6 secrets of career storytelling

Are you sitting comfortably? Find out how to craft your personal narrative and improve your job prospects.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Jan 2017

You won’t find storytelling listed as a key skill on many CVs, and with good reason: if you admit you have a knack for spinning a yarn, you’re more or less admitting that your accomplishments are less impressive than they appear.

Be that as it may, being able to tell a story is undoubtedly a valuable business skill, whether you’re presenting a financial forecast, convincing a customer to buy more widgets, launching a brand or inspiring a team.

Stories are a primal form of communication, as old as language itself. They are the way we make sense of the world, the way we remember things, the way we give dry data meaning. We’re hardwired to place events into the familiar patterns of a narrative.

Unsurprisingly, this means storytelling can help you get a job as well as perform in it. ‘I’ve been recruiting people into organisations for 35 years,’ former McKinsey managing partner Nick Lovegrove told MT recently. ‘Your CV either tells a story or it doesn’t. And if it does, it tends to help.’

This is because it connects the disparate strands of your professional life into an easily understandable whole, helping your prospective employer to picture who you are and how you’d fit in their organisation.

It’s no easy task. For many of us, our most recent experience of deliberate storytelling was either in primary school (‘once upon a time there was a fantastic guy called Dave who literally beasted marketing’) or telling a joke in the pub (‘did you hear the one about my CV? It ends with you giving me a job'). Neither is appropriate.

With that in mind, here’s a crash course in CV and interview storytelling, to help you along the way. Are you sitting comfortably?

1. Show, don’t tell

This is a common rule in communication. The principle’s fairly obvious: how do you know if someone’s overjoyed, because they say ‘I’m overjoyed’ or because they do things that overjoyed people do (think jumping up and down, grinning wildly and franticly calling your mum)?

Clearly, neither a CV nor an interview is a good time for performance art, so you will still need to say what you did, how you felt and why. But instead of loading your story with adjectives and adverbs, both of which are overused, try using the odd detail to bring it to life. It will make it more memorable, if nothing else.  

2. Be original... but not too original

In 2004, Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots disheartened wannabe novelists everywhere by saying that all stories are really just variants of seven much older ones.

There may be more or fewer than seven career archetypes, but the fact remains there’s no such thing as an original idea and that’s a good thing: we use these templates precisely because everyone already understands them.

What this means is that, while you still want to stand out from the crowd, you need to make sure it all makes sense to other people, without too much explanation. If yours is the CV equivalent of postmodernist literary fiction (oh plot? Where are you plot?), employers will pass.

3. Remember beginning, middle and end?

To avoid this, you need to make sure your tale is coherent. What happens next must make sense in the light of both established themes and earlier events.

This means you need to thoroughly understand your own motivation: why did you retrain to be a lawyer? Why did you leave two jobs in quick succession? Why do you want to work for a start-up?

Once you know that, you can emphasise and frame what you're doing in a way that’s clear and consistent with your earlier decisions, without appearing capricious or indecisive.

4. Be authentic

Note that we’re talking about framing and emphasising, not making it up. Lying is unlikely to result in a good story, because it won’t appear believable. Those all important little details will be off. Besides, even if you don’t get caught, it still sets you up for a fail: if you’re not really honest about who you are and what you want, how can you really flourish anywhere?

5. Grab them early

Do you think this should have been at the top? It’s an axiom in the publishing industry that if a book hasn’t hooked you in the first chapter or alternatively the first 100 pages, no one’s going to read the whole thing. The same applies for a CV, only you don’t get 100 pages. You get half a page, tops.

This doesn’t mean you have to tell your whole story in short form, but it does mean the big picture has to be in place: who are you, what do you want, why? A nice executive summary will help, but alternatively you can experiment with functional CVs and other formats, if you’re worried the juicy bits all come at the end.

6. Test it

You know the story you want to tell and how to tell it. Now comes the hard part: execution. Rather than throwing off your arm bands and jumping in the deep end, improve your chances by talking to friends or a mentor for some honest feedback. Maybe they won’t pick up on your subtle messaging. Maybe your explanation of that unusual career transition sounds muddled or defensive. You won’t know until to try it out.

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