Storied career: Tell stories to get ahead

When someone asks "What do you do?" a one-word answer will put your career on ice. You need to have a story. When you want to establish a connection with someone, a story provides social glue. When you want to impress someone, a story is more memorable and than a list of achievements.

Early in my career, I interviewed for a job as a user interface designer. The hiring manager asked me how I got involved in UI design.

I could have said, "I thought it looked interesting, so I gave it a try, and I was good at it." But anyone can answer the very standard how-did-you-find-your-career question with that answer.

So instead, I told this story: An old boyfriend was a programmer, and he worked from home, while I was in school. He plastered designs all over our bedroom wall and our living room floor so that he could think them though. Finally, I told him if he was going to mess up the apartment, he had to be the one to clean it, and I handed him the toilet scrubber. We argued about who had extra time for cleaning and who didn't, and finally he said, "Fine. I'll clean, but you do the UI design." And to his surprise, I did.

I got the job. And every time I have been able to tell stories in interviews, I have gotten the job.

When it comes to your career, have a one-minute story ready. It's the story of you– how you got to where you are and what your achievements are. When someone asks a question like, "How did you get into advertising?" tell your story.

When you interview, tell stories. You know you're going to encounter the question, "What are your strengths?" Don't give a list. It's not persuasive. Tell a story about how you did something amazing by using your strengths. This way you tell the hiring manager something memorable, and you get in a bit about your achievements.

Once you get the job, keep telling stories as a way to promote yourself within the company. The first month of your job, no one knows you, so they ask questions like, "Where were you before this?" or "What sort of experience do you have?" These are times to tell your story.

If you are funny, make your story funny. If you are not funny, be vulnerable in your story. For example, when people ask me how I became a writer, sometimes I start my story with how I was working just blocks away from the World Trade Center when it fell, and my software company never recovered. This is not essential to my story, but the World Trade Center brings people into my story right away.

Your success at your job will depend on you finding someone to help you navigate the corporate ladder: You need to find a mentor; you need to get on plum projects. You need to show people you are smart and interesting so that they want to help you. Don't assume that your work speaks for itself. It doesn't. Most people will have no idea what you have done, or what you do now. You need to tell them. And the best way to tell them without sounding boring or self-obsessed is to tell stories.

Still feeling queasy about talking yourself up to people? Check out the book Brag! by Peggy Klaus, the master of self-promotion. Worried that you don't know how to tell a story? Give business books a break and take a look at Flash Fiction edited by James Thomas. This is an anthology of two-page stories that have similar pacing as those you'll tell at the office.

Spinning a good story is difficult. But building a career without a story is even more difficult.

So you'd better start spinning.

 

[This is the first of Trunk's columns in The Hook.]