Telling Compelling Stories about our Experiences and Achievements

One of the hardest things for people to talk or write about is themselves, and why they are uniquely well suited for a particular opportunity or honor. I have been noting this challenge at the University as I work with some of our most outstanding students. Despite the fact that they have so much to offer- travel, research, academics, the whole package- they often blank when asked to write a personal statement or to be interviewed about their experiences. Invariably, they insist that they’re not good at talking about themselves or bragging about their achievements. And yet ironically, they have spent so much of their time and effort collecting these very accomplishments.

Perhaps part of the issue is that we’re all in such a hurry. Students rush through high school trying to get into college, and then once in college we hurry them through as quickly as possible in an effort to save them money and get them into the work force. In our haste, perhaps we are failing to support their critical reflection- namely, helping them understand and articulate what it is that they’ve experienced and accomplished, what they can offer that is uniquely theirs. And yet, these are the very skills that will move them to the next level, allowing them to create and secure opportunities for growth, advancement and expansion. And perhaps most importantly, these are the skills that will help them self-correct when they find themselves in positions and situations that no longer connect with their cores values, interests or goals.

How can we help students get better at talking about themselves and their experiences? (Although intended for students, these techniques can be used by anyone for virtually any opportunity or goal.)

  1. Begin by listing the categories of skills and competencies that are of critical importance to your intended audience. You can usually find these in the specific posting but I encourage you to dig deeper. Look at reports, press pieces, or profiles of individuals who have held the position/opportunity (or similar position/opportunity) in the past. Allow yourself to imagine the perfect recipient/employee or candidate. What types of categories of skills and competencies would they possess and why are these important given the demands/honors of the opportunity of interest?
  2. Once you have a good list, allow yourself to reflect on your own positions, experiences and achievements and begin to note these under the specific categories with which they correspond. While you can start with specific responsibilities or activities, also note actual experiences that connect with these- both good and bad. Allow yourself to reflect around these experiences and note any big lessons, developments or growth. Ask yourself, “why was it important, what did I learn, and how did it impact me or those around me?” Keep going with this exercise until you have an extensive outline of key skills, experiences and competencies that you can reference and expand upon. Hopefully, at this point you can take some satisfaction in noting the abundance of experiences upon which you can draw.
  3. Now it’s time to look for patterns. Everyone has unique patterns that help describe the ways they approach choices in life and work. Patterns often reveal themselves over time and diversity of experiences. Once you can recognize and articulate these, they can be extremely helpful in telling compelling stories about you and what you will bring to any particular opportunity, along with how you will respond to challenging situations or contexts. Consider using critical questions to help reveal your defining patterns. What drives you? How do you define growth or success? How do you add value to challenging contexts? Consider how these patterns have propelled you on your path and have led to your current interest in this particular opportunity.
  4. The fourth step is perhaps the most important. It involves flipping your lens and focusing not on yourself and your accomplishments, but instead on what you can uniquely contribute to the potential employer, organization, opportunity, or broader community via your efforts. Through succinctly articulating how your unique skill set and experiences can complement and benefit the recipient, you can assure the decision makers that you have strong potential and are worthy of their investment.

Once you have worked through these exercises, allow yourself to practice talking about your experiences in relation to your signature patterns and sense of broader impacts/contributions. You can move between these levels of reflection, making connections, bringing up specific examples/evidence, but always tying it back to the specific opportunity and what you have to offer.

The most exciting aspect of helping students master these skills, is seeing them discover and internalize their signature patterns for the first time. There is something quite powerful in recognizing the unique ways in which we approach our lives and work. When these patterns resonate strongly with employers and the needs of the world around us, we feel empowered and more confident, and begin to seek out opportunities and choices that further strengthen our potential contributions. It is when these internal and external narratives strongly align that we can be our most impactful.

Because Words DO Matter

I recently attended a press event and left dumbfounded by the remarks of the presiding dignitaries. The vast majority either didn’t make sense at all, or were essentially vacuous in terms of actionable promises. Since literally bolting from the event, I have found myself pondering the importance of words as they relate to community development.

I have already confessed my general fascination with words in an early post https://marabhuber.com/2014/03/24/sculpting-our-words/, but in this case I’m reflecting on the lack of intellectual and ethical discipline that they often convey. Just recently I was accused in a LinkedIn group of being too academic and using “the turgid style that seems to say: “I’m smarter than you are.” The critic urged me to say what I mean. While I admit that I have often been accused of being difficult to understand, I would argue that my intentions are at least noble. In choosing my words, whether verbal or written, I strive and struggle for clarity and precision. In the world of higher education, which is my home, and more specifically in the realm of research, we are left to constantly defend the veracity of our assertions, and so we take our words very seriously. Whether in peer reviewed articles, presentations, or meetings, our words are scrutinized for logic and proof, and accordingly they serve as the very foundation on which our relationships and reputations are built.

I realize that Higher Education is not the real world, and that many “normal” people would argue that academics get lost in words and their meanings. Yet I strongly believe that regardless of your background or professional culture, words DO matter and should be treated with more care and thoughtfulness. And I would assert that this is especially true when we deal with matters of community development.

Why? Well, for one reason words are simply not interchangeable. It’s true that we have multiple words to describe similar ideas or concepts, but each connotes nuanced distinctions that are subtle yet important enough to be named. The differences between a partner and a customer, an opportunity and a contract, collaboration and commitment all become extremely important as projects play out, grants run their course, or tensions begin to rise. The ability to articulate one’s goals, needs, and boundaries in a way that is respectful yet clear can make all the difference in project outcomes and the ultimate longevity of relationships.

This is especially the case in community development where organizations are seeking to help and add value in humanitarian ways, while at the same time attending to their own budgetary needs and agendas. Even when all parties are nonprofit with no direct gains or monetary interests, the complexities of their missions and funding sources and associated political lifelines guarantee that ethical conflicts and landmines will abound. Without the ability to clearly articulate and maintain one’s position using carefully selected words with their associated meanings, the promise of successfully navigating the treacherous waters of community development will remain dismal at best.

Sculpting our Words

topiary

I’ve always been drawn to the complexity of words. 

In the beginning it was the particular feel or sound that appealed to me. But over time I discovered the magical effects that words and combinations of words can have on people and situations.

I’m not talking about manipulation or messaging, or strictly getting what we want. 

The magic to which I’m referring is largely humanitarian in its intentions.  It involves dealing with situations that feature conflict and possibilities for hurt feelings, defensiveness, and collateral damage of the interpersonal kind.

Growing up I was always sensitive to the dangers of human interaction.  I saw minefields everywhere and experienced sadness and guilt at the hands of words (both mine and others’).

But in addition to managing their impact, I was also interested in leveraging their meaning. By recognizing the nuanced subtleties of words, putting them together just so, and choosing the right tone and mannerisms I could say exactly what I was feeling or thinking.  But even more importantly, I could make everything ok, even when it clearly wasn’t.

Over the years I have tried to share my gift for words with those around me.  As a friend I’ve offered countless conversation starters, and enders, for relationship break-ups and traumatic life events.  As a parent I have modeled different ways to handle situations in hopes that my children would become more sensitive and kind.  And in my work life I have used my words to incubate ideas, navigate change and uncertainty, and forge collaboration and trust.

But as I reflect on the deep challenges facing our youth, communities, and ourselves- perhaps it is time to elevate the importance of words.   Being able to articulate visions and ideas in ways that resonate and align with commitments; helping children assert their individuality while preserving their social capital; arming women with the words to empower themselves while building consensus and support- these are all necessary for our collective growth.  Yet they all call for a sophisticated grasp of language and communication that many seem to lack.

Without this ability, things can go terribly wrong and yet individuals may have no conscious awareness of their involvement or shortcomings.  This lack of self-awareness or sense of responsibility is perhaps the most troubling trend that I see.  When framed within the virtue of honesty, we can completely miss the opportunity to do and be better, to elevate and mediate, to lift us all up and forward.

I should note that this sculpting of words goes well beyond English or ELA class.  My own development has led me to the fields of literature and writing, cognitive psychology, as well as training in mediation, and even strategic planning.  But there are virtually millions of pathways and opportunities to cultivate and develop associated skills.

Perhaps at the core is the idea that we have an inherent responsibility to those with whom we interact.  Once we recognize that words are perhaps our most accessible and powerful tool, we can begin to enjoy their humanitarian potential.