Storytelling is a skill that is as important for cocktail parties as it is your professional life. Your ability to craft an articulate and engaging narrative about your experience, skillset and career goals is critical to getting the attention and interest of recruiters, hiring managers and your network. In my role, now as a MBA career coach and formerly as a hiring manager, I have seen the impact of effective storytelling and how it can help a candidate stand out across a competitive pool.

To be a good storyteller, you need to be concise, tie your story around a central theme (or two) of your career, be open to revealing your career passions, and importantly, ensure your skills are highlighted.  Storytelling is particularly important in relation to talking about your own career history and in answering the inevitable question or elevator pitch: “tell me about yourself” or TMAY.

In responding to TMAY, you should keep in mind that this is a great opportunity to provide a compelling story about yourself and get the listener “hooked” to learn more. Here is what I advise when working with MBAs on their introductions:

  • Keep it short. Unless this is a formal interview, the person on the other side is expecting a one to two-minute synopsis of your background. You want to highlight the key aspects of your academic and career experience to date, but do not go into great detail on your job responsibilities, promotions, or accomplishments. More information can come later in the conversation, ideally as the other person gets interested and begins to ask more questions.
  • Be logical. You can explain your story chronologically (or reverse chronologically), or even around themes of work experience, but most importantly be structured and organized in how you present your experiences. If you jump around in your storytelling, it can be both confusing and distracting to the listener.
  • Highlight an important theme. It can be helpful to identify a key theme or passion that you might have built your career path around such as a focus on mission-driven organizations; building businesses from scratch; driving engagement with customers, etc. Showcasing these themes can help to explain why you might have moved roles or companies and made these transitions, while also revealing your greater mission in life.
  • Identify your skills.  You should weave into your story the two or three skills you have honed across your professional history. These should be what you perceive to be part of your personal “brand value” – what makes you a strong performer and stand out among your peers.
  • Tell them your goals.  If you are looking to make a job change (or even if you aren’t yet ready for the next move), you should share your longer-term goal. It shows focus, commitment and motivation and can also help the person on the other end identify ways to support you.

Putting these tactics into action takes practice. It’s a good idea to spend time with family or friends working through your TMAY aloud and getting feedback from them.

Here’s an example to get you started in developing your own story:

“Hi, my name is Ellie. I originally came from the Midwest and graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in economics. What I learned during my studies was that I was not only passionate about working with numbers but applying analytical frameworks to solve problems that communities face in their local economies. So after graduating, I joined a non-profit consulting firm in DC that uses economical modelling to identify opportunities for public-private partnerships to rejuvenate neighborhoods. During my three years as an analyst and then senior analyst at the organization, I have been responsible for testing out new financial models and providing insights from this data to my managers in a digestible and actionable format. I have pushed myself to learn presentational skills as well as more advanced statistical tools – I even earned an award for my proficiency in Excel. While I love what I do, I see myself pursuing an MBA in the next year to gain a broader management skillset.  Ultimately, I would like to start my own business and continue to have a positive impact on local communities.”

This example, while succinct, provides enough insight into where Ellie is from, what she cares about, what her skills are and where she’s headed – a sufficient amount of detail to understand Ellie’s professional history and aspirations, while provoking interest in learning more about her. This is key:  you want to leave the listener wanting to know more of your story.

The same strong storytelling skills are critical in interviews, particularly in answering behavioral questions, to ensure your responses not only answer an interviewer’s question but are impactful and resonate fully.  There’s more to come on those skills in part two of this article.


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