By Erin Ewart
How do you feel about telling your career story?
When we ask our clients this question, we often get responses like “anxious”, “confused”, and “frustrated.” This is hands down the biggest topic they want help with, and also the one they find the most difficult.
Of course there are people out there who feel confident about telling their stories, but they are in the minority and they have one thing in common: they practice A LOT. To illustrate this point, I was in a training with other business owners recently, and everyone went around the room and gave their 15-30 second pitch on the spot without a hitch. You know why? Because business owners do this all the time.
But for most of us, talking about ourselves is hard. We don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on what we’re best at and thinking about how to communicate this to others. If this is true for you, it’s not surprising that the idea of telling your story might give you some anxiety.
Condensing your entire professional history down into a few paragraphs or a 30 second pitch is no easy feat! And figuring out what to include, what to leave out, how to tailor it for different people or situations – it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
But here’s the thing: you have to do it. Even though it’s hard, and even though it might feel scary or intimidating. Getting clear on your story and how to share it is the most important thing you can do to prepare for a successful career transition. Your ability to tell your story impacts everything else you do in this process, from your success at networking to what you include on your LinkedIn and resume to how you perform in interviews.
And even if you’re not actively job searching, you should still be thinking about your story. I recently met with one of our long-time clients, who’s been in her role for about two years and is starting to think about her next steps. While she anticipates her next move is at least a year away, she’s already proactively thinking about how her story needs to shift for the role she wants next.
This is so smart and strategic, and exactly the type of thinking we recommend you do, whether you’re currently job searching or not. Your career story is dynamic and it needs regular care and maintenance.
Ok, so now that we’ve established that your story is important, how do you actually tackle it? Here are the three key steps to take to create or update your career story.
1. Get clear on your strengths
While this sounds basic, it’s most definitely not. Ironically, it’s really hard for us to know what we’re uniquely good at, because our strengths are things that come naturally to us and that we don’t see as special. It takes some dedicated work to understand what your top strengths are and how to communicate them.
And if you feel like you’re pretty clear on your strengths already, remember that the way you frame them may need to change based on your current career goals. So for example as you move into leadership roles, things that may have been your key strengths as an individual contributor, like project management skills or detail orientation, may no longer be the things you want to highlight.
There are three ways to get clarity on your strengths:
- Reflect: think about the peak moments or experiences in your life so far – the times you felt most excited or energized by what you were doing, even if those fell outside of full-time or paid work. Brainstorm as many as you can (ideally going back as far as your childhood or teenage years), and then note what they have in common. What skills or strengths were you using in those situations?
- Ask: as noted above, it can be hard for us to see our own strengths because we’re too close to them, so getting an external perspective is extremely helpful. Try asking colleagues, friends, and family members what they view as your strengths, or examples of when they’ve seen you as your best. Even people you don’t know well can give you great insights – early on in our Job Search Bootcamp groups we do an activity where participants share accomplishment examples with each other, and they always give each other such incredible and insightful feedback, even though they’ve just met.
- Assess: strengths or skills assessments can be another great input as you identify your strengths. We recommend the Clifton StrengthsFinder Top 5 assessment, and there are many others out there as well. Don’t take more than one or two, or you may find yourself in analysis paralysis, and if you’ve taken assessments in the past you can definitely go back to those results and revisit them.
Once you’ve done these three things, look for patterns in the themes and vocabulary that have come up. Identify two to three top strengths that are most relevant to your career direction and goals, and focus on incorporating those into your story. As a bonus, you should now have a list of examples and experiences that illustrate those strengths that you can build out further in the STAR framework to use in your story, job search materials, and interviews.
2. Translate your experience to the roles you’re targeting
Once you’ve gotten clarity on your strengths, the next step is thinking about how to communicate them to your target audience. Especially if you’re considering transitioning to a new sector or focus area, it’s important to use language that will resonate in your new environment, which may be different from what you’re used to. Sometimes it can feel like learning a whole new language, but don’t worry, you’ll catch on! Here are the steps to take:
- Research the right language: look at websites and job descriptions for your target organizations and roles to get ideas for language to use in your story. Search LinkedIn for people with jobs similar to the ones you want, and see how they are describing themselves (and consider reaching out to ask them if they’d be willing to chat with you about their work!). You can also paste job descriptions into word cloud generators and tools like Jobscan to identify top keywords and phrases to incorporate into your story.
- Immerse yourself in your new area: do as much as you can to spend time in your target industry area. Get up to speed on what’s happening and what people are talking about by reading industry publications and news, following thought leaders and key organizations on social media, joining relevant professional groups, attending conferences and networking events, and doing volunteer work if possible. All of these will help you familiarize yourself with the words, ideas, and issues that decision makers are talking about so you can highlight them in your story.
- Talk to people! Once you’ve got an initial version of your story together, you’ll want to get out from behind your computer and start having conversations with actual humans who are doing the work you’re interested in. Listen carefully to the language they use and note down words or phrases that come up often. Are there opportunities to incorporate these into your story?
3. Draft your story, practice, and iterate
Now that you’re clearer on your strengths and the vocabulary you need to use, it’s time to draft your story.
Start by creating an outline for your 30 second elevator pitch or career story: this is what you’ll say the next time someone asks “tell me about yourself.” You don’t have to write it out as a full script, but try to identify three key points you want to get across:
- Who you are: this serves to frame and give background on you, and could include your name, current or past job titles or employer if they are relevant to your current career goals, or a career headline that you give yourself (which could be different than your actual job title!).
- What you do and why you do it: this part helps someone else understand what value you bring and why it’s relevant to them. Here you can share your top skills and strengths, career through lines, or 1-2 specific projects you’ve worked on or results you’ve achieved that are most relevant to your new direction. This is also a great place to share your “why”: what drives and motivates you, the causes or missions you’re most passionate about, or the kind of problems you want to solve.
- What you’re looking for: always end with a call to action. What are you looking for, and how can the other person help you? Depending on the context, this could involve sharing the types of roles or organizations you’re most interested in, asking about specific people you should connect with, or being clear about what type of information you’d like to gather about someone else’s experience.
Here’s a great article and video that go deeper into this, and here’s an example of what I might put together:
Who I am: I’m Erin. I help mission-driven professionals find and land jobs they love through my career coaching business, Careers for Social Impact. What I do/why I do it: Before starting my business, I spent much of my career as a recruiter, where I saw firsthand how fundamentally broken the hiring process is and how challenging it can be for job seekers. Now I use that experience to demystify the hiring process for social sector professionals and help them successfully navigate it to find work they love. Call to action: I’m currently growing my coaching practice and I’m looking to connect with mission-driven professionals who are ready take the next step in their career.
Now that you have a draft, it’s time for practice and feedback! Remember: the way we write is not how we speak, so you’d sound pretty strange if you shared what you wrote down verbatim in a conversation. (You can use your written draft as the basis for your LinkedIn summary however, which is another important place to share your story).
It’s critical to practice your story out loud to get comfortable with what you actually want to say and ensure that you can flex your story to different people and situations. At a minimum, practice and get feedback from three other people to ensure your message is coming across clearly and identify changes to make. Your story will probably be too long at first, so pay attention to what resonates and what you can cut out.
And remember that each time you share your story, there’s an opportunity to get feedback. Practice different ways of saying things and see what people remember and what sticks out, and also pay attention to any aspects that are confusing or less engaging, and make updates accordingly.
As you’re working on your career story, don’t focus on trying to make it perfect! That can be paralyzing, and the reality is that your story is going to shift and evolve depending on each situation, so it may never be exactly the same twice.
Your goal should be to develop a version of your story that you feel good about, that covers the key points you want to communicate, and that you can adapt in different situations. Once you do that, you’ll be ready for whatever opportunities come your way – from networking conversations to that tricky “tell me about yourself” question you’ll get in job interviews. Good luck, and happy storytelling!
Would you like support in developing your career story? Contact us to learn how we can help you get more clarity and confidence in telling your story.