22. What’s Your Story? Telling Memorable Tales

When we tell a story—whether at a dinner party or in a job interview—we build trust between ourselves and our listeners. Here, we ask questions which will help you evaluate whether an anecdote might be worth sharing in an interview situation, and offer prompts to inspire a few great stories you can have ready to share when need be.

Telling a story is always personal. Whatever walk of life you come from, the stories you tell define who you are—especially to those people who are listening to you speak. As far as listeners are concerned, your stories are your personal brand, so when you’re in a situation where you’re being evaluated—such as a job or admissions interview—you need to think about which stories you tell to others to illustrate who you are…and which ones you’re better off not telling at all.

People tell stories about themselves every day. The simple question “How are you?” begs for a story; if the answer goes beyond “Fine,” then a tale begins. The most common story is a response to the question, “Tell me about yourself.” The central character in that tale is predetermined—it’s you!

The best stories pull you in from the beginning, keep your interest in the middle, and leave you with a satisfying ending, wishing for more. Each story takes on a life of its own, thanks to the unique voice, gesture, and sense of humor of the storyteller, so practice telling yours out loud, and try them out in low key situations such as dinner with friends before pulling them out in an interview.

If you want to make sure you’re telling a story that creates trust and leaves a listener with a positive impression of you, ask yourself a number of questions about the tale you’re considering telling:

  • Who are you? If you’re telling a story that is meant to answer this question—and in an interview that’s usually the case—the tale needs to speak to what is important to you; it could be about your family, a turning point in your life, your travel experiences or any number of other topics. A story that illustrates who you are should show your humanity and your ability to recognize your flaws.
  • Why are you telling this story? There should be a clear point to your story—and if you tell the reader the reason why you’re sharing this tale, it will reassure them of your good intentions. You might say, “I’ll tell you about a similar experience I had so you know you’re not alone,” or “Let me explain to you why I left that job so you can understand my decision.” Knowing—and sometimes explaining—why you’re telling a story connects you with your audience, with this particular listener at this point in time.
  • How does your vision relate to your audience’s vision? If a speaker has shared an experience, anecdote or idea with you and you reply with your own ideas about what’s possible, you show that you are listening to that person and, if your visions are similar—or different in ways that are useful in solving a problem—you also connect with your audience, forging a bond.
  • What do you value? If a story makes your ideals clear, then the listener has learned something essential about who you are, what you value, and how those standards guide you in daily life.

When your storytelling skills are strong enough, you can also work on telling a story that anticipates what your listener is thinking by engaging their imagination and staying one step ahead of them. The key to this is simply paying close attention to your listener, noticing his or her reactions and nonverbal cues, and mirroring his or her thoughts in your words.

By doing so, you build empathy and create the foundation for strong relationships. If you notice someone is nervously glancing at the clock, for example, you might say, “Oh, is there somewhere you have to rush back to? Ever since I tried to drive into Manhattan on a day that turned out to be the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I’ve been a fanatic about leaving places in more than enough time to get to my next appointment. I’m always showing up at airports before my gate is even listed.” In this way, you’re putting the other person at ease by anticipating his or her fears, making him or her comfortable, and also revealing yourself to be a reliable, empathetic person.

Personal branding is one form of storytelling, and it showcases your authenticity by allowing you to create connections based on how others relate to your experiences and character. Today’s world is an experience economy, a place where people crave experiences and trade in them, where people want to connect to others in a personal and memorable way. If you don’t create an experience that’s memorable when you tell a story, you won’t stand out from every other person the listener interacted with that day. But when you live your life genuinely, your story and your connections with others create something special and make a memorable impression.

Practice a story or two of your own to keep in your back pocket and pull out in interview situations; you can jot notes in the space below. To start, think of a time when you:

  • Had a funny experience.    
  • Created something that made you feel proud.
  • Were brave, adventurous or showed courage.
  • Won an award or received recognition.    
  • Did something out of character.
  • Had a great team experience.    

If you can create a story that combines a few of the above elements—say it shows you overcoming fear to achieve something that makes you proud, but can also be told in an amusing way—you’ve got a real winner. Maybe it’s demonstrating the funny faces you made to the children you tutored, which got them to like you even though you were petrified they’d walk out of the first session, or it’s the tale of the time you told your host family when you lived abroad that you were too pregnant for dessert instead of too full for dessert, which embarrassed you so much that it inspired you to learn French so well that you now act as a translator for Francophone patients in a local hospital. Whatever you talk about, it should be a story you enjoy telling—if you’re having fun and enjoying an interaction, chances are your listener is, too. Practice a story or two of your own to keep in your back pocket and pull out in interview situations; you can jot notes in the space below.

Module 22 | What’s Your Story? Telling Memorable Tales