Developing and Using a Powerful Personal Narrative

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In professional contexts and increasingly in personal ones, especially social media and dating sites, it’s become important to have a personal narrative. In a time of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, younger generations are becoming really good at developing a personal brand or a personal narrative. It’s something that’s required of everybody, because of how we consume and share information about others.

As I talk about in my book, Honestly Speaking: How the Way We Communicate Transforms Leadership, Love, and Life developing and sharing a compelling personal narrative is one of the most important aspects of modern communication that we all need to be good at.

How we think of ourselves and present ourselves can make us compelling for a new job or attractive to a new partner, and it can confirm — or run afoul of — people’s perceptions of us. But it’s often uncomfortable for people to talk about themselves because they feel boastful and self-promotional. Despite the discomfort, it’s critical today. It’s also really important to be able to talk about yourself in a way that feels authentic and gets across the key aspects of yourself in certain contexts.

Most importantly:

Make sure that your narrative matches both reality and what you put on professional networking sites and dating apps.

Never lie about yourself. But keep in mind — you are much more than the sum of your experiences and accomplishments. You are how you feel, how you show up, and what you do based on those experiences.

Going one step further in drawing conclusions and weaving a story about your experiences for your potential partner or manager helps them get a better sense of who you are.

Experiences grouped together by theme or by learning are way more effective than a long list of jobs and company names.

Creating a narrative out of a handful of experiences requires that you answer a couple of questions:

  • What are the one or two common aspects of all the different jobs you’ve had?
  • In one or two sentences, what motivated the moves and decisions you’ve made that led you to this point?

For example, I have a pretty diverse professional background — I studied political science and international security in college but had been really interested in journalism; I worked in political communications and then went to law school; in law school I focused on policy and government more than the traditional practice of law; after law school I worked at a foundation and then a nonprofit and taught a college course on nonprofits and advocacy. When I talk about my own narrative at work, the two common threads I point out through those experiences are that I have become good at distilling complex ideas in simple ways for different audiences, and I’ve always focused on being a good manager and leader.

Focusing less on the job title and more on what you learned in each job and their similarities helps develop a common thread through various experiences.

Focusing less on providing a chronological list of actions or accomplishments and more on a theme or two that unites them is more compelling and often comes across less as bragging — and is therefore more comfortable for us to share. Do not name-drop as much as you talk about substance. Degrees, institutions, and names matter far less than what you’ve done and who you are.

Have a short, medium, and longer version of the same narrative. Start by creating the longer version, and then cut.

Boil it down to its essence — what are the one, two, or three points that you think really encapsulate you and your experience? If you keep those as your north star, you’ll always be able to run through them in a thirty-second conversation at a cocktail party, in a two-minute talk on a panel, or during a longer-form interview.

Finally, a few specific tips on creating a narrative or story about yourself:

  • Ask for specific feedback from people you trust.
  • Keep it short and direct. Don’t feel the need to list every accomplishment.
  • Never say something that’s untrue. Ever. Only take credit for your own work. But take credit for work you did, even if it was part of a team.
  • Don’t lose an opportunity to be open, honest, and a little vulnerable. Trying to appear perfect or hide imperfections makes you seem insecure and unrelatable. We all have flaws, and it makes your narrative unrealistic to go out of your way to conceal them.
  • Smile. In photos on dating websites and professional networking sites, a smile conveys accessibility and confidence. Studies have shown it’s a key part of executive presence and is attractive in mates.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming Honestly Speaking: How the Way We Communicate Transforms Leadership, Love, and Life due out in July 2019.

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.

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