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The Power of a Personal Story

By Audrey Seymour

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Imagine attending a lecture titled "People, Planet and Profit: The New Business Paradigm." The lecturer has beautiful charts and graphs, describing technical points to get her ideas across. The event is brilliant and informative. Then, fade to black and shift to a different scene where another speaker chooses a similar topic, yet opens with a gripping story of how his personal journey led to the insights he's sharing.

If you were attending a series of lectures, which would impact and inspire you more?

Imagine that you are interviewing two candidates for an assistant position, and their first responsibility will be to book speaking engagements for you. The first one explains her areas of expertise and how the responsibilities will be right up her alley.

The second candidate says "I would love to help you grow your business through speaking. Once I had an employer who was bored with the usual speaking circuit and I had a lot of fun researching alternate places for him to speak, such as art galleries. From this work, he doubled his business in 6 months."  

Which candidate would you be more likely to hire?

Back in my corporate days as a software development manager one of my favorite interview questions to ask was "Tell me about your most difficult challenge and how you solved it." This gave me an opportunity to hear how the candidate thought and what kind of results they could get.

It all boils down to the power of a personal story when you want to impact, inspire and influence others, whether to hire you or to take action in the world.

There are several key ingredients to a powerful personal story.

  1. The story involves a significant event in your life that brought out the best in you. It inspired you then, it inspires you now in the retelling, and it will inspire your listener. If you are looking to get hired by a client or a corporation, collect success stories that demonstrate your particular expertise. If you are speaking to young business students, talk about how you have developed and used the material you'll be sharing.

  2. The story reveals an example of the larger theme you want to convey to your listener. In my second example above, the latter candidate did not just speak to the venue-booking theme, but addressed the larger theme of growing her interviewer's business. Her example covered both the requested theme and the larger theme behind the question. Demonstrate to your listeners that you understand why this topic matters to them. If you've chosen your target audience well, it will matter to you too.  

  3. The story arc moves through three elements: challenge-action-result. The most powerful stories start with a challenge, like any good movie opening. You'll want to describe the situation you found yourself in with enough detail that your listener can place themselves in your shoes. Next, what actions did you take to turn things around? Finally, what result did you get and what was the ultimate impact?  

  4. The story still feels fresh and meaningful to you. Whenever a story starts to feel stale, it's time to find other stories that can take their place. Have you ever attended a talk where the story sounded canned? Something that is freshly discovered has so much more aliveness for the speaker as well as the listener.

The next time someone asks you what you do or how something works, don't dive immediately into process details - explain with a personal story and watch their eyes light up. It's a compelling distinguishing factor in all business transactions.

What personal stories do you have that are waiting to inspire the world?

© 2012 Audrey Seymour. All rights reserved.