What's Your Story? People Are Telling It, Even If You're Not

People tell stories about you all the time. When they recommend you for jobs, for blind dates, for community/school/religious group leadership opportunities.In them, you’re almost always totally indistinguishable from Beyoncé.Kidding. I have no idea what people are saying about you. Do you?They’re likely telling the stories you tell about yourself.If you want more money, more resources, more dates or more opportunities to serve—you need stories.Most of us have a few main narratives related to our identities, but today let’s start with your work story. Later, we’ll tackle dating narratives and service narratives.

Workplace inspiration and lady leadership superhero Carla Harris says if you tell people what to think about you at work, they will think it. As she tells the story (see what I did there?), one day, she learned people didn’t think of her as tough. So she made a plan:

“The last thing you want to be thought of as a woman on Wall Street is not tough,” Harris said to Biz Women. “I realized the real Carla Harris was not walking into Morgan Stanley every day… it was creating a competitive disadvantage for me. For 90 days, I would walk tough, talk tough, eat tough, drink tough — you must have consistent behavior around those three adjectives.”Harris says she often critiqued management presentations at work, and one day, when a colleague asked her to come listen to a CEO’s presentation, she realized her acting “tough” had paid off.“I said, ‘Tell me about this CEO. Does he have thick skin? Because I’m tough,’” she said.From them on, her co-workers just understood: “That Carla Harris is tough.”

The idea is, decisions about what promotions you’ll get and which of your ideas get the go-ahead will all be made when you’re not around. They will be made in rooms where people sit and tell stories about you.You need to be authentic, yes. You also need to make sure you’re telling stories about the times in your life you did the things people in your workplace value the most. Does your office value creativity? Boldness? Loyalty? Decisiveness? Thoroughness?Pick a handful of adjectives—that are true about you, and prioritized in your workplace—and think about what professional stories you have that support these words.For example, at work, I want people to say I’m passionate, emotionally perceptive, and scrupulous.To back these things up, I let my natural tendency to be animated and loud show through. It’s who I am, but it also shows passion. (It also means meeting me for the first time can be a bit much…but we can’t have it all.)The other two things I want people saying about me—perceptive and scrupulous (I mean, a woman can hope)—can be illustrated through storytelling.And let me say upfront, this can feel awkward and braggy. You have to release those fears and instead, replace that idea with enthusiasm and sincerity. Then, just tell your story.This is what it looked like for me at work last month: I was thanking an editor for assigning me to join team coverage of a kind of story I’d never reported on before—the shooting death of a police officer while on duty. I wanted to show him he was right to send me because of how emotionally perceptive I’d been, and how dedicated I was to getting the story.I explained to him that while in New Mexico, I observed more than 10 hours of community gatherings on the Navajo Reservation that were somewhere between a memorial and a reckoning. I told my editor how, after about five hours at one meeting, I’d stepped out and called the editor working the story, Josh, to relay the following: that this style of mourning was distinct from what I’d seen elsewhere; it was far more focused on community accountability than just remembering a good man.What I said next to my assigning editor: “I said to Josh, ‘We don’t want to get all ‘National Geographic’ on this and focus too much on how Native Americans are different from mainstream Americans because that’s really just us being awkward interlopers as opposed to empathetic observers.’”And my editor laughed and asked, “Did you really say that, just outside the memorial?”“Yes. We were trying to figure out context and scope without being precious.”And he just said, “I’m glad you were there.”And I was, too. The story I collaborated on was well-received by the family and community of the fallen officer, praised for its sensitivity and accuracy.Of course, the above anecdote doesn’t illustrate that I’m a magical pony of empathy in a way that’s more awesome than other people. It just illustrates that I worked hard to be the right person at the right time. Which is, you know, what my boss wants.People are going to talk about you. It’s time to give them some good material.