One of my favourite quotes on storytelling comes from the great Nigerian poet, Ben Okri. He said, “We live by stories. We also live in them. One way or another, we are living the stories planted early in us or along the way. We are also living the stories we plant, knowingly or unknowingly, in ourselves.”
This quote reminds me how much our lives are not only shaped by stories, but also how much our lives are fertile gardens of stories grown from the meaningful experiences we’ve had while living. Some of those experiences are pure entertainment and little more. Other experiences, however, are more enlightening in that we learn something from them: about ourselves, about our interactions with others, about how we navigate through life and through work. Over time, these learnings nourish us, shape us, and help us grow into the person and professional we are today.
Our lives are, indeed, rich with stories. However, each of us is also a story, one constantly in the making and in need of sharing.
I spoke about this in my last blog post when I focused on the importance of taking ownership of your personal brand story, defining what your story is versus leaving it to chance or let others do it for you. In that post I shared some profound questions to help you explore and identify what you, as a personal brand, are all about. Those questions are certainly loftier and more philosophical; but in carefully considering how you would answer them, you dig deep to discover who you are, what drives and distinguishes you, and the difference you hope to make in your work, in others, and the world.
In sharing your personal brand story, you could simply tell people your answers to those questions put forward in this last blog post. Better still, you could show your answers through exemplary stories that bring them to life. But what stories to tell? And just as crucially, where can you find them? Outlined below are three key places to look more deeply into.
Stories from Your Life Experiences
Set time aside, clear your mind, and reflect on your life going as far back as you can remember. Start with your early childhood, growing up, your awkward teen years, college or university, young adulthood, your first love, your current love, starting a family, etc. Think about the high points that fill you with joy and gratitude, but also the low points that gave you pause or set you back.
As you scan your memory, make note of what moments or experiences pop to the surface of your consciousness. Later, look more deeply into each of those experiences and ask yourself if you learned anything from it. Better still, is there anything from that experience that changed you somehow, instilled an enduring value or belief in you, or helped form you into the person you are today? In revisiting your most meaningful life experiences, some of them will fill you with pride and delight, while others may fill you with shame or regret. Don’t discount the latter, as we often learn a lot from mistakes or missteps we’ve made.
Your life experiences provide a fertile pond to fish in for stories that answer some of the questions put forward in my last post. For instance, putting aside all humility, what do you value most in yourself and are most proud of; is there a life experience you’ve had that fills you with pride and brings that characteristic to life? What are the values that shape and guide you as an individual; can you recall life experiences where each of those values was formed and/or which shows that value in action?
Stories from Your Work Experiences
Everyone started somewhere, including you. Look back on the entirety of your career and consider some of the fundamental experiences that propelled it forward, brought it to a grinding halt, or caused a change in its trajectory. Think back on your very first job as a teenager, your first “adult” job in your twenties, the most challenging or humbling work situations you’ve ever been in, and the most rewarding ones. As you do this professional scan, pay attention to the experiences that pop into your mind, because there is often a reason they are so quickly uncovered.
In looking back on your working life, you will quickly realize how full it is of successes and struggles, big wins and sobering losses. What did you learn in the moment of those experiences? Better still, what do you learn, right now, in reflecting on them? If you could give that younger you some advice on how to do things differently, what might you say?
As you consider the entirety of your working life, keep in mind some of the questions put forward in the last post around your personal brand. For example, what are the core strengths that help you stand apart: strengths you should leverage moving forward? What are some potential misperceptions people have of you and where do you think those misperceptions might come from? When did you feel completely at the top of your game and what was it about that time or experience that made you feel that way?
Stories Inspired by Mentors, Trusted Advisors, Role Models
No one navigates through a life or career completely on their own. There are always others along that journey who help you bravely face opportunities or challenges in front of you, who enlighten and guide you, or who point you in the right direction. The interactions and experiences we have with these individuals, what those moments teach us and make us realize about ourselves, provide a great place for harvesting stories.
So, as you take stock of your life and your career, make a list of those people who have had the greatest influence on either. These individuals could be a family member, coach, teacher, friend, colleague, boss, business partner, or even a random stranger from some chance encounter. Consider what those individuals taught you or helped you understand about yourself and your approach to working, to living, or to working and living with others. Better still, think about some defining experiences you had with these individuals, or experiences that those individuals help you make the most of through their counsel and wisdom.
The pivotal interactions you’ve had with these individuals can be grow into enlightening stories that can help you bring to life answers to personal brand questions from my last post. For example, when have you gotten off track in your life or career? Perhaps a mentor or trusted advisor are the people who helped you get back on the right one, like my former bosses, Neil Kreisberg or Marie McNeely did for me. Or thinking about what your growing edges are: those blossoming roles, traits, characteristics that are just starting to sprout and which you want to cultivate further. It is often the perspective of others that help you see and recognize those flowering opportunities, just as my former coaches Linda Oglov or David Baker did for me, or my friend and client, Karen Kuhla McClone, who was the one who invited me to leap into business storytelling training in the first place.
Harvesting exemplary stories that form the bounty of your personal brand story is not an onerous task, but it is something that requires some time, contemplation, and focus. But once you start digging, you quickly realize just how fertile a ground it can be.
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 15 years, BB&Co has been providing Effective Presentation Skills and Leadership Through Storytelling training to organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Dell, Prudential, and others. If you’d like to learn how to be a stronger, more confident, more strategic storyteller at work, consider signing-up for our Open-Enrollment Storytelling Training Workshop on May 3 & 4, 12:30 to 4:00 EDT each day.