Story-telling appears to be baked into the DNA of humanity. From oral traditions dating back thousands of years to the origin stories of most religious traditions to the child’s simple request: Tell me a story.
And we love to hear those stories over and over. Tell me the story of when grandpa came to this country. Tell me the story of how you met Dad. Tell me the story of when I was little. Tell me the story….
The power of story-telling is not so much in the chronology they preserve, but in the meaning they project. They capture our triumphs, our resilience, our joys…and our greatness.
So why is it that in critical moments of our careers, we struggle to write our own story, and we give up control of our own narrative? And when we don’t take charge of our narratives, we allow others to write the story about US.
I hear it over and over in our executive coaching and work with teams:
- I just got fired…I don’t know what to say. I’ll probably never get another decent job.
- My project failed….What can I say? Guess I’m the failure.
- I lost my biggest account….Who will ever trust me after I’ve let the company and the team down?
- I keep getting passed over…Why don’t people think I’m ready for the next level?
And on and on. In those examples above, there’s one common thread: The subject of the story isn’t writing the narrative, but they ARE projecting the ending…and it’s not a happy ending. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!
So how can you reclaim that intrinsically, instinctively HUMAN power of story-telling for YOU?
Here are some tips:
- Be quick about it. As a client from years ago who had great homespun wisdom once told us, “Bad news don’t get no better with age!” So get your story out fast…because what fills the communication void you create will not be pretty. And then you have to counteract a bad narrative while trying to write your own story. Not good.
- Be straight-forward about it. If you got fired, say it. Don’t hide. Don’t be ashamed.
- Answer the “Why.” If you got fired because you just weren’t aligned with the company’s new direction, that can be a powerful story in which you aren’t the victim and you’re not blaming others, you just had a legitimate difference of opinion. And that happens every day in every company.
- Tell the truth. Yes, you are going to put a positive light on even negative events. But don’t spin and don’t lie. Your story needs to have integrity and authenticity. That builds trust and trust builds confidence in you. Stories get their power from the truths they hold.
- Say what you learned. We all know that we learn more from mistakes and failures than from success and easy times. So what did you learn from the experience? High powered people admire that self-reflection, resilience, and grit. I once asked a VC why he was putting into a CEO role a guy who had just flamed out as a CEO and cost them $5 million. He said with incredulity, “He’s a smart guy and I just spent $5 million of real-world tuition on him. Seems like I ought to try to make my money back, don’t you think?” Made sense. And it will make sense when YOU tell people what you learned, too.
- Believe your story. Think about your story. Lean into it. Practice it. And believe it. Because if you don’t believe in you and your narrative, it’s really hard for anyone else to believe in you.
Tell me a story. That’s one of the most intensely human of requests. It touches a chord in all of us because it is SO important. Stories are how we connect with others and how we pass on truths.
So don’t ever let anyone write your story for you. That privilege, challenge, and responsibility must be yours alone.