One of the more common complaints about college is the required general education courses that all degree-seeking students must complete. Perhaps at the top of this list is freshman composition. Students will often make comments like, “I took English all through school, and now I have to take another English class?”
Within these classes, however, are some hidden gems that can really help students advance both their academic and professional careers. One such example in composition is learning about narration, which basically means storytelling. Although some may at first argue that learning about narration is a waste of time and money, the opposite is true.
Consider President Obama’s comments a few days ago about how his focus on policy rather than narrative has been the greatest mistake of his time in office so far:
How does this apply to you? Why is being a good narrator important to your success and how can you tell a story well?
One of the first steps in your career will be landing a job interview. To do this, you will need to tell your story with a job application and interview. Most people approach this process almost mindlessly, filling space with words or lists of information without much thought to whether or not it is helpful to a potential employer. Although it was focused on finding a position in education, the “Six Insider Secrets to Obtaining a Full-time Teaching Position” I wrote about can be a helpful to anyone applying for a job (14 May, 2012), and storytelling allows applicants to seamlessly apply these tips.
Moreover, being able to tell your story in a way that connects to the available job is crucial. Prospective employers want to get to know candidates, and being able to tell your story is the reason interviewers tend to ask those awkward questions, such as: “Tell us a little about yourself.” Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson explained how to use narration to win over an employer in her top interview tip entitled, “Tell Your Story” (21 June, 2012). She suggests that job applicants:
• “Consider the stand-out memories and events that shaped you. Organize your thoughts by time periods and/or where you were employed.
• Find the meaningful moment that will make an impression. It could be anecdote about a favorite teacher who influenced you or family member who set you on your path.
• Answer these questions: How did you decide on this career? Who encouraged you professionally? Did any of your experiences help develop your skill set? What motivated you to get here? What motivates you now?
• Is there a common theme in your life/work summary? Some people have always wanted to work in healthcare because they enjoy caring for those in need. If you have a thread that links your story, flesh it out.” (21 June, 2012)
The overall goal is to sincerely share with your prospective employer in your cover letter and interview the story of who you are and how you came to arrive at your career choice. Quintessential Careers provides a lot of useful examples on how to effectively use narration during the job application process.
Even after you obtain your new position, narration will be a helpful skill to possess. There will be situations in many professions where you may need to:
• present on a topic internally or externally with the goal of getting co-workers or potential clients to understand or buy into a new project, product, or idea.
• market a product or service.
• listen to the needs of those you serve or work with (e.g., as a nurse helping a patient. )
• connect with listeners even if something seemingly unrelated like engineering specifications are being shared.
• keep records that tell, provide information, and document the story of your business (e.g., a non-profit).
• complete performance evaluations for those you supervise or even your own self-evaluation in which you tell the story of your accomplishments during the review period.
• lead a team to achieve its goals.
There are many other ways narration can be necessary and valuable in your career, and many of those writing techniques learned in your composition course can help you make full use of storytelling.
Because narration is so vital to your success, you should pay close attention to the tips and techniques provided in your freshman composition course. Here are some of the most important tips to remember:
• Be sincere and honest. Most job-related contexts require a true story; other contexts will allow a representative story (e.g., “Our typical customer comes into the store…”).
• Consider how to tell the story in terms of narrator. Do you want to use the first-person and give your first-hand account of what happened to you? Would it be preferable to share a story provided by someone else like a client using the third-person?
• Choose details carefully. For instance, when a potential employer asks you to tell a bit about yourself in an interview, focus on a summation of your professional journey and how it led you to the climatic application for the position. Leave out irrelevant details, such as how many pets you own.
• Involve the five senses as often as may be reasonable. For instance, share not only the events of your journey, but where applicable how certain stages made you feel and the sights, sounds, even smells or tastes you noticed that will help your story come alive for your audience.
• Maintain a good pace and series of actions or events so that your listeners or readers are transported with you as you share your story.
• Take advantage of precise diction that evokes images in your audience’s minds.
• Use suspense, irony, and foreshadowing to keep your listeners interested.
There are many excellent resources available on narration, but I think one of the best ways to learn how to apply this to starting and advancing your own career is to study others. What techniques do public figures use on talk shows, for instance, to get and hold an audience’s interest as they promote their latest project?
Overall, there is a reason college students are required to take some of those core required courses, and narration is one example of how valuable general education requirements truly are.
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