By Liz Ryan Sometimes, I think I missed my calling -- that I should have been a man born in the Middle Ages. True, the medical care was abysmal and life was a lot shorter, but I would have liked to have been a troubadour, traveling and telling stories. Singing, networking, and gossiping, with free room and board in every town -- what's not to like?
Modern civilization desperately needs stories. You can see it in the way we gather around the TV to watch the most inane tale. Everyone at the watercooler has to know about the kid whose tree house was condemned by the zoning board.
COMPELLING SELL.?We can all tell stories reasonably well -- even spouses who recount the same ones over and over. We don't generally think of storytelling as a workplace activity. But it is. And it's essential.
Often, the most successful salespeople are those who can tell a compelling story that resonates with the customer. In internal selling -- pitching an idea or a budget, for instance -- telling a story is likewise critical.
A brilliant friend of mine came up with a thank-you present for the sponsors at her organization's industry trade show. She sent each a color photo of its booth signage with happy attendees milling around, plus a page of testimonials her staff had gathered: "I'd never heard of XYZ Industries before but, after visiting its booth, I'm curious to know more!"
REAL-LIFE DRAMA. The testimonial page for each sponsor also included an anecdote or two -- people asking about the origin of the company's name or commenting that they'd heard it was a great place to work. The obligatory pile of business cards gathered at a show is good, but it doesn't tell a story. My friend's package did.
The human need for stories should be a vital clue to job-hunters, whose résumés often have as much dramatic punch as the back of a cereal box. Your résumé is your marketing brochure, folks.It has to tell your story.
What is your story? Some possibilities might be:
A scientifically inclined student attends Hofstra University, goes on to learn computer programming and create innovative products, then switches to product marketing and leads a groundbreaking campaign.
A high school track star shows an aptitude for math at Texas A&M, becomes a successful journeyman consultant for Deloitte, realizes he'd rather be working in artificial intelligence, joins two AI startups (one that tanked, one that didn't), and is up for his next opportunity.
A homecoming queen from Little Rock excels at Dartmouth College, becomes a waitress/ski bum in Aspen, takes her master's in journalism in Colorado, and plays competitive rugby. Her résumé is short, but don't you want to know more?
STOP-START NARRATIVE. We are emerging from a dull age in which the dominant paradigm was that your résumé had served its purpose if it listed your jobs and employers in a reasonably accurate fashion. Yuck! There's no story in that. The fact is, you did what you did at each juncture for a reason, and your résumé has to get that across. Otherwise, it looks like a report of your daily routine, extended over several years:
I woke up. I brushed my teeth and shifted the part in my hair from left to center. I ate an egg. I found my slip-ons. I waited for the bus.
This is how most résumés read: I did this job, I stopped that, I had these responsibilities. Okay, why? What was your motivation? Surely you didn't drift through these experiences in a daze. What was going on during that time? You've built your career, thus far, from scratch: How and why? Here are some practical tips for turning a static résumé into a compelling story-telling document:
Explain every job change and promotion (or lateral transfer) on your résumé -- don't wait for an interview to do this vital storytelling. Make the last bullet point in each job description the story of why you left that job. Example: I wasn't job-hunting, but I learned of the exceptional opportunity at Amoco and jumped at it.
Why Do We Care?
Explain, right on your résumé, the importance and appeal of each of your moves or accomplishments. So you led a team and the project was on time, but tell us why that's so cool. Example: The on-time completion was so satisfying because it moved our division from third place to first place in profitability among our competitors, and also because I was pregnant the last three months of the project.
Make It Human.
I don't mean folksy or personal. I mean human, from a professional standpoint. The fact that you still love ballet and think of yourself as a performer first and a businessperson second is relevant if you're going for a sales job. Say so! The fact that you've played semipro ball into your 30s is appropriate to mention when the organization you're interviewing with relies on a team structure.
SELF-PORTRAITS. Read through your résumé as though you'd never seen it before -- or better yet, trade résumés with a colleague and read each other's -- and look for the story that comes through. Remember: An interviewer will read your résumé and wonder, who is this person?
You want to paint a picture by putting a lot of yourself in your résumé -- not just your degrees and titles, but what drives you and how you managed to get from Point A back in college to wherever you are now.
I know you have a great story. You just have to tell it. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT