When to tell a personal story in a business context (without exposing yourself)

So you know that storytelling is one of the most effective ways to bring about behaviour change  and you know how to structure it too.

Despite all this, you’re STILL not using storytelling.  If you are, there’s very little of you in there.

People often shy away from personal stories in business and talk more of their team or clients.

Sometimes, though, a personal one is more effective.  You may be speaking to a potential Hiring Manager and need to sell your abilities.

Perhaps, you’re helping your team overcome obstacles that you also struggled with at some point.

Here are some of the reasons I hear for not getting personal:

“It’s too boring.”
“I’m too too boring.”
“I’m still going through it, so I don’t have the credibility yet to tell it.”
“I can’t find the learning in my story.”
“It’s too exposing right now.”

Given the fact that we can be the worse judges of the value of our experiences, how do you know if you’ve got a good story to tell?

Here’s how:

1. your audience can relate to it: there are parallels with their own situation – similarity.  This either hits on a common fear or an widely shared experience.

2. It feeds in with your WIIFM (link) – it backs up your main point, the key message of your presentation .

3. It doesn’t expose too much of you that you undermine your professionalism.  You may want to omit the part where you were so shocked, you peed yourself.

4. It shows your humanity: you can add how you felt and a measure of vulnerability.  For instance, there may have been a point where you were confused or frustrated.  Declare it.

5. There’s something aspirational about it: maybe you worked hard, or you made your own luck.  If it’s all about your natural born cleverness or the razor sharp business acumen you nurtured from when you were nine years old, then it’s bragging.

6. there’s a story of transformation – contrast.  You started at A but after a struggle moved on to B; you had everything, then….nothing. Either you or your circumstances change.  For example, when I was training a senior leader at 3M, we wanted to open with a tale of how packaging has changed.  I ‘lent’ her my grandma’s tale of going to the grocer as a child, where a cow was kept at the back and it took three of the children all their might to drag a metal container of the warm milk across the road to my great-grandma’s.  Now, we nip to the supermarket to buy a Tetra Pak of milk.  Packaging – although not a sexy subject – has changed how we live.

Your Action:

1. You’ve got your story but you’re not sure if it’s right for the telling? Share with an honest and supportive friend. Tell the story and ask them what message did they gain from this. If it’s not the right one, you might need to change a couple of details (creative licence is allowed). Your job is to get your point across not to confess your wrongs, so feel free to edit a little.

2. You know the WIIFM – the Key Message. Has anyone you’ve noted in the press, amongst your acquaintances or friends a story around this? Borrow that. It doesn’t have to be your own story.


Ultimately, if your story is uncomfortable, don’t tell it but if it feel right, you’re good to go.

Download this example of a business story, with a template to help you tell your own.



Image by John Iglar from Pixabay

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