I am writing to you about something you might not otherwise consider an important career-building skill—storytelling.
There are multiple types of storytelling. For example, if you ask my three sons whether their dad is a good storyteller, they’ll probably reply, “It depends.” As the children of an economist who always sees two sides to every story, they might say, “On the one hand, Dad is great at reading stories in books. He can read with expression and keep my interest. On the other hand, every time he tries to make up a story, they never turn out any good. But, if he has some time to sit and think about a story, he does okay. He wrote a fun story about a grocery store trip, and he wrote two plays for our church’s Christmas program.”
That’s all well and good for my kids and my students in Sunday school, but you may ask, “How is this relevant to my career?”
I don’t want anyone making up fictional stories to drive their career success—unless writing fiction is your job. But there are elements of storytelling in what drives my career success, and I bet there will be opportunities to drive your career success as well.
Now, you might ask, “What elements?”
Let’s think about what makes a good story. The characters are described well and clearly identified—so we know who is involved. There is a clear timeline—so we know when things happened. There is a theme or lesson learned—so we know how and why things happened. Finally, the location matters, so we know where things happened.
In the same way, if I am trying to persuade someone or make a case for a new project or attract an investor for a new startup or get a job, I have to be able to lay out a clear vision. I have to be able to let the person I am communicating with know who, when, how, why, and where in a way that the other person understands. So, I have to know my audience. I am going to tell a story differently to the Dean than to third grade Sunday school students. If I don’t, I’ll bore one and lose the other.
The best example of storytelling in my career is sharing a vision of why I enjoy teaching and how I plan to continue to improve my teaching. I gave a lecture on that topic to a diverse audience at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in February 2011. The audience included faculty, department chairs, students, the Dean of that school, and my parents. I found a way to make the topic accessible to all. I found a way to emphasize why teaching mattered to me so that everyone understood. I was particularly interested in communicating it to my parents since my mother was a teacher and when I was a child, I had not understood why she would want to teach. And I made an impression on several people who eventually helped me to land the job as Vice Dean at the Carey Business School.
There are many ways to develop your storytelling skills. You can journal or blog. You can practice in formal ways in speaking groups. Or you can just make an effort to speak up in groups. If you choose the latter, remember that stories are different from conversations. Just because you can hold someone’s attention in a conversation does not necessarily mean that you could be the center of attention for 3-5 minutes to tell a story. Try it. See how it goes. And see how it can improve your chances of coming out ahead in the next negotiation, attracting that next client, or getting that next job.
Interested in finding more about storytelling? Check out these resources:
Also, be on the lookout for an upcoming Storytelling program to take place in DC and Harbor East on April 8, 2015. Students will be able to register for the program on Carey Compass.