There is a narrative for every professional person, organization, or company. Your professional narrative consists of stories told about you or stories that you tell yourself. These stories frame understanding, create culture, and drive behaviors. Your stories are susceptible to being manipulated, either deliberately or in error. You are responsible for communicating and owning your stories. A coherent narrative is a powerful way to build a strong brand that attracts and repels. Your Brand Story communicates your value proposition, who you are, and what is important to you. Your Origin Story provides insight into your mission, how you got here, and why you can be trusted. It creates a connection to your market and communities.
I was on a phone call with a potential client, a very talented individual. He was telling me about his challenges at work, about being passed over for promotions, and some feedback he received. I listened for quite a while and then said, “You’ve lost control of your narrative”. He paused for a moment and then said “Yes...yes I have”.
You already have a de facto personal brand. I define personal brand as the thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and the emotional connection about you. Your brand lives in the hearts and minds of those in your communities. Your personal brand must be based in authenticity and reflect your values. Strong brands accurately reflect the person or product.
One of the most important steps in personal branding is taking accountability for the life of your narrative. Your professional narrative consists of the stories people believe about you. Each of your stories is part of a larger narrative about you. These stories work collectively to create a coherent narrative that increases your perceived value and gives you a stronger presence.
Narratives, whether they are about people or issues, tend to be accepted as truth. Controlling your narrative - managing the message in your communities - is critical to effectively communicating your personal brand.
Your narrative starts with you and is birthed into the world through you. Your personal brand and your narrative are inexorably linked. Once birthed, you own it, control it, and know that it's right. However, over time, it takes on a life of its own and precedes you. Case in point: no one will ever ask you what Coca-cola is or where it can be purchased, or why a student might want to attend Harvard University or MIT. They are among the strongest brands in the world.
Anthropologists have long known what Neuroscience now confirms: Humans are hard-wired for story. We receive, retain, and process information delivered in story form more deeply than the same information delivered through any other narrative structure. Our brains don’t do well with remembering or understanding a lot of raw pieces of information, even items organized in a bullet list. Story is a powerful tool for advancing your career path and being in alignment with your value system.
There are many different types of stories to tell for many purposes. Here are the two most important to build a career that aligns with your skills, identity, and values.
Story One: The Brand Story
Your brand story is a brief overview that can be used for LinkedIn, your resume, and other social media. It should tell the reader who you are and offer a clear value proposition. It should give the reader a glimpse of how you are perceived and what is important to you. It can be done in 2000 characters or less (2000 characters is the maximum for a LinkedIn Summary). You know it's done when you can show it to someone close to you and they say “This is you!” Anyone who knows you reasonably well should be able to pick yours out of a stack of ten or more.
Here is an example of a well-written brand story/summary from a LinkedIn profile. It comes in at 1,985 characters. Take a read.
‘Those who work with me describe me as a strong, compassionate, visionary leader capable of delivering a clear and compelling vision while articulating and executing on details. The foundation of my success rests on my ability to build a cohesive, effective team as I leverage the diverse talents and perspectives of my team members. As one individual put it, "Sandy has the ability to see the good in me despite my own self-doubt and is skillful in raising my confidence; she empowers her team to be the best they can be, sharing the spotlight and letting others express points of view and rallying behind them; she spots opportunities for herself and others and works diligently to seek success." Another shared "Sandy can work with lots of different types of people. She encourages diversity of style and encourages the debate to create a better outcome. Everyone feels valued with the end product." How do I do this? I don't let my people fall; I have their backs, and they know it. I do hold people accountable, which is easy to do when your team knows that you care for them. It is a gift that they give freely.
Beyond the team, the most important critical success factor for delivering a solution is managing the expectations of stakeholders. To leverage this, I ensure that I understand the needs and desires of each stakeholder. My goal is that these often diverse needs and desires are aligned, or, if not, there is agreement on what can and will be achieved. One sponsor has commented, "I would trust Sandy with the most critical project I had because I'd know it would get done and done exceptionally well. She is someone in whom I have complete trust and confidence. I have found her to be highly ethical, honest, and also really fun to interact with."
My passion is to share what I have learned and experienced by speaking, writing, coaching, mentoring, and consulting. Making a living can and should be a joyful, fulfilling, enriching experience. That's good business!’
Do you have a pretty good idea of who she is and what is important to her? Notice how her community speaks for her through quotes that she adds.
Story Two: The Origin Story
Your Origin Story is the story of you and how you got to where you are. It contains pieces of other people's stories, including those who have helped or influenced you along the way. Origin Stories, like most stories, are acts of empathy in that they create a way for people to find themselves in your story. What do we have in common? What beliefs or experiences do we share? Why should I trust you? What is important to you?
You tell your Origin Story in pieces, depending on the audience, context, and circumstances. In most circumstances, I tell my Origin Story starting with my entry into corporate America, with an emphasis on spinning off a subsidiary from a Fortune 100 company and helping to build a 500-person consulting firm. That's what is relevant to most audiences. When I'm working directly with a client, I share more of some early struggles and insights from those challenges.
The online clothing and accessories company, Everlane, is built on Radical Transparency. Their tagline is: “Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.” In a catalog they sent me - which cost $0.63 to produce and ship - they pose a compelling question: How do you evolve while staying true to your roots? Know your story.
Here is part of their Origin Story:
“Everlane was founded on very simple principles: Create the most beautiful closet essentials and reveal the true cost and origin story behind every product. We call it Radical Transparency. It's our mission and our movement, the North Star that guides us as we keep evolving.”
Everlane is reaching out to a specific audience. They are saying "Hey, this is who we are. This is what’s important to us. This is where we are going." Their Origin Story is an invitation to be a part of their journey. It’s not meant for everyone. It’s a call to their tribe.
The most important story you tell is the one you tell yourself every morning. Pay attention to that story. Make sure your story hasn't been altered by well-meaning (or not) individuals, because this story influences all the others. It will be the basis for how you communicate your value, connect with communities, and manage your career or business.
When crafting your stories, here are two mistakes to avoid:
- If you birth it but don't nurture it by repeating it to the appropriate persons and checking to ensure it's being received, it gets lost in the noise or distorted.
- If you don't birth it at all, someone else will craft it for you, and they may not share your values or have your best interests in mind.
A coherent and accurate narrative helps you to gain trust and build consensus for your ideas. If you have lost control of it, take it back. It's your story. Own it, and you will be rewarded with clarity, confidence, and a sense of purpose.
*I commissioned the artwork at the beginning of this post. It was created by Chris Collins. His original comic art will be on display for the MICE Art Show at Lesley University September through October 24. The theme is Transformations and Migrations.
Jeff Rock is a Career Coach, Business Storyteller, and Certified Personal Branding Strategist. His work helps professionals to uncover, embrace, and make sense of their past to leverage it so it supports their career growth, career transition, or to new business success. He has worked with survivors of toxic workplace environments as well as entrepreneurs forging new paths. Jeff creates space for dialogues in which people can discover their real worth, integrate the power of their story, and take control of their professional narrative. He specializes in working with introverts struggling in a culture with a predilection for extroversion, and uses story and branding to help overcome gender bias, ageism, or anything that diminishes dignity or constricts potential. Jeff is a frequent podcast guest speaking on Storytelling, Personal Branding, Courage, and Authenticity.