Saturday, January 26, 2008

StorySparking: Not Just For Interviews

Earlier this week, I received a call from "Donna", a potential client who wanted help figuring out what her next step should be. Specifically, she was looking for a coach who could help identify career alternatives she hadn't yet considered.

As I talked about my approach, I mentioned the importance of crafting a compelling story and how it goes hand-in-hand with whatever opportunities she might want to explore. At that point, I was genuinely surprised when Donna said:

"I know you're big into the whole interviewing thing. I've spent some time on your website and I know it's a focus of yours. But the truth is, I don't need help interviewing. I'm really good in interviews. I just need help figuring out what to do with my life."

At that moment, I wondered how many other people had the same impression.

When I do sales training workshops, one of the points I emphasize is to treat every objection as a gift. After all, how often do we truly get to see a situation from another person's point-of-view? Too often, people keep their concerns and objections to themselves in an effort to avoid confrontation.

In hindsight, while it was great to hear Donna's thoughts, I may not have probed deeply enough to truly understand what gave her that impression. In any case, it was clear that from a job search perspective, she equated storytelling with interviewing. As it happens, creating a compelling story is the foundation for communication at EVERY step in the process, not just the interview. To see what I mean, let's look at a few of the essential components as it relates to Donna's situation:


To help Donna with her goal of uncovering career options, I want to know the story of how she got where she is now.

- What decisions did she make along the way? Why?
- What were her goals?
- How, when, and why have they changed over time?
- What options has she considered?
- What options has she eliminated?

In other words, to create the next chapter in her story, I need to know all the stories and chapters that came before.

Once we identify the possibilities, it will be time to explore. As Donna learns more about each opportunity, she will need to compare the story of how each position might play out given her existing interests, skills, and experiences. Like it or not, she is not a blank slate. She has preferences and attitudes based on where she has been and how she feels about it. In other words, Donna will need to compare the story of each possible futures to see how it fits with the story that has brought her to this point.


Like most clients, networking will be a great way for Donna to learn more about other career options. Here again, having a compelling story is important. People don't like to have their time wasted. Nor are they likely to make a connection for someone without a strong Reason To Believe they aren't taking a risk.

Simply put, to get help from the right people at the right time, Donna will have to make sure everyone is clear she is worth helping. The best, and perhaps only, way to communicate this is through her story.


After she determines what her next step will be, Donna have to tell her story in a résumé. Unfortunately, if she is like most job hunters, this is also the place it is least likely to come across.

Rather than go on for pages about why most résumés are ineffective, consider the difference between a generic laundry list of responsibilities (a typical résumé), and a document that gets the reader to think: "Wow. If she can do that for them, just think what she could do for me." Very few résumés ever achieve the latter. (If you are interested in learning more, download my Special Report, "The Secrets of Effective Résumés").


Although most people miss this opportunity completely, one of the best places for Donna to tell her story will be the cover letter. Why? Because a cover letter can communicate something that no résumé can: Passion.

Explaining why a particular career is the Next Logical Step in Donna's professional development is a great start, but it's not enough. She has to convince potential employers she will find it exciting and energizing. For this reason, Passion is one of the three most important qualities she can communicate. In case you are curious, Initiative and Resourcefulness (an umbrella category including Problem Solving, Strategic Thinking, Idea Generation, etc.) are the others.


While it should be obvious that the interview is one of the most important opportunities Donna will have to share her story, she may not go deep enough. Most people don't. Worse, they leave everything up to chance. How? Because they don't have a strategy. In other words, they approach the interview thinking:

"This person is going to ask me questions. My job is to do the best I can to answer them. I hope this goes well."

Hope is not a strategy.

To succeed, Donna will have to approach every interview knowing the stories she needs to share. If she takes the time to create a checklist of stories relevant to the position, she can be much more creative in how she answers the questions. She can also buy time at the end to share whatever stories weren't covered by the interviewer's questions.

Remember, stories have value only when they are shared.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel put it a bit more bluntly when he said, "Not to transmit an experience is to betray it."


People don't always think about it, but stories are also important in negotiation. For Donna, the stories will be the evidence, the Reasons To Believe, she is worth whatever additional compensation or benefits she seeks. For this to work, her story must be directly related to the value she can bring to the organization. If she doesn't provide evidence (her story), she isn't likely to achieve the results she wants.

These are just a few of the ways Donna's story has value at EVERY stage in the process. But it's not just true for Donna. It's true for you as well.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Importance of Customizing Your Message

I was reminded again of the importance of customizing your message in a meeting I had yesterday with one of my clients. With this particular client, a personal trainer and soon-to-be-professional athlete, we were putting a series of videos to promote her association with a new health club in Chicago.

Before we started, we watched a number of videos created by other local trainers. In each case, the person spoke in general terms about his or her credentials and areas of expertise. After we yawned our way through about four of these, the opportunity was clear. We needed to communicate in a way that would truly speak to potential clients.

Rather than take the generic approach opted for by the other trainers, we identified the four types of clients she most enjoyed helping:

- Out of shape/Never worked out
- Recovering from an injury

- Getting back in shape after having a baby

- Training for competition (fitness, marathon, etc.)

In each case, I challenged her to come up with a success story we could share in the video. What makes video such a great medium for storytelling is its ability to convey passion, enthusiasm, and all the nonverbals that get lost in written bios. As an added benefit, with each take, she was reminded of additional details that brought the stories to life. It was inspiring and magical to watch.

By taking the time to customize her message, she has given herself the opportunity to reach a more targeted group of potential clients who will be able to see themselves in the before/after stories she shared.

No doubt, there are people reading this who are thinking:

"Wait a minute. I don't think it's a good idea to target such narrow groups because you are eliminating huge groups of potential clients. For example, what about the people who just want to get in better shape and lose a few pounds? Isn't that a bigger group than any of the four mentioned above?"

Even if that group is larger, there are at least two compelling reasons not to go after it. First, the fitness marketplace is already cluttered with messages targeting people who want to lose a few pounds. Second, working with people who want to lose a few pounds doesn't energize my client as much as working with the specific groups we identified.

If you take the time to customize your message, you owe it to yourself to make sure you are most energized by the opportunity you are pursuing. As I've said many times, work either energizes people or it drains them. There isn't a middle ground--unless you are the kind of person who would be content putting sticks in caramel apples (in which case you probably aren't reading this anyway.) So, before you customize your message, be sure the customers or employers you are targeting are the ones with whom you most want to work.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Performance Reviews

Now that the new year is upon us, this is an excellent time to look back and quantify last year's accomplishments (if you haven't done so already). Ask yourself the following questions:

What is different at your company, school, volunteer organization, etc. because you were there?

What happened as a result of your involvement that would never have happened had you not been there?

In order to get people to understand and acknowledge your contributions, you have to tell a memorable, compelling, and, of course, factually correct story about what you did. One of the best ways to achieve this is by creating a clear picture of the before/after. In other words, what was the situation before? What, specifically, did you do to make improvements? How is the situation better now?

Before we get to performance reviews specifically, let's take a step back and look at change and how it can impact us.


In general, there are two primary types of change: gradual and radical. Depending on the situation, our ability to perceive the change--or remember what the situation was like before--is not as keen as you might think. As a result, people have a tendency to take improvements for granted.

Gradual Change
A few years back, I bought a convertible with a vinyl rear window. At the time, I could see through it perfectly. As the years went by, harsh Chicago winters gradually reduced the visibility to zero. However, the transformation was so gradual, I didn't notice what was happening until I had the window replaced a few weeks ago. Now, it is so amazing to be able to see out of the new window that it feels like a completely different car.

Radical Change
Replacing the window was certainly a radical change, but it was also an expected one. Although I am quite conscious of what the situation was immediately before the window was replaced, I am already having trouble remembering how difficult it was to see through the old window.

Now, consider what happens when there is radical, unexpected change. If you are in any way emotionally attached to the way things once were, you will definitely be impacted by unexpected change. Layoffs are a great example of this.

The more interesting case, however, is change that doesn't impact us emotionally. In other words, the situation isn't necessarily better or worse, just different. One of the best examples is the scenario many of us experience when we walk down a familiar street and encounter a huge vacant lot where a building once stood. It's amazing how often we can stare at the wide open space and be unable to picture what stood there before--unless it is our house that unexpectedly disappeared.

A similar phenomenon takes place in the corporate world when situations improve. Whether the change is gradual or radical, people have a tendency to quickly forget the pain or inefficiency that once existed. That is why it is especially important to quantify your accomplishments on an on-going basis. Strangely enough, the person most likely to take the accomplishment for granted is the person who initiated the improvement. Don't let this happen to you.

Let's say you are due for your annual performance review and you want management to recognize your accomplishments last February when you streamlined operations and instituted a program that saved the company $5,000 per month. If the first full month of savings was March, that means 10 months have passed during which the company has had a chance to get used to lower monthly expenses. As a result, the pain of spending the extra $5,000 per month ($50,000 last year) has probably long since been forgotten. Likewise, your involvement in solving that problem has also been forgotten.

To make sure people don't take your accomplishments for granted, bring them to life using the STARs formula.

Situation/Task: What was the situation or problem you were attempting to solve?

Action: What did you do? How long did it take?

Results: What happened? What, specifically, is better? What would have happened if you had NOT taken this action?

This three-part process is one of the easiest ways to tell your story in a compelling way because it highlights the contrast between the current situation and the way it was before. At the same time, the story is completely factual so it won't come across like bragging--especially if you are genuinely excited about your involvement in the project. That's where the magic is.

Take the time to apply this process on an ongoing basis and you will be able to transform performance reviews into something you actually look forward to.

If you have a success story you'd like to share, send it to