Stories work. In MBA admissions, investor pitches, in business school classrooms, and on TED. If you want to stand out in front of a bored admissions reader, you need to engage her. You probably already know this, because storytelling as a meme has been in vogue for the last several years. Even a look at the august Harvard Business Review offers 14 case studies and 22 articles, going back to 2003, with titles like, “Moving from Strategic Planning to Storytelling.”
But remember, unless you’ve got the full attention of your audience (not so easy), your story can’t be much longer than an elevator pitch. That means you’ve got to make it tight. You need to control the amount of information you give out to get to your point. JD Schramm, professor of strategic communications at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, gets right to the point: “think carefully about how much detail to include; not too much and not too little.”
When writing stories, though, it’s ok to start with a bigger story and cut it down to the equivalent of a poem or haiku. That’s the beauty of iterative drafts. I’ve seen lots of essay brainstorms start out with, “she said this, I did that, this happened, then we did this…” And over time, the essence of the story not only engages the reader, but makes her want to know more about you.
Here is a how-to guide a few handy rules to get you started picking good stories for your essays and interviews:
Make sure your story has a challenge
A story without a challenge is not a story. Imagine Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader, or Dorothy without the wicked witch, or team USA vs. Russia. Good stories have a challenge. That’s what keeps people interested. Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing, also at the Stanford GSB, says that a story has to show some vulnerability to be believable. She says, “Hone in on your protagonist’s problems or barriers to achieving her goal. What is standing in her way? By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend authenticity to the story.”
Set It Up and Explain the HOW
Almost every success (or failure) in your career history can be turned into a story. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Take a bullet point from your resume
- Identify challenge: Overhaul a sales memo for an important financial deal in a short period of time.
- Demonstrate tangible results: Made target company attractive to bidders and your client happy
Step 2: Explore HOW you arrived at results
- Took the time to figure out a plan (skills: ability to strategize, think through a problem)
- Pulled in colleagues to help – for example, other analysts to run numbers or create charts and visuals. You may have cajoled, offered pizza, or traded tasks. (skills: teamwork, influence, follow-through)
- Was able to translate to the document what senior partners needed in the sales memo (skills: managing up, anticipating requirements)
Like with most challenges, you probably had a twist that made the story even more interesting. For example, the stock market crashed/a tsunami hit/a subcontractor went bankrupt. You and your team stayed focused and arrived at the result needed.
As you go through the exercise, remember to keep yourself humble and simpatico– keep in mind that your reader is looking for self-awareness, where you acknowledge your own doubts and foibles. Keep it real, keep it down-to-earth; and you will absolutely win the hearts and minds of your readers.
Your stories don’t have to all have Hollywood endings. In fact, some of the best stories have ambivalent endings, because, that’s life. But you always, always learned something. I remember a workshop I took ages ago where the motto was, “You can’t learn less.”
And the real issue in essay-writing/storytelling is to reflect on what you learned. Business schools don’t need for you to be just a raconteur, but a thoughtful, reflective leader, who can engage the audience. And show some personal growth as well.