start out by talking about my horse wrangling experience – leading with what he found most interesting.

2.  Remember: it’s about the reader – we can all get caught up in our own story.  The thing about a strategic story is that first and foremost you must keep the reader in mind, along with the reason you are contacting them.  You think less about the story you want to tell about yourself and more about the story your reader needs to hear in order to help them think and feel a specific way about you. If you want to make an impression, tell them a story that you know will land. I had the good fortune to work for the legendary Jim Pattison at EXPO 86 in Vancouver.  I suffered several false starts before I got the hang of how to get to the point immediately with Jimmy – he was not a fan of long build-ups to the request, rather it was “tell me what you want and then tell me why”.  On the other hand, other people I have worked with have wanted to start with the objectives, understand the rationale first, and then get to the request.  Point is: know your reader or your listener.

3.  Keep it short and sweet and focused – who has time, or will take the time, to read more than a couple of pages on a career story?  I think that your career story should be one page or less, no matter who you are.  Even if you are applying for an academic or highly technical position where you need to present a long list of credentials, your career story can be a separate stand-alone document. Don’t try to be all things to all people in your career story.. Instead, be focused. Take a stand; pick a lane; and know that in doing so, your story will not be right for everyone. But it will certainly be right for some.

4.  Include your photo, testimonials, personal information – keeping in mind the tips above, it may be appropriate to include one or more of these elements.  Pick a photo that is friendly, accessible, even informal.  A client of mine chose to use a photo that her husband took of her early one morning on a camping trip with the backdrop of the roaring sea and their tent.  Perfect shot for the environmental position she was seeking.
A couple of short, impactful quotes or testimonials from people you have worked with – again, chosen strategically to the purpose – can work very well.  People like to be asked to contribute these, so don’t be shy about asking.  Just be sure to tell them how you will use them and ask for their approval.

As for how much or how little personal information to include, again think about relevancy.  Is there a point to telling people you have a partner and children?  In a much-viewed TED talk, activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta starts by speaking about the fact that he is gay and the father of triplets, which he describes as the greatest social innovation and social entrepreneurship project of his life.  Given that these two topics are the theme of his speech, his personal story is the ideal launch.

5.  Hone your storytelling skills – telling a story is one thing, telling it well can be quite another.  Since man first gestured to each other in front of a fire, storytelling has been the way we most naturally communicate as social, interconnected human beings.  But strategic storytelling is a skill and an art.

If you would like to get better at your strategic storytelling, for whatever purpose, please check out the Executive Storytelling workshop that Bill Baker and I are offering here. V3_Exes_storytelling2