By Brianna Valleskey
When people ask you to tell them about yourself, what do you say?
Do you jump into reciting your resume? Talk about your current role and organization, then maybe add a tidbit or two about your personal life?
There’s nothing inherently wrong about sharing these facts. You’re being asked, after all. But rattling off a list of bullets is the same as merely listing off the features of your product: It whips! It chops! It mixes! It grinds!
You are presenting disparate pieces of information without tying them together in a way that leads your listener(s) to a specific conclusion. You are only telling people who you are.
You should be showing them.
If the idea of your “personal brand” feels like an abstract concept, you’re not alone.
Brand management is about shaping perceptions. And if traditional brand management is meant to sell you something, then personal brand management is about selling yourself.
This comes in handy when you’re looking for a job, working toward a promotion, enlisting a co-founder, selling an investor, finding an agent … the list goes on.
The easiest way to shape perceptions is with your stories.
Stories engage more cognitive functions than facts and statistics: emotional reactions, mental imagery, beliefs, and even evaluations, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Selling yourself means telling a story about yourself.
Many of us already utilize this incredible tool in the brand management for our businesses. But what about the brand management of professional sevles?
Sure, you might be writing a blog post here, a LinkedIn update there. But when you are on the spot, in real time, are you able to recite an elevator story about yourself? (Similar to an “elevator pitch,” an elevator story should be concise enough to tell on an elevator ride.)
This is not about abandoning the idea of a personal brand. But rather, to start cultivating your personal brand by telling the right stories about yourself to the right people, at the right time.
The Story Framework
The stories we tell about ourselves are like magic. If you believe them, then the people around you will too.
My number one recommendation is to always have a few stories in your back pocket to tell the story of your value in the professional world. But which stories?
You can have stories of times that you thought outside the box to accomplish something or found a creative solution to a problem, as well as times that you’ve failed or overcome a challenge that changed your perspective of something (and what you learned from that).
But if you want to grab and hold people’s attention, if you want to thoughtfully promote yourself without coming off as showy, if you want to dazzle and amaze the people around you, you can use Kindra Smith’s storytelling framework from “Stories that Stick.”
In the book, she shares vital types of stories that every business should have. A few of them translate quite effectively for personal brands. Below, I provide a framework with questions to ask yourself and an example of what a personal brand story could look like for each type.
Are you ready to master your story? Keep reading.
3 Types of Stories You Can Tell About Yourself
1. Founder Story: Who you are?
Even in a job setting, humans like to hear about humans. They crave for an understanding of your humanity (who you are), and how that relates to the work that you do—all in 120 seconds or less.
This is why you need your Founder Story.
“It’s a story that generates faith beyond numbers, answers questions without effort, and fills in any missing pieces of the puzzle about where the founder has been, where the founder is going, and why this founder is worth betting on,” Kindra writes.
Storytelling was my first love. As a child, I would rollerblade to all the neighborhood parks just to lay in the grass and write. I spent summers devouring books, journaling, scribbling poetry, writing novels, filming videos, giving tours of our house; anything I could do that involved using language to create bridges between people.
After spending four years on a journalism degree (which everyone in the industry said was a waste of time), multiple internships, and an editor-in-chief role on the university newspaper, I got my first job out of college on Craigslist.
I created content for a financial media startup. Then I hosted an internet radio show and booked guests who regularly appeared on CNBC. I’ve managed content marketing in the SaaS space, freelanced as a copywriter, moved across the country for a job to a city where I didn’t know a single person, and eventually found my sweet spot in storytelling and strategic communications for high-growth companies.
I am on Earth to help people and tell transformative stories.
That is the foundation (soil) and driving force (sunlight) of my career. I bring together these disparate pieces of information to weave a tale about where I’ve been, where I'm going, and why I’m worth betting on.
What connects who you are to what you do? Do you love talking to people? Working with your hands? Being outside? Solving problems? Creating spreadsheets?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Forget your dream job. Many people do not have the luxury of finding a “dream job.” Instead, we can search for a job that involves at least some of the things we like. And if we understand the things we like, we can tell a story about where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why we’re worth betting on.
2. Value Story: What do you do?
When someone is asked what they do, they tend to rely on one-word answers or even more grocery lists of abilities and task-tivities. More telling; more feature-selling.
“People don’t buy the thing. They buy what the thing will do for them,” Kindra writes. “That story is a value story.”
Your skills, your expertise, your experience: these are “things.” Can you describe what you do without simple listing responsibilities? Can you incorporate real world examples and create a case study of yourself?
One month into the COVID-19 pandemic, my company estimated that a few million of dollars in sales opportunities was stuck in our pipeline. Our would-be buyers froze their budgets. They (understandably) were afraid. So we searched for stories that would make them brave.
When we interviewed these buyers, they told us that only solutions demonstrating agility throughout the crisis and ROI could give them the confidence to invest. Our sales reps reported similar findings. So we went to work.
We asked our customers to share how they’d pivoted using our solution, in whatever format they wanted: a case study, best practices blog post, testimonial, webinar spotlight, product review, and so on. We documented how we, ourselves, were using or planning to use the solution. Metrics and ROI measurements were injected as often as possible, but the main goal was to set the market narrative of how to keep business moving despite the uncertainty.
These stories were promoted internally and strategically disseminated across our go-to-market activities. We saw hundreds of stage progressions and close date changes, while influencing millions in pipeline and hundreds of thousands in revenue, within a few months.
I use storytelling to achieve business outcomes.
I tell a Value Story to help people understand what I can do for them. These questions will help you think about your Value Story:
You do not need a pandemic-level event to describe your value. Does the work you do make your boss’ life better? What about your teammates? Was your proudest moment a time when you had to be resourceful? Go with that. There is no perfect story—only the perfect time to tell one.
3. Purpose Story: Why do you do what you do?
I work because I have rent, bills, healthcare costs to pay, and a compulsive book-buying habit to support. But I do the specific type of work that I do because it aligns with things I believe. And sometimes I want to convince others to believe those things, too.
This is where a Purpose Story comes in handy.
“All purpose stories start with this essential question: What point do I want to make?” Kindra writes. “Said another way: What do I want my audience to think, feel, know, or do as a result of hearing this story?”
Growing up, my mother was depressed and suicidal. She told me that she thought I’d be happy if she was dead. I believed her. And it changed me.
With this one story, I learned that I was responsible for my mother; that I needed to be, do, and act better because—clearly—however I was, was not enough. What did “enough'' mean anyway? I didn’t know, but I had to find out. My mother’s life depended on it.
I spent the better part of two decades trying to be enough for my mother … and for everyone else. It broke me. Yet I still refused to talk about my mother in therapy.
My therapist, patient and clever, had me write a letter to myself. The act of writing was a ritual. In examining what I felt was true, I unearthed a new story: one where having compassion for myself made me big enough to have compassion for my mother, too; one where I could see how she also had pain from cycles of abuse; one where I could forgive her and replace the pain with something new. I believed my story. And it changed me.
I believe stories can be transformative.
This is an intense example of a Purpose Story; a story that has profoundly changed me to show people that they, too, know stories can be transformative.
Here are some questions that can help you think about a Purpose Story that works for you:
Your Purpose Story does not have to be so personal, and it absolutely should not be forcefully emotional. But it should feel true enough to you that others will feel the weight of its truth.
How to Tell Your Story
"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." - Maya Angelou
You only get one chance to show people who you are for the first time, so it’s worth taking the time to figure out how to do that.
Start with your Founder Story and the questions I post above. Write your answers down and then see if you’re able to put them together with 200 words or less. Include specific moments and details that help people relate. Stories are meant to bridge the gaps between us, after all.
Blog about these stories or share your story on LinkedIn—this will help you practice how you tell them so that you can nail it in applications, job interviews, networking events, and everywhere else.
Also, practice! Practice reciting the stories out loud. Reading what you’ve written allows you to hear the words and pick up on any gaps, inconsistencies, or awkward sentences.
If you’re brave enough, practice in the mirror and see what your face and your body are doing while you’re telling these stories. Pull your tone, body language, and the actual words coming out of your mouth together so that you feel comfortable telling your stories. Your comfort will make others comfortable.
And trust me: You are brave enough. You can master your own story and make magic in your world. I believe in you.
Now, go write your story! Go!
By: Brianna Valleskey
I am, admittedly, biased when it comes to this topic. Journalism was (and always will be) my first love. And it was my education and years as a journalist that shaped my idiosyncratic approach to marketing. As a journalist, my goals were to create, educate and serve. As a marketer, my goals are to create, educate and serve.
I was recently featured in an article by Andrew Friedenthal, marketing campaign research analyst for the online reviews firm Software Advice: How to Succeed at Marketing in the Age of Adblock. Friedenthal proposes that the future of marketing lies within a concept that seems counter-intuitive to traditional go-to-market practices: transparency.
“Ad-blocking has become ubiquitous amongst most seasoned internet users today, making it harder than ever for marketers to reach out to potential customers online,” Friedenthal told me in an email after the article went live. “I wanted to write an article about ways that marketers could get around ad-blockers, and from my research it seemed that the most effective method is to adopt a form of more personalized, transparent marketing that those customers will welcome, instead of blocking it.”
Transparency is the very foundation of journalism. Without it, media are quickly identified as inaccurate, biased or sensationalized. A reporter’s only constituents are her readers. Their writing moves people, because they know how to tell a story that reaches into the depths of our hearts. Some of the greatest authors were also journalists: Charles Dickens; Ernest Hemingway; Mark Twain; Geraldine Brooks; Neil Gaiman. Journalists have mastered the art of clear communication and definitive messaging.
A quick note: Marketing is a very different craft than journalism. I’m not saying that marketers should try to be journalists (or pose as them), nor am I saying that “marketing” is a part of the fourth estate. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the profession of journalism and its practitioners, which is why I want to credit them for the strategies below that I use for modern marketing.
Here’s what I learned from being a journalist about writing well, educating your readers and serving a greater cause - all of which comprise this unprecedented idea of transparent marketing.
Journalists develop trust with their audience.
Journalists don’t ask for trust; they earn it. Credible news media do this by being transparent about who they are, what they’re reporting, how they’re reporting and why they’re reporting. They serve their readership by bringing forth important, relevant and interesting information. In return, the readers give them loyalty and credibility. The consumers have control. When Friedenthal was drafting his piece on using transparency marketing, he sought out experts on the subject. That’s how we started talking.
“As you explained to me, in order to provide that control to your consumers, you need to be crystal clear in your communications with them so that they know what your business does, build up a sense of trust with it and see you as a resource, rather than an imposition,” he told me.
Between the Internet, social media and traditional media, people are constantly being marketed to. It gets old. Andrew said the plethora of information now available on the Internet gives people more answers than they know what to do with. As marketers, we must be a trusted source that stands out from the crowd.
“By building up your brand with consumers, you can become that trusted source whose content they will actively seek out, and who they will then trust when it comes to making buying decisions,“ Andrew said and I completely agree.
Marketers can build trust by being upfront about who they are and what they’re trying to do. Publish and editorial mission statement on your website or blog. Clearly communicate what your company does and how it helps the lives or businesses of your customers. Maintain a consistent narrative throughout your branding and messaging - if something has to change, be honest about it with your audience. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and transparency builds trust.
Journalists answer important questions.
A primary role of journalism is to act as a watchdog of government, and one way the media does this is by asking and answering tough questions. How high up in government did the Watergate scandal go? (Bob Woodward and Richard Bernstein). When will the U.S. ban segregation in interstate travel? ( Ethel Payne). What are the working conditions like for immigrants in the meatpacking industry? (Upton Sinclair). Marketers must do the same for the industries they serve.
Friedenthal’s thoughts on how marketing can adapt this method echoed my own: “Marketers need to be active in this Internet-wide conversation, providing direct, useful, transparent answers to the questions related to their business. If you are a resource, and not just a product, you draw customers to you, rather than having to go to them (and potentially getting rebuffed by their ad-blocking software).”
The easiest way to understand what questions you can answer for your audience is to ask them. Interview your audience and buyer personas. Find out what their key challenges and pain points are. Understand what questions they want answered (instead of what questions you think you should answer for them). You can even go so far as to search websites like Quora or conduct SEO research to uncover the most common queries from your industry. Do your readers need an updated guide on the most popular industry data and trends? That’s a blog post. Are they interested in learning about unique tactics from thought leaders? Blog post. A prospect wants to know what ROI they’ll see from your solution? Start writing.
Journalists facilitate productive conversations.
The news media serve their readers by introducing new ideas and bringing issues to light. As communications researcher Stanley J. Baran explains, “Media may not tell us what to think, but that media tell us what to think about.” Marketers have the same duty - to bring to light important topics within their industry. This demonstrates to your audience that your mission is more than just creating a profit; it’s furthering that field or vertical as a whole.
“As you pointed out, one of your key goals should be to ‘build your credibility in your field and demonstrate to consumers that your goal is to help them,’” Friedenthal commented. “Creating useful and helpful content as part of a marketing campaign may not immediately make as many sales as an advertisement on Facebook or Google, but in the long run it prepares you to take on a more transparent style of marketing in the coming years.”
In the future of marketing, transparency will be key. We’re surrounded by millions of advertisements, brand messages and marketing attempts that the only thing setting organizations apart is actual authenticity. Journalists do it. Marketers can, too.
By the way, here are some of my favorite books about journalism and writing well:
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.