All of us tell stories about ourselves daily. We all read stories in the faces around us to reinvent ourselves. Creating and telling a story that resonates helps us believe in ourselves. Stories define us all. This is the role of storytelling in times of personal transition. You’ll know you’ve honed your story when it feels both comfortable and true to you. But you cannot get there until you put yourself in front of others—ultimately, in front of strangers—and watch their faces and body language as you speak. Anyone trying to make a change has to work out a story that connects the old and new selves. It is in a period of change that we often fail, yet most need, to link our past, present, and future into a compelling whole. This is how the brain encodes our social ranks.
To know someone well is to know her story—the experiences that have shaped her, the trials and turning points that have tested her. When we want someone to know us, we share stories of our childhoods, our families, our school years, our first loves, and so on. Why sharing your life story is important? It connects our future generations. As our past generation’s life story is valuable to us so why not preserve ours too before it’s too late? Life can change in an instant. Rest easy leaving a positive connotation on your coming kids your character, a mark of experience, and a personal story that will be preserved for them. Unlock your struggle under sentimental moments that have occurred in your life to ensure that these special details will live. Story sharing is how we can connect as a community and find the strength to continue with our struggles.
How rewarding is it to know that others will read your story and think that’s me! That’s what I’m going through. I never thought someone else felt that way or experienced this!
Let’s be clear: In urging the use of effective narrative, we’re not opening the door to tall tales. By “story” we don’t mean “something made up to make a bad situation look good.” Rather, we’re talking about accounts that are deeply true and so engaging that listeners feel they have a stake in our success. Without a story, there was no context to render career facts meaningful, no promise of a third act in which achieving a goal.
If you’re reaching for the last piece of pizza at a party and see another hand going for it at the same time, your next move probably depends both on how you feel and whom the hand belongs to. Your little sister — you might go ahead and grab the pizza. Your boss — you’re probably more likely to step back and give up the slice. But if you’re hungry and feeling particularly confident, you might go for it. Most social species organize themselves into hierarchies that guide each individual’s behavior. As when a major change of professional direction is underway—when we are leaving A without yet having left it and moving toward B without yet having gotten there. In a time of such unsettling transition, telling a compelling story to coworkers, bosses, friends, or family—or strangers in a conference room—inspires belief in our motives, character, and capacity to reach the goals we’ve set.
Most of us experience the transition to a new working life as a time of confusion, loss, insecurity, and uncertainty. We are scared. “Will I look back one day and think this was the best thing that ever happened?” we ask ourselves. “Or will I realize that this was the beginning of the end, that it was all downhill from here?” We oscillate between holding on to the past and embracing the future. Why? We have lost the narrative thread of our professional life. Without a compelling story that lends meaning, unity, and purpose to our lives, we feel lost and rudderless. We need a good story to reassure us that our plans make sense—that, in moving on, we are not discarding everything we have worked so hard to accomplish and selfishly putting family and livelihood at risk. It will give us motivation and help us endure frustration, suffering, and hard work. A good story, then, is essential for making a successful transition. Yet most of us—like those at the networking event—fail to use the power of storytelling in pursuit of our cause.
YOUR STORY HAS NATURAL INHERITANCE
At first glance, it’s not obvious why stories of transition should present any problems at all. Almost by definition, they contain the stuff of good narrative. The protagonist is you, of course, and what’s at stake is your career. Faith, life, and death could be more important. And the transition is always about a world that’s changed. You’ve been let go, or you’ve somehow decided your life doesn’t work anymore. Perhaps you’ve reached an event or insight that represents a point of no return—one that marks the end of the second act, a period of frustration and struggle. In the end, if all goes well, you resolve the tension and uncertainty and embark on a new chapter in your life or career.
Not only do transition stories have all the elements of a classic tale, but they have the most important ones in spades. Notice what moves a story along. It’s changed, conflict, tension, and discontinuity. What hooks us in a movie or novel is the turning point, the break with the past, and the fact that the world has changed in some intriguing and fascinating way that will force the protagonist to discover and reveal who he truly is. If those elements are missing, the story will be flat. Think, for example, what could be more dramatic? Palpable moments when things click into place and a desirable option materialize. The scales fall from our eyes, and the right course becomes obvious—or taking the leap suddenly looks easy. “What happened next?”
Let’s return and remember all the drab stories (actually, non-stories) people told. If transition stories, with their drama and discontinuity, lend themselves so well to vivid telling, why did so many people merely recount the basic facts of their careers and avoid the exciting turning points? Why did most of them try to frame the changes in their lives as incremental, logical extensions of what they were doing before? Why did they fail to play up the narrative twists and turns? To begin with, it’s because they were attempting to tell the story while they were still in the middle of the second act. Look back over the story, and you’ll realize that the turning points described were not very different from incidents all of us experience daily. We must learn to use them to propel our stories forward.
An issue that makes life stories (particularly ones about discontinuity) problematic: Not only does a good story require us to trust the listener, but it must also inspire the listener to trust us. A story about life discontinuity raises red flags about the teller’s capabilities, dependability, and predictability. Listeners wonder, “Why should I believe you can excel in a new arena when you don’t have a track record to point to?” And on a deeper level, even greater suspicions lurk: “Why should I trust that you won’t change your mind about this? You changed your mind before, didn’t you?”
Is there a way to tell a lively story and inspire others’ confidence? Yes, but it requires a deep understanding of what really makes people believe in what we’re saying.
THE STRUGGLE FOR COHERENCE
All good stories have a characteristic so basic and necessary it’s often assumed. That quality is coherence, and it’s crucial to life stories of transition. Coherence is crucial to a life story of transition because it is the characteristic that most generates the listener’s trust. If you can make your story of change and reinvention seem coherent, you will have gone far in convincing the listener that the change makes sense for you and is likely to bring success—and that you’re a stable, trustworthy person.
Coherence is a crucial narrative element because it earns the listener’s trust.
As important, you will also have gone far in convincing yourself. Indeed, it’s the loss of coherence that makes times of transition so difficult to get through. Each of us in transition feels like that character. Coherence is the solid ground under our feet. Without it, we feel as though we’re hanging in midair.
Emphasizing Continuity and Causality
Now it becomes understandable why so many speakers in that networking meeting failed to do more than recite facts. They were trying to downplay discontinuity; gloss over how large a professional jump they wanted to make; to avoid appearing wayward, lost, and flailing. It was a misguided strategy, for listeners are particularly sensitive to lapses of coherence in life stories. They actually look for coherence in such stories. Failure to acknowledge a large degree of change will put off listeners and undermine their trust.
As storytellers, we must deal explicitly with the magnitude of change our stories communicate. We can do that and still inspire trust if we focus on establishing continuity and causality. The following suggestions can help.
Keep your reasons for change grounded in your character, in who you are
There’s probably no rationale for change more compelling than some internal reason, some basic character trait. In its simplest version, this explanation takes the form of “I discovered I’m good at that” or “I like that—it gives me real pleasure.” This approach, noted and found by us in our work to be extremely useful, allows storytellers to incorporate learning and self-discovery into life stories. We can try something, learn from the experience, and use that learning to deepen our understanding of what we want. Many turning points can be used in this way. Note that it’s not wise to base the reasons for transformation primarily on ourselves. “I got fired” may be a fact we must explain and incorporate into our stories, but it’s rarely recognized as a good justification for seeking whatever we’re seeking. External reasons tend to create the impression that we simply accept our fate.
Cite multiple reasons for what you want
You might, for instance, mention both personal and professional grounds for making a change. (Obviously, these must be complementary rather than mutually exclusive or contradictory.) The richer and more varied the reasons compelling you to change, the more comprehensible and acceptable that change will appear.
Be sure to point out any explanations that extend back in time
A goal rooted in the past will serve far better than one recently conceived. Your story will need to show why you could not pursue the goal originally, but here, external causes—illness, accident, family problems, being drafted, and so on—can play a leading role.
Reframe your past in light of the change you’re seeking to make
This is not to suggest that you hide anything or prevaricate. We all continually rethink and retell our own life stories. We create different versions that focus on or downplay, include or exclude, different aspects of what has happened to us. Some elements of the jobs we’ve held probably fit well with our change plans and can be used to link our past experiences with the part of our life that we’re advancing toward. The key is to dissect those experiences and find the pieces that relate to our current goals.
Choose a story form that lends itself to your tale of reinvention
All suggestions are ways to frame the discontinuity in a transition story and provide the coherence that will reassure listeners. They demonstrate that, at your core, the person you were yesterday is the person you are today and the person you will be tomorrow. And they establish that there are good and sufficient causes for change. If you create the sense that your life hangs (and will hang) together, you’ll be free to incorporate the dramatic elements of change and turmoil, and uncertainty into your story that will make it compelling.
Telling Multiple Stories
We’ve noted the challenge of crafting a story, complete with dramatic turning points when the outcome is still far from clear. The truth is, as you embark on a career transition, you will likely find yourself torn among different interests, paths, and priorities. It wouldn’t be unusual, for example, for you to work all weekend on a business plan for a start-up, return to your day job on Monday and ask for a transfer to another position or business unit, and then have lunch on Tuesday to explore yet a third option. This is simply the nature of career transition. So how do you reconcile this reality with the need to present a clear, single life story of reinvention, one that implies you know exactly where you’re going?
For starters, keep in mind that, in a job interview, you don’t establish trust by getting everything off your chest or being completely open about the several possibilities you are exploring. In the early stages of a transition, it is important to identify and actively consider multiple alternatives. But you will explore each option, or type of option, with a different audience. This means that you must craft different stories for different possible selves (and the various audiences that relate to those selves).
Just Tell It
Any storyteller will agree that there’s no substitute for practicing in front of a live audience. Tell and retell your story; rework it like a draft of an epic novel until the “right” version emerges.
You can practice your stories in many ways and places. Any context will do in which you’re likely to be asked, “What can you tell me about yourself?” or “What do you do?” or “What are you looking for?” Start with family and friends. You may even want to designate a small circle of friends and close colleagues, with their knowledge and approval, your “board of advisers.” Their primary function would be to listen and react again and again to your evolving stories.
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