Every workshop I give starts with a story. You’d expect as much. But every workshop I give starts with a personal story, one that often includes my family members and that tells people both who I am and what story can do. For me, there’s no other way to go. When I give a workshop there’s a very limited amount of time to build a personal connection, establish trust and safety, and demonstrate my expertise. It can all come together in a story plus be fun to listen to.
The story I’m telling isn’t the story of how I’m the ultimate expert. It’s more likely about a journey to storytelling and where I’m hoping to go next – and take them with me. This is what I call a personal professional story. What is that? It’s a story about yourself that you tell in a professional setting. It can include bits and pieces from your personal life, but it doesn’t have to.
What makes it personal is the fact that it’s about your goals and dreams while addressing your audience’s needs.
This is a huge differentiator because often when we tell professional stories, we’re telling the story we think our audience wants to hear. It’s a story about how we meet a requirement or tick a box. This story is the other way around. It’s what you want to accomplish. The story invites your audience to join you in your journey, to become part of your story.
Many of today’s great thinkers, thought leaders, are moving in a direction that is crystal clear to them and their greatest strength is articulating their goals clearly. TED talks were originally designed to share passion projects and ideas and inspire audiences to support those projects. Take the example of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’s TED Talk made her an accidental feminist icon and was deeply personal. If TED speakers have something in common, it’s a clear goal and the ability to articulate that mission in a way that compels an audience to want to get involved.
A personal-professional story structure is built to help you articulate your goal and the path you plan to take to achieve it. There is still the familiar beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is about introducing yourself and your qualifications, which aren’t always academic or professional. The middle is about sharing your skills and experience through stories, and the end is about describing your vision for the future, or telling your audience what change you will make in the world when you achieve your goal.
I discovered this structure in my own storytelling when I went back to reflect on how I use story in professional settings. My resume is disjointed. My professional jobs since graduating have included meeting planner in Washington DC, an office manager in a German bakery in North Carolina, an instructor at a school for applied sciences in Amsterdam, and International Office Staff Support Officer in Nijmegen, here in The Netherlands.
When people ask me what I do, I try to knit those together into something that sounds like a career. It hasn’t been easy. Each time I’ve applied for a job, I’ve had to look back over a resume that doesn’t seem to fit and find the stories that prove otherwise. The technique essentially involved identifying a higher goal and then using that to ruthlessly edit my credentials and experiences until I’ve got a streamlined story.
And here’s the thing: it works.
It works and I’m telling my own story every single time.
I want everyone to be able to do this, particularly those people who aren’t on a traditional career path. I’m thinking about recent graduates, PhDs thinking about getting out of academics, anyone who’s taken a break from the job market to travel or raise kids or dive deep into a project, and anyone who’s braving a career switch.
This diagram is a starting point for understanding how you can craft your personal-professional story. It looks the same as the story diagram I always use, but there’s space for different parts of your story.