Illustration by Renato Cifarelli on Flickr
Something to keep in mind as a job seeker putting yourself and your qualifications out there to prospective employers is that you’re essentially marketing the “story” of your career.
This is what we refer to when we talk about your “personal brand” – who are you, what you’ve done, what makes you unique and why that’s of value to your audience. A good personal brand that clearly communicates your value and credibility is what makes you stand out above the rest of your like-credentialed colleagues in a saturated job market.
Last night I attended a Meetup organized by the good folks of BeSocialChange, a NY-based organization that helps people influence the type of social change they want to see by sharing stories that inspire and bring people together to take action. One of the speakers on the panel defined storytelling as “an experience, watching something happen to someone.” A good story invokes a visualization that allows the listener to feel like they’re actually seeing and experiencing what’s going on in the narrative. Whether it’s a non-profit telling an inspiring story of someone’s personal struggle and how the work they did changed that person’s life, or it’s a brand trying to connect with and engage with customers, the idea was about sharing information and stories in a way that empowers the audience to feel important about themselves.
One of my own takeaways from the event was how this idea of telling a story to better engage an audience can be applied to your own personal brand as a jobseeker. There’s a big difference between talking about what a person does, and what inspired them to pursue the type of work that they do, to a point where they’re successful at it. It’s about knowing what the bigger narrative is (what you do), and then breaking that into the smaller stories behind it that help illustrate the inspiration. So how can you use this to your own benefit as a job seeker?
Understand the Bigger Narrative Behind Your Brand
The bigger narrative is the overall story behind your personal brand- who are you, and what do you do? “I’m Dana Leavy, a small business and career consultant who lives in Brooklyn, New York and helps aspiring entrepreneurs and creative professionals make sense of their professional vision and bring it to life. I help people build creative companies, and build creative careers.” That’s the essence of my brand, what I do, how I’m connected to it, and what tangible qualities I have to offer you as my audience. But it’s important that you be able to relate on both an intellectual and emotional level to what I do in a way that makes you essentially want to hire me.
That connection comes from telling the smaller stories behind your brand that your audience can relate to, place themselves in and empathize with. Don’t confuse this with sympathy- you’re not going to want to hire me simply because you feel bad for me and want to help me be successful (though I’d love it). Anyone can feel sympathetic to a cause, but empathy is about relating to that cause or message in a way that makes you want to engage with the person or persons who are delivering it. This is why I hate when job seekers go into interviews and spew out things like “I would REALLY love to work with your company…” They don’t care, because sympathy has zero to do with the hiring process. But illustrating your ability to effectively work through challenges, embrace change, and grow as a professional… now that has WOW factor.
Break it Down into Relevant Smaller Stories that Evoke Empathy
So now you know what my personal brand as a business and career consultant is about. Great. Here’s the problem with only relying on the bigger narrative – there are plenty of small business and career consultants out there who might have a similar narrative, leaving you wondering, “Well why work with Dana then?” And that’s where you need to break down the bigger brand narrative into the smaller stories behind it that allow your audience to relate to your brand, to you (since you are the brand) and what you do.
My work with Aspyre Solutions is all about helping people like you write your own story, to break out of shitty careers, jobs and situations that don’t resonate with who you are creatively, and that don’t fulfill you. It’s about honoring your creative vision, getting off your butt and letting go of complacent excuses, and recognizing that simple, effective planning and creative thinking can build amazing things, from creative companies to creative careers. But it’s also about taking what I’ve learned from my own experiences and challenges as an artist and an aspiring entrepreneur wanting to desperately break out of the 9 to 5 to pursue my dreams, that allows me to really understand, motivate and guide you through your own transition.
In 2009 I moved back to New York City after 10 years in Boston. I had a good career managing a recruiting agency, a great circle of friends and colleagues that kept me busy and fulfilled, and a pretty interesting dating life (to say the least). I was thriving as much as any 26 year old could be in the big city. But by my last year and a half there I had hit a big wall. I was bored with recruiting after 6 years, I was smack in the middle of a crap economy with no idea what I wanted to do next, and even though I was out at open mic nights playing my music and selling my artwork to friends and family, I still felt like creatively I had outgrown my environment and had nowhere to grow. The wall kept getting bigger, and as much as I tried to either ignore the wall or break through it, I only came out more bruised and frustrated at the end of the day. Nothing was changing.
I had always wanted to end up in New York, but my friends and my job were in Boston, I didn’t have the money to move, and even though my family was in New York and I had practically grown up there, uprooting my life to start over was so so intimidating. It seemed impossible in my mind. And another 6 months went by, and still nothing was changing except for the wall which was consistently getting bigger.
Finally in May 2009 I decided I had had enough, and out of both desperation and conviction I made the move. I was dating a guy in New York, and figured I at least had him as a solid base to support me emotionally while I spent the next few months adjusting to my new life. I could become friends with his friends, and build my life around him, and things would just fall into place, right?
Two months later, we broke up, and I was on my own, single, with all my friends up in Boston, and trying to settle into a new job. Everything I had feared had come true. I considered moving back to Boston, back to my comfort zone, to my friends, even to my old job. And it was then, in the midst of that ridiculous (but understandable) train of thought that I realized “@#$% that! This is about me! I’m here, and I came here for me, not for him, and not for anyone else. And whether he’s here or not, it’s time to start writing my own story.” What did I learn? Sometimes it takes letting go everything you thought you needed…. to get what you actually want.
Don’t Be Afraid to Write Your Own Story. In Fact, You Have no Choice
This is how I got here, and I’m sure my story bears some similarities to many of yours that might instill a sense of trust because you can relate to me as a human being. But keep in mind that even a great story is of little benefit unless it conveys something of value to the audience. Perhaps it invokes a feeling of “wow, it’s good to know I’m not alone”, or it instills a sense of confidence that hiring you is a good move because you’re smart, resourceful and not afraid to put your ideas out there. In this case, you’re shooting for some variation of the latter.
It’s kind of like having a tattoo in the sense. I can tell from common sense that that’s a tiger on your arm, the same way I can tell from your resume that you’re a graphic designer. But give me some context around it, tell me the story behind the tiger, or behind the designer – what inspired you to go that direction? What does it represent about you that’s unique to you?
Obviously you’re not going to walk into an interview and start telling your life story. But you can create a compelling story around your career that shapes your personal brand by really conveying the message of why you’re a valuable asset to a company. And while this is a great tool for any job seeker, it can be especially effective if you’re someone who is changing careers and trying to make a case for breaking into a new field. Talking about your prior experiences, challenges and lessons learned, and how that’s relevant to the role you’re applying for, can help you get over that hurdle of not having hands-on experience.
Simple Steps to Create and Refine Your Own Brand Story
So how do you go about putting together your story? You might know what your story is all about, but the important piece here that really makes it an effective tool is in how you communicate it in a way that will be relevant and interesting to your target audience. If you want to create a really great personal brand, try crafting your story with the following elements in mind:
- Talk about what drove or inspired you to become involved in your field. Did you have any mentors, or people that you looked up to, or perhaps an event that really inspired you to do this type of work? What was it that really pushed you over the edge and inspired you to take action?
- What do you think are the most beneficial tools, skills and resources that you picked up along the way?
- What challenges did you encounter along the way, and more importantly, how did you work through those challenges to grow and learn?
- How have you used the lessons you’ve learned by tackling those challenges to get you to this point of knowing you’d like to work for this company, or be in this role?
- What aspects of your professional journey do you consider particularly unique and why?
- How will your past experiences make you successful in this particular role, and contribute to the goals of the organization?
Remember how storytelling is about making your audience feel better about themselves for engaging with you? As a job seeker it’s all about instilling confidence in your prospective hiring manager that hiring you is a good decision and will provide return on their investment. That sense of confidence comes from having a clear sense of how you will adapt to the new role, get the job done, and be successful doing that. Create a compelling, interesting and relevant visual story around your past successes, and you’ve got all the makings of a successful and attractive personal brand!
So share your story below!