By Brianna Valleskey
When people ask you to tell them about yourself, what do you say?
Do you recite your resume? Talk about your current role and organization, then maybe add a tidbit or two about your personal life?
There’s nothing wrong with 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.
My number one recommendation is to always have a few stories in your back pocket to shape your personal brand.
Listening to a story engages more cognitive functions than hearing facts and stats, including emotional reactions, mental imagery, beliefs, and even evaluations, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The most effective way to sell yourself is to tell a story about yourself.
Getting Started with Stories
Maybe you've never thought about your story. Maybe you write 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 shape your personal brand with the right stories about yourself to the right people, at the right time.
Stories of times that you found 'out-of-the-box' solutions, times that you’ve failed (and what you learned), or times you've overcome challenges that changed your perspective.
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 the four vital story types every business should have: Founder Story, Value Story, Purpose Story, and Customer Story. The first three are vital stories that I think your personal brand should also have, which is what I'll cover below.
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 tell transformative stories.
That is the foundation (soil) and driving force (sunlight) of my career. And with my Founder Story, 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.
To craft your own Founder Story, start with 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:
You don't have to have your "dream job" to be able to answer these questions. Many people never 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 asks what you do, try to not rely on quoting a grocery list of responsibilities, abilities, and task-tivities. That's just more telling; more feature led-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 notable number of sales opportunities were stuck in our pipeline. Our would-be buyers had frozen 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 about what I've done to help people understand what I can do for them—to paint a picture of their potential future. 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, and a compulsive book-buying habit to pay for. 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?”
I believe stories can be transformative.
Growing up, my mother was depressed and suicidal. She took me out for Chinese food once before telling me that she wanted to die because she thought I'd be happy. I was a child, so I believed her story. And it changed me.
This one story unequivocally informed me that I was responsible for my mother's life. Naturally, looking after her evolved into a blueprint of caretaking and co-dependency that defined my approach to relationships for twenty years.
My therapist first identified this lack of boundaries during our sessions on work/life balance (a tricky subject for another blog). When I couldn't stop working 12-hour days, we examined the stories I was telling myself that kept me prisoner to this schedule. We followed the thread of each narrative. They all led back to her.
With that knowledge (and many, many sessions), I used this narrative therapy to tell myself a new story: ones where my mother was a victim of the cycle of abuse, just like me; where I could forgive her and replace that old pain with something new. I believed my story. And it changed me.
This is an intense example of a Purpose Story—a story that has profoundly remade me that I use 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
Time is our most precious resource. You only get one "first time" to show people who you are. Don't waste it.
Start thinking about your Founder Story with the questions 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, rehearse 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.