Personal storytelling is a powerful communication tool – in and outside of the business setting. It helps us bring emotion to our ideas, share our values, make more authentic connections, and give people reasons to believe in us.
Our stories can be simple ice breakers or profound, moving experiences capable of teaching powerful life lessons. In a business setting, we can use our personal stories to inspire, engage, connect, and persuade our employees, teams, and customers. The power of storytelling lies in its ability to "humanize" us and provide others the opportunity to share in our journey.
As with any form of communication, there are several goals that one might have in mind while crafting and sharing a personal story. These might include:
- Informing: Imparting knowledge/skills/wisdom gained
- Influencing: Persuading the audience to adopt an idea or take a specific action
- Inspiring or Motivating: Producing an emotional response that leads to action
- Building Relationships: Generating a feeling of connection to - and in - others
- Promoting Yourself: Elevating/establishing your reputation in the minds of your audience
Crafting a personal story is also a way to reconnect to ourselves and possibly uncover, or rediscover, a governing set of principles to guide us or expose outgrown beliefs that no longer serve us. In this way, our personal story is more than just a communication tool; it also serves as an exercise to take stock of where we've been, where we are, and where we're headed. In essence, it helps us begin to live a more examined life – the benefits of which are innumerable.
The Difference Between Personal and Business Storytelling
Though there is some overlap between the two, there is a key difference between personal and business storytelling. Most business stories are not about you but center on the audience (customers, employees, stakeholders, etc.). They are the main character, and the story revolves around them or someone like them. So, suppose you need to build a strategic narrative that solves a specific business problem or helps your customers understand what they can get with your offering. Your personal story may not be the most appropriate tool in this case.
However, in some instances, a business story might start with a personal story to increase relatability and demonstrate that you and your audience have shared similar experiences or sell an idea inspired by or born of your experiences. Also, a key piece of your story may lend itself well to motivating your audience at a crucial moment or imparting essential insights about a challenge you have overcome, perhaps similar to one your team is currently navigating.
Everyone Has One ... But What is "Voice," Really?
Voice as Perspective
Most often, when we discuss the concept of a personal 'voice,' we're referring to how and why we express ourselves, connect with others, and affect change in the world. Our voice is our ability to communicate - and the manner and reason in which we do so. It is expressed through the filter of our attitudes and personal perspectives – shaped by our life experiences, beliefs, values, and what we find most meaningful.
Voice as Tone
When it comes to writing and narration, there is another more practical definition of voice. In a piece for the New York Times entitled "The Voice of the Storyteller," Constance Hale describes voice as "…the ineffable way words work on the page[….] Reflecting a combination of diction, sentence patterns, and tone, voice is the quality that helps a writer connect with a reader…". With this definition, we can see that 'voice' describes the tone or personality of a story or moment in a story – whether ironic, humorous, carefree, somber, etc. - and is created through a strategic choice of words, grammar, and sentence structure.
When you begin to craft your personal story, remember these two definitions. When the tone or personality of your story reflects your own and supports rather than distracts from the content, you give strength and consistency to your authentic voice.
How Do You Find Your Voice?
Authenticity is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot. But what does it mean to be authentic? And why is it so important? Well, it's a crowded world. In a misguided attempt to stand out, many people spend hours a day crafting an identity to present to the world, which is often forged in response to social expectations and the need to be validated. But this makes them like so many others – and people can usually see through this facade. It's a breath of fresh air to come across someone who doesn't give in to those pressures and truly owns who they are – warts and all. This is their power and a way to differentiate themselves from others. They like what they like, not just because others like it too. They question their beliefs and actions because they know how easy it is to go along with the crowd. They know what they value and live those values. This 'authenticity' then naturally gives rise to their authentic voice. Alternately, trying to be like someone you think others want you to be or remaining silent because you don't want to 'rock the boat' keeps you tied to old patterns and living by other people's rules. You don't have to be 'different,' just be yourself... that's different enough.
Practice Introspective Awareness
Introspection happens when we look inward and examine our thoughts, feelings, and motives. It helps us understand who we are, not who we think we should be. Introspection is the basis for self-awareness, appreciating what makes us unique, acknowledging what experiences have moved us, and understanding how we've changed over time.
Practicing introspective awareness is the first step in the ongoing process of crafting our personal stories and discovering our authentic voices. Understanding our values, motivations, emotions, and mindset is crucial to recognizing the dominant patterns in our lives and relationships. Additionally, when we practice deep awareness, we pick up on subtle clues and insights that might have gone unnoticed otherwise; valuable insights can help us make our stories shine.
What if you don't think you have an interesting story to tell?
It might seem a bit bold to state, but everyone has had at least one experience by which others would be fascinated or a personal breakthrough that could inspire others to find strength when they need it most. Don't underestimate the value of your experiences. They might be old news to you, but to others, they're brand new.
Start by thinking back through your history to identify key experiences and pivotal moments that have led you to where you are now. Write these down and backtrack if you need to. What transpired? How did you handle it? What did you learn? What experiences prompted a change of mind, strengthened your values, or inspired a new path or idea? Fill a notebook if you can. These explorations are valuable to the process and will help you get started.
Are You the Hero of Your Own Story?
Some of the best stories are transformational. We love stories of the underdog, breakthroughs, and people overcoming great odds by digging deep to win the day. It gives us hope that we might be capable of the same level of greatness.
Transformation is at the heart of the "hero's journey, a common framework for storytelling from as far back as we know. Following this framework can be a valuable exercise to help us gain clarity, add detail, and uncover insights for our own stories.
There are three main 'acts' in the hero's journey. Each is crucial to the story and holds the key to moving on to the next. It's a cycle repeated anytime the 'hero' experiences a change or embarks on a new journey of transformation and growth.
The basic template is this:
- A hero ventures from their familiar world into a new environment or set of circumstances.
- Allies and enemies are made, challenges and obstacles are encountered, and a grand victory is won.
- The hero returns from this adventure transformed and possesses a new power (knowledge, skills, status, etc.).
Understanding the basic framework of the hero's journey may help you in the process of writing your own story – in which you are always the hero…though you may be an ally or mentor (or even an obstacle) in someone else's story.
A good transformation story is often based on the hero's journey framework because it is a basic pattern of life. After all, personal growth typically requires change and our ability to overcome new challenges - whether involuntary or by choice.
Below are examples of how transformation stories can instantly engage an audience and create a strong desire to know the 'how' and 'why' of the transformation.
- Ten years ago, I was bankrupt and homeless …today, I lead a successful non-profit.
- My whole life was upended when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was forced to re-evaluate my priorities and ask, "What truly matters to me?"
- As a mental health researcher, I live and breathe mental health, but it wasn't until I was diagnosed with depression that I truly understood the need for better treatment options.
More Tips on Crafting Your Personal Story
A good story should be full of color and details that people aren't going to get from searching online for you. In addition, a touch of vulnerability adds to your relatability. Don't be afraid to open up about your past. Readily share your struggles, mistakes, and other life foibles if they help you tell your story.
Share Your Lessons
What have you learned in your life that might help others? What are the events that prompted these discoveries? Don't just stick to the last decade; go back to childhood and dig deep to find the memories and events that have shaped who you are now. You can also draw from the lessons you've learned from your parents or grandparents. Throughout human history, storytelling allowed us to pass down lessons from previous generations so we don't repeat their mistakes and can build on their successes. It would be a shame to omit these now.
Find the Connections
Think about how your story might connect to your audience's own experiences. How might your story resonate with them? Most people know what it's like to find themselves at a crossroads, surprised by a change they weren't expecting or struggling to find footing in a complex situation. Look for the common moments that you have lived and share those.
Stick to a Central Theme
Your story should generally center on a main lesson, insight, transformation, or concept. If you find that your story travels too far afield or contains details that don't add value or support your central theme, you may need to pair things down a bit. Suppose you have difficulty finding a cohesive way to marry all your adventures together in a way that makes sense and reinforces your central theme. In that case, you can always break them into multiple stories for different audiences and purposes.
Keep it Short
A personal story should be short – under 5 minutes. Keeping it short helps it remain memorable and on-point. You may also want an even shorter version for quick introductions and shorter conversations.