Craft an engaging personal story

We stood facing the stone carvings on the northern façade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. “Look at the elegance of those strawberry leaves,” Francesca said. She had been my college art history professor only a few years earlier, and I was back in town for a visit. “I love these little details of daily life mixed in with the Gothic majesty,” she continued. Before long, she had connected her observations to the ancient Greek philosophers and the paintings of Mark Rothko by way of Japanese Zen pottery. I listened with a big smile on my face. How I had missed her expansive enthusiasm!

All too often, when we craft our professional stories, we fall into the trap of wanting to impress or influence. We become tense and riddled with performance anxiety.

Throughout her career, Francesca pursued a single mission: to wake her students up to the vital importance of art. I remember impassioned lectures in freezing-cold churches, marathon session museum visits, and long hours crisscrossing Tuscany by bus. Legend had it that in her youth she made students bicycle the 50 miles from Paris to Chartres Cathedral to experience the approach from a pilgrim’s point of view. And I also remember classroom lectures with so much information coming at you that if you dropped your pen on the floor, you’d fall behind a century or three by the time you sat up again. As much as we adored her energy and were grateful for the experiences she forced upon us, sometimes Francesca was . . . relentless.

But on that day in Paris, she was light and warm, giddy with joy. Francesca had retired some years before, and in an attempt to show my gratitude for her years of teaching I made what I thought was a loving remark. “I don’t think you could quit teaching if you tried,” I said. Francesca shot me a look. “I’m not teaching,” she snapped in a way I was familiar with. “I’m sharing.”

She was right. There was no relentlessness. She wasn’t worrying about getting through to me, being effective, or changing my life. She was simply sharing something she valued with someone she cared about. Although her caring had always been present in the past, it had often been obscured by all the stresses that went along with the responsibility of teaching.

It took me some time to really grasp Francesca’s insight about teaching and sharing. I became a teacher myself, and over the years I noticed that whenever I fell into “teaching” mode I would tense up, become self-conscious, and inadvertently create barriers to communication. But if I let go of what I conceived of as my teacher’s responsibilities, I’d relax and connect on a human level with my students. “Teaching” risks being a rigid one-directional experience, “from” the teacher “to” the students. But “sharing” is fluid, dynamic, and—above all—mutually enriching. “Not teaching” has made me a better teacher!

Storytellers, too, can choose between a one-directional approach meant to affirm the storyteller’s status, or a mutually enriching, empathetic approach that allow people to connect to one another. All too often, when we craft our professional stories, we fall into the trap of wanting to impress or influence. We become tense and riddled with performance anxiety. In self-defense mode, we reach for a pre-scripted 30-second pitch with a catchy tag line. And we machine-gun fire it at the listener. “So, what do you do?” the unlucky fellow asks us at the networking event. “Rat-a-tat-tat!” we respond.

When you deliver a one-directional professional story, elevator pitch, or resume you may give all the facts, but you won’t deliver much—because you’re talking at people. But if you keep in mind you’re addressing a human being, you’ll craft an empathetic professional story that will engage your listener and invite a dialogue.

Here’s an exercise. I’m sure you’ve been on the receiving end of a networking partner who wanted to impress but just rat-a-tatted at you. Put yourself back in that painful moment and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What did you think?

Did they achieve their goal, or did they come across as desperate, arrogant, clueless, or inexperienced? List all the adjectives you can think of.

  • What did you feel?

Did you feel like learning more and getting to know them better? Or did you feel like getting away as quickly as possible? Again, list all the feelings that came up.

  • What could they have done differently?  

List out everything that comes to mind. It could be anything from maintaining eye contact, stepping back a bit, or taking a breath, to simplifying their language, gauging your interest, and giving you a chance to participate in the conversation.

Now repeat the exercise, only this time choose a networking experience you enjoyed. Remember an encounter with someone whose story intrigued you. Change the last question from “What could they have done differently?” to “What did they do well?”

Now go back and look at your short pitch, bio, or resume with fresh eyes. Rewrite them according to the “Francesca Principle,” also known as generosity, empathy, and connection!

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