Be memorable by telling good stories about yourself

When someone says, “So tell me about yourself,” a lot of people stumble. When you craft your answer, you have 10 million hours of information to choose from. Many people actually hate getting this question because it’s so hard to zero-in on an answer.

This is an honest question. Someone wants to know about you. You should learn to choose the right things to say, so you can answer the question in a way that allows people to connect with you and remember you.

“The villain of getting ideas across is the curse of knowledge,”says Chip Heath, Stanford business school professor and co-author of the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. When you know something really well, like every detail of your life, Heath says, it’s difficult to figure out how to tell someone who doesn’t know.

Everyone has a complicated background. You need to pull that background together in a way that creates a single, memorable picture of yourself that is relevant to the person you’re talking to. In high school Ryan Patriquin focused on fine arts, but in college realized he really enjoyed computer-generated art, like “Toy Story.”

He spent a couple of years as a graphic designer. Then, while working at a large company that was going through transition, he got an opportunity to fill in as a product manager.

Now 28, Patriquin was recently interviewing at EBSCO Publishing, a provider of reference, subscription and other information services. In the interview, he said, “I’m a creative person who has product management experience.”

This is a way for him to convey to people that he has two skills without explaining every detail of his life.

When you hear a summary like this, and it sounds obvious, that’s because it is right. But most people cannot see their own history so clearly to convey a short, one-sentence summary of who they are. You have to find your one-sentence if you want people to remember it. Try it out whenever someone asks you, “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself.” The answer to this question is a work in progress, and you can judge how you’re doing by how engaged the person’s response to you is.

As for Patriquin, Brenda Kelley, a recruiter at EBSCO Publishing, says “He packaged himself in a way that helped me know he was the right person for the position. And we ended up hiring him.” Patriquin is now a user interface designer for the company.

Sometimes, you only have time for a one-sentence summary of your life – when you are introduced to someone in passing, for example. But sometimes, there is more time for an answer – in an interview, for example. When you have more time, tell a story.

The best way to have people connect with what you say about yourself, and remember what you say, is to tell a story. Most people instinctively list details about their life, “I did this, then this, then this.” It’s not very interesting. Stories are more engaging, so get used to talking about yourself in stories instead of in lists.

Telling stories about yourself takes practice. A lot of it is trial and error. As you’re telling the story out loud, you’ll instinctively feel if it’s a flop or not. When you find a good story, hone it until you’re conveying what you want people to know, in a way they’ll enjoy hearing.

A story I used to tell in interviews is how I made my career choice during an argument with my ex-boyfriend.

Heath says there are three different kinds of plots we can create about ourselves.

1. The challenge plot. You overcame an obstacle to get to where you are. Heath’s example is someone who says, “I’m really good at customer-focused service.” It’s not very persuasive if someone makes that declaration. But this challenge plot makes things more persuasive; “I learned customer service working at an ice cream stand. In the summer the line was twenty people deep and it was a challenge to keep the customers happy.” Now the listener has an image in their mind of you being good at customer service.

2. The creativity plot. In this plot, the turning point in the story is a eureka moment – when an idea comes to you and changes everything. You could say, “My business is about selling textbooks.” Or you could say, “I had an idea to sell textbooks, but I couldn’t figure out how to market them as interesting to the consumer. Then it hit me that no one has a favorite text book, but everyone has a favorite professor. So I needed to use the professors to hook in the customers.”

3. The connection plot. This plot comes in when you are telling a story about bringing a team together. For example, “our toy company merged with another toy company and people were duplicating each others’ efforts to create a new doll line. I convinced the teams to combine designs and work together. We created a doll that dominated the collectible doll market that Christmas.”

Once you’ve practiced a bit, you can relish the moment someone says, “So, what do you do?” If you understand how to talk about yourself, this is an opening to connect in a meaningful way and make a lasting impression.

Posted in Interviewing, Knowing yourself, No image, Promoting yourself
21 comments on “Be memorable by telling good stories about yourself
  1. Matt Maupin says:

    Good article. I’m always equally perplexed when sitting in a room full of professionals that haven’t taken the time to prepare personal, structured answers when asked about their values, expectations, and goals.

    I hadn’t thought your broader “Tell me about yourself.” Thanks for making me think!

  2. Patricia Foster says:

    Greetings!

    I’ve recently come across your blog and I’m enjoying your articles very much. This one in particular is a good topic, as well as your past ones some of which I just finished reading. The “tell me about yourself” is a common interview question and the answer can easily be pondered and prepared in advance.

    Cheers,
    P.

  3. paul says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I have been putting into practice some of the techniques you have either written about or have referenced from others. My job and responsibilities require me to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. After reading the article that says it is less productive in the long run to mulit-task I decided to try only doing one function at a time. I was amazed at how I did get more work done in less time and that the work was more accurate. I may be 20 years behind in what I need to know but thanks to you I am catching up fast.

  4. Willy says:

    Some of your greatest career advice is on this topic – how to craft stories about yourself. I’m going to a regional managers conference tomorrow and was asked by the meeting planners to submit a bunch of trivia questions about myself (teambuilding…). My first impulse was to roll my eyes, but I remembered several of your columns on this theme, and so instead I thought about what stories I wanted to tell about myself – reveal useful experience, define myself, enhance my street cred in our field, and so I sent in several trivia items that did just that. Thanks!

  5. Rowan Manahan says:

    Lovely thoughts Penelope, and neatly articulated as always. My 2 cents on this would be to look back at telling stories to children – the most brutal audience you will ever face. It needs a beginning a middle and an end; it needs colour and texture, but above all it needs to be RELEVANT to their needs.

    Sir Anthony O’Reilly, a renowned raconteur, ended up with his anecdotes becoming an agenda item at Heinz board meetings. Does anyone think that he wandered into those meetings without having carefully considered every syllable of his story and the attitude / disposition of every member of his audience while polishing that story?

    Everyone understands that the job-hunt is all about the employer and a presentation is all about the audience – their needs, their worries, their problems that need fixing. But very few people demonstrate that understanding in the way they BEHAVE. Your advice, as ever, points out that all of this is very simple – it’s just not easy.

    * * * * * *

    Rowan, Great point about how you know you’re a good story teller if you can keep the kids riveted. So often, with adults, we delude ourselves about how interesting we really are.

    I confess to being too scared to be the story teller at the last birthday party of light-saber wielding four-year-olds: I know a tough crowd when I see one. Penelope

  6. DM Strong says:

    Interesting column.

    I was taught once a couple things about this. First, if someone starts an interview with this question, they probably haven’t pepared for the meeting.

    second, the way you answer it is, “i’d love to tell you about myself in the context of why I’m here.” and then talk about your skills and how they apply to the job.

  7. Dave says:

    Telling the right level of detail is the tough part. I tend to tell too long a story. If somebody told me “I’m a creative person who has product management experience,” my reaction would be yeah, me too, but what do you do? I think the thing you need to be good at is tailoring the story, learning how to wrap it up quickly if they get bored, learning how to quickly tell a detailed enough experience that the other person can understand you know what you are talking about, but not boring them to death with minutae.

    I blew this on a recent interview but got the job anyway. Actually, I got a better job. The guy asked me to tell me about myself and I ended up going on and on for about 40 minutes on war stories of dotcoms and such. Maybe it was good. I should ask him now that I’m hired!

  8. KG says:

    This is a difficult question with respect to determing the level of detail to provide the interviewer. However, there is another question that I struggle with during interviews. “Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?” I find that some folks want to hear a position while others want to hear certain goals. So at this time I just tell them of my interest to learn and develop my skills with respect to managing content. As you can tell it is a work in progress so if anyone has any suggestions let me know.

  9. gl hoffman says:

    Hi Penelope…I agree completely…great minds think alike…lol…I recently wrote about this issue too in my blog too (http://blogs.jobdig.com/wwds) It fascinates me that more jobseekers do not prepare for questions that almost always come up.

  10. sara says:

    i want to make a story about myself and my friends and my life so ok

  11. juan gomez says:

    to the person who’s been posting a question if u have a story to tell my question to him that i have storys i do but if he wants to know my story in my life i would to tell the real life about my personallity only but interview no phone calls place and time

  12. juan gomez says:

    THIS IS TO THE PERSON WHO STRIKE ME WHEN I MADE A COMMENT THAT I HAVE A BROKEN HART QUESTION IS TO HIM HE KNOWS THE MEANING IVE BEEN TRUELY MYSELF TO GIVE THEM A SAMPLE THAT IN MY SELF I WAS NOT GOOD TO KNOW ONE COUSE I DO RESPECT OTHER PEAPLES FEELINGS AND I NEEDED TIME TO PUT MY SELF TOGETHER GIVE MY SELF A NOTHERE CHANCE TO TRUST THAT MEANS BEING MY SELF.YOU UPSET ME TO NOT UNDER STAND HOW TO BE A PERSON KNOW I CAN DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONALLATY YOUR THE TYPE OF PERSON THAT DONT KNOW BY KNOWLEDGE AND WHO YOU ARE.QUESTION NUMBER ONE WHAT YOUR EYES SEE AND BRAIN THINK IS A PERSON.WHO WANTS TO COPY WATH HE SEE’S IN LIFE YOU SHOULD LEARN HOW TO KNOW YOUR SELF IN STED OF DOING WATH PEAPLE DO TO RUIN THE WORLD KNOWLEGDE IS BY KNOWING WATH THAT PERSON DID WRONG TO YOU AND THATS WHY YOU SHOULD THINK HOW TO LEARN TO BECOME A PERSON AND TO LEARN HOW TO CARE ABOUT OTHER PEAPLE

  13. Wilbert says:

    Talking about ones self can be challenging. Especially when being asked to and when having a potential job on the line. The tips you presented are great as long as one doesn’t sound too cocky about their accomplishments. I think there is a fine line between letting someone know that you know what you are doing or just bragging.

  14. Saul says:

    With all due respect, the article and its point of view expects too much from men and women of the workforce. It suggests that everyone regardless of their innate personalities and natural aptitudes need to become “story tellers” overnight in order to land a job to survive.
    Perhaps that’s why the BS artists get the job regardless of required qualifications best for the employer. Is that why we loose billions $$ every year to mis-hires and mis-matches (see Dep of Labor’s annual report)? It seems as though employment process is adopting same practices as in a Hollywood casting? Job interviewing is becoming an audition…Is this the direction things are headed in the far West’s employment market?

  15. Wilson Cheah says:

    Hello Penelope. I have filed your website until now and discovered how much I’ve missed out . sorry I don’t have a website yet but working on it now.
    I have just passed my 72 years.. but still so much learn. Thanks very much for your insights…

  16. bird houses for sale says:

    this is one of the best reads I’ve had n a while, i will be sure to recommend this to a couple of people, great job

  17. Bee says:

    I have a favourite textbook.

  18. Bee says:

    I have a favourite textbook.

  19. DJ-KHALED says:

    Well i thing telling about your self is good but not always because mapy you are in trople or something so you !
    I AM DJ KHALED
    read the best

  20. our website says:

    Hi there! Do you know if they make any plugins to help with
    SEO? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I’m not seeing very
    good gains. If you know of any please share. Cheers!

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