Why A Compelling Story Is Vital For Career Change – And How To Craft Yours

Storytelling

Feel awkward or confused when you talk about your shift? Unsure of who you are anymore, since so much has changed? Natasha explains how a great story can help you find confidence, connections and opportunities as a career changer – and the key principles you need to tell yours brilliantly.

A London restaurant in 1991.

Tuna on the menu.

And, in the corner of the room, a four year old with a blonde curly mop, loudly advising anyone within earshot that dolphins frequently got tangled in tuna nets, so they shouldn't order the fish.

Switch to an office in Camden. A five year old sitting colouring at her father's desk, surrounded by piles of paperwork on racial harassment cases.

Fast-forward to 2000. That same child is now 12 years old. Here, she's standing outside General Augusto Pinochet's safehouse with Chilean protesters, campaigning for his extradition. She's been there in every minute of her free time for the past six weeks.

Where would you predict that this child ends up?

Studying Politics at university and going into the charity sector, perhaps?

You'd be right.

That was exactly what I did.

And given the way my story was going, it made perfect sense.

Stories are the way we make sense of the world, of ourselves, and of one another.

A clear narrative line – a thread that ties our choices and actions together – provides the fundamental framework with which we can explain who we are, where we've been, and where we're going.

So when our story breaks down, it can feel earth shaking.

When I realised, a year or so into my career working with vulnerable groups, that I was in the wrong place, it wasn't just an inconvenience.

It didn't feel as though I'd made a little mistake somewhere and simply needed to get back on track. It felt like the ground had dropped out from under me.

The very track I'd been on was the wrong one.

And I had no idea who I was any more.

I felt rudderless, lost, floating in uncertainty.

I questioned everything about myself – did I actually like those books lining my living room walls, or did I just read them because I thought 'someone like me' would?

How was I ever going to figure out where to go next, if I'd couldn't trust what I thought I knew about myself?

What was wrong with me?

When your story stops making sense, everything stops making sense.

  • How can you trust your judgement on what's right for you, given how wrong you've been before?

  • What should you base your choice of a new career on, when all the clues from your past keep pointing to the place you want to escape from?

  • How do you explain to your loved ones why you have to change career – because logically, looking at your story, it's the right place for you?

  • If you have an idea for a new career, how do you explain it in a way that doesn't sound like a complete flight of fancy?
     
  • And how could you possibly tell a new potential employer why you're right for their company, when the story on your CV is totally unrelated to what they do?

Why is getting your story 'right' such a powerful accelerator into work you love?

1. As a career changer, you're going to be telling your story a lot.

  • Internal stories that you tell about yourself, to yourself (usually lying in the dark at 2 a.m., or while you're trying not to smack your head on the keyboard at work)

  • On-paper stories (your CV, your website, your LinkedIn profile)

  • ‘Quick-fix’ stories: the short ones you rattle off at parties and networking events (“My name is John and I'm an app developer”)

  • Persuasive stories: interviews, conversations with potential connections, cover letters.

  • Reassuring stories for your family: “Honestly, I'm fine.”

And, if you're following the Careershifters principle: “Look for people, not for jobs”, you'll also be finding ways to share your story with people who inspire you.

“Opportunities do not float like clouds in the sky. They're attached to people. If you're looking for an opportunity, you're really looking for a person.” – Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha (authors of The Startup Of You)

2. A great story elicits a desire to help in other people

People are natural problem-solvers.

And a great story compels people to get involved.

“People are problem-solving animals. If you say 'I'd love to be a ballerina', everybody goes 'Mmm.' If you say 'I'd love to be a ballerina, but I'm 44 years old', every mind starts working. Even if people don't like you, they'll solve your problem: 'I heard about 44 year olds, there's one in Boston. There's a new ballet troupe, I read about in a magazine, I'll find it.' People want to help. Amazing things will happen to you.” Barbara Sher (see video below)

Just like a gripping plotline that leaves you on the edge of your seat, rooting for your protagonist, once someone's invested in your story, they're invested in your success.

When you share your story with someone, whether it's at a networking event or on your LinkedIn profile, you're sharing a little bit of who you are.

You’re inviting them in to your narrative, and if that narrative is well-crafted, they'll want to know what happens at the end of the story.

They'll want to be a part of it.

3. Crafting a story that feels authentic and compelling can help you believe in yourself

The sensation of being off-story is deeply, deeply uncomfortable. 

You can't understand why you've wound up here, feeling this way. It encourages the idea that you've gone 'wrong' somewhere.

But you haven't gone wrong – this is just a different story.

The one you've been telling so far doesn't fit anymore.

It's time to start sharing a new story: one that fits who you are now, and that helps you make sense of the new direction your life is taking.

“Without a compelling story that lends meaning, unity, and purpose to our lives, we feel lost and rudderless. We need a good story to reassure us that our plans make sense – that, in moving on, we are not discarding everything we have worked so hard to accomplish and selfishly putting family and livelihood at risk. It will give us motivation and help us endure frustration, suffering, and hard work.”Herminia Ibarra

4 key principles to telling a compelling story

1. Make your story their story

Think of your favourite childhood book.

Now your favourite film.

Try to remember the last article you read that you just loved – the one you thought about for hours afterward.

The one thing they all have in common?

The reason you like them so much?

They were about you.

Somewhere in that story, you saw yourself reflected. Your identity, your beliefs about the world, your experiences. Even if it wasn't explicitly about someone like you, you related to a character on a deep, visceral level. You recognised them, rooted for them, watched them struggle and overcome.

When you're telling your story as a career changer, it's vital to find a point of connection between your story and the story of your listener.

Whether you're writing a cover letter for an application form, holding an informational interview, or trying to explain what you're doing to your concerned parents, your story must connect with the heart and identity of the person you're speaking to.

And the best way to find that connection is to listen first.

In 2016, I met Jennifer – a new coaching client working on a shift out of law. She quickly learned the value of this lesson when she tried to explain her career change to her father:

“My dad was my biggest supporter when I was working my way up the career ladder in finance. He was so proud of my achievements, and so helpful. Anything I needed to further my career, he was the first person I turned to.

“So when I imagined telling him I wanted to leave my job for something different, I felt awful. I felt guilty and nervous and confused, and so I went about it in a really clumsy way.

“We had gone out for lunch as a family and I just blurted it out, and his face fell. At first he went really quiet. And then he acted like he didn't believe me and I was being dramatic, so I got defensive and angry, and eventually it got so uncomfortable that I left.

“A week or so later I had swung back in the opposite direction. I had decided that I was being childish and that after investing so much time in my career, it would be crazy to throw it all away.

“And I wanted my dad's advice on how I was feeling, and how to cope.

“So I went over to my parents' house and we sat down in the kitchen. I asked him if he'd ever felt like his life was going in the wrong direction, and how he had dealt with it.

“He thought for a bit, and then told me about his marriage to my mother (they divorced when I was 13). He talked about feeling like a square peg in a round hole, about being torn between doing what society expected of him and what he knew deep down was right for him, and the guilt of feeling like he would let me and my sister down if they divorced. It was a different context, but it was like listening to myself talk about my career.

“It turned out I hardly needed to say anything after that. He reached a point in his story when he just sighed, and said ‘OK, I get it. I understand.'

“I thought I'd have to convince him, but really all I needed to do was give him a chance to understand what I was feeling.”

People want to feel connected. They want to understand who you are, where you're coming from. It's frustrating when they don't.

Who are you telling your story to this time? Get to know them. Listen for the overlap between their experience of the world and what you're about to tell them.

How is your story also their story?

2. Feelings to the front

If you want to persuade people of something, there are two ways to go about it.

The first is what most of us are used to: logic, facts and rationale.

It's the way we're taught to go about completing job application forms: list your experience in brief bullet points. Share the facts of your achievements: the ROI, the dates, the measurable impact of your work.

And yet…

In 2006, psychology professor Drew Westen, PhD, and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience describing the brain activity related with political voting behaviour. Using MRI scans, the team studied the brain activity of 30 people before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, as they listened to positive or negative statements about their favourite candidates.

The researchers found that when the participants made their minds up about the information they were hearing, the brain areas responsible for reasoning showed no increased activity.

Instead, the areas of the brain that controlled emotions lit up.

The study results suggested that most of the time, people feel their way to beliefs and decisions, rather than looking at facts. See more in the video below.

So what does that mean for you?

It means that the list of facts on your CV is only going to get you so far.

It means that finding opportunities and channels to tell the emotional, human side of your story, is vital.

And it means that telling the truth of your experience, whether you think it's 'impressive' or not, can make the biggest difference to how someone decides to remember you.

Now, let me be clear: I'm not arguing here that you should ignore all facts, logic and rational reasoning and simply haul people around by their heartstrings.

But combining a rational idea with an emotional connection is the best way to help someone really get behind you.

What does it feel like to be you, right now?

What are the relatable, human, emotional arcs of where you've come from – and what's it like to imagine your future?

3. Embrace the intrigue

The greatest stories are about overcoming adversity; they make your listener lean forward and ask: “What happened next?”

As a career changers, however, it's likely you often try to brush your own uncertainty under the carpet.

It's important to appear as though you have everything under control, no?

But nobody wants to hear a story where everything was clear and crisis-free from start to finish. (Imagine if Frodo had just stayed at home; or if Romeo and Juliet's families were best pals...)

Life is messy. There are curveballs, and there are hiccups, and screwups and blind spots.

And it's those moments of chaos that are relatable and emotional – but they also form the hook that binds the listener to the outcome of the story.

Because there's nothing more compelling than an unanswered question – especially one that has an emotional core.

You don't know where you're going to end up? Neither does your listener – and if you’ve shared your backstory with authenticity (see Brene Brown's talk below), and connected it to their life, they want to.

You're perfectly set up to make a shift, except for this giant (and pretty unusual) problem with your brother-in-law's house in France? How are you going to overcome that? We all want to hear how this turns out.

Embarrassing obstacles are actually often the most intriguing questions, if you frame them right.

And there's nothing more powerful in solving problems and enchanting human beings than a beautiful, challenging question.

What's the question at the core of your story? What unknown are you exploring? What's the problem you're solving – the problem your listener can chew on alongside you (and share their network / ideas / opportunities to help you solve)?

4. Shift the core narrative

So far, if you've followed your traditional career advice, you've probably tried to gloss over the magnitude of the shift you're trying to make in your CV, or downplay the challenges you're up against when you're meeting new people, in an attempt to minimise the apparent discontinuity in your story.

This is perfectly logical – discontinuity is hard to be with.

If you're unreliable – if your story lacks coherence – it's hard for your listener to trust you. Who is this unknown quantity? What might they do next?

However, there's always at least one thing that holds this story together.

You.

As much as this narrative detour might feel like a complete surprise, human beings are actually incredibly predictable.

What if you're not actually as off-track as you think?

Yes, you've been telling the same story for a long time, and it doesn't fit any more.

But that doesn't mean there hasn't been another story playing out in the background – one you haven't noticed before because you've been so busy focusing on this one.

The reason you're in transition is because something that's true and consistent about you has come into conflict with something that's true about your current situation.

So, look for truths or ideas that have been consistent over a long period of time. If you can create the sense that your life hangs (and will hang) together, you'll be free to incorporate the dramatic elements of change and turmoil and uncertainty into your story that will make it compelling.

Nina had worked in HR for 15 years. It was her major career story; so powerful that when she joined our Career Change Launch Pad, she felt like HR was all she knew how to do. Her dream of becoming a writer felt like a totally unrealistic U-turn.

But then she took another look back at her life:

“If I'm being completely honest, I already knew I was sort-of OK at writing because not only have I been doing it ever since I could hold a pen, I love to write more than (almost) anything else.

“What this means is that I've been honing my skills for years, from reading everything I could get my hands on from an early age, to writing teenage diaries, blogging for fun, scribbling short stories, completing the first and second drafts of a novel (work continues on the third draft!) and offering up unpaid bits of web copy, articles and press releases to the companies I've worked for.”
(Read more on Nina's website, here)

Nina's not the only one who's had this experience:

“Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” – Steve Jobs

What's been happening in your life while your old core narrative was playing out? What's true about you – who you are, what you do – that you've never given words to before? What do you take for granted about yourself?

A structure for stories

1. Find the points of connection between you (storyteller) and your listener

Who am I talking (or writing) to?

What's their reality, and how does it overlap with my own? What are they interested in, frustrated by, passionate about? What have they experienced that I've experienced too, albeit perhaps in a different context?

2. Share your past

Who was I before? What was my reality? What did I believe, how did I feel, what was I doing?

3. Introduce the moment (or moments) of transition

What changed? What did I discover or realise that changed my reality? How did that feel?

4. Highlight the consistencies

What has been, and is, consistent and true throughout, beyond, and despite the current state of change?

5. Invite your listener into your story

What's the gap between how things are and how things could be? What's the vision you have for what's possible, and how is that also important to the person you're speaking to?

If your story doesn’t fit any more, you haven’t failed. You’ve evolved.

My story has changed a thousand times since I tried to change the world by standing on a chair in a South London restaurant. 

I've been a good student and an actress, an energetic activist, a 'settling down' homeowner and a rebellious world traveller.

My narrative lines have included "seeking a home in the world", "supporting people to achieve the extraordinary", "doing traditional things in non-traditional ways".

Some of those narratives are still very much alive for me. Others less so. But I could tell you any of these stories today, and they would all be true. And I know that six months from now, a year, two years, I'll have new ones to share, too.

Your story is your through line – your point of connection with the world and the future you're creating for yourself. 

And, like me – like everyone – you have a whole host of stories to choose from.

Which one propels you forward?

What's your story been up to this point? And what others could you tell? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.