Big Lessons Learned: Your Story Rules with Justin Sternberg

It is one thing to be able to speak well about your accomplishments, but do you know how to turn your career journey into an engaging narrative that will captivate an audience? Storytelling might seem like a skill unrelated to your career, but it can play a major role in negotiating, landing a new role, and plenty of other self-advocacy scenarios. Not to mention, a solid story can be a great tool for building your personal brand around the office.

Justin Sternberg, Hollywood TV writer and storytelling strategist, is an expert in not only crafting engaging stories, but in marketing them for opportunities. To help our community begin reframing their experiences for an audience (aka a stakeholder or colleague), Justin dropped by The Forem for a crash course in storytelling. Here are three key takeaways.

  1. Stories transport people (to an especially generous place).

Odds are, most of us would much rather hear an engaging story instead of listening to someone list off the successes they accrued throughout their career. You might be thinking: If I tell them in chronological order…then what’s the difference? Chemicals.

When a story is well formulated (i.e., it keeps our attention and/or appeals to our senses), it triggers a phenomenon called “transportation” wherein our brain begins to simulate the emotions we hear. This results in high levels of oxytocin being released from the brain, which makes people more trustworthy, generous, and compassionate. In other words, if constructed correctly, a story can engage others to see from your point of view.

Given that relationship building is at the core of nearly every career opportunity — whether through networking, stakeholder alignment, etc. — being able to organically evoke empathy in others is a skill worth honing.

2. Keep raising the stakes.

In Justin’s words, “not all interesting stories are engaging stories.” Meaning: just because you can string together your life’s events and gather an audience, you aren’t guaranteed an ROI.

Every good story has pivotal moments and “unknowns” that keep the listener tuned in. From Justin’s experience, amplifying these moments across a transformational timeline (i.e., this is who I was, and because of this moment and this struggle, this is who I am now), is pivotal to ensuring you keep listeners on board from beginning to end. Put plainly: don’t give away too much too soon.

This formulaic approach is the difference between simply relaying information about yourself and telling a story where you are the main character. If you aren’t sure if your story will pack a punch, first identify what you want that punch to be. Do you want your audience to be convinced you are adept at a certain skill? Do you want to motivate them to take a specific action?

Pinpoint your CTA first, then work backwards to determine what details you should and should not include to carry your narrative up to that point.

3. Speak your truth (don’t write it).

Though vocalizing your journey might be a little intimidating at first, doing so yields far more results than sending an email or elaborating on LinkedIn. Hearing a narrative elicits a powerful brain response (re: #1) compared to the minimal influence yielded from reading. Hence: crying at movies is much more common than tearing up over a novel.

It’ll take some trial and error to get your delivery down, but the more you feel comfortable speaking about your journey, the easier it will be to leverage for opportunities and to bolster your personal brand.

As a start, pick a defining moment in your life and brainstorm how that may have influenced your career successes up to this point. Connect with a trusted colleague and practice sharing that journey to gauge if and how your CTA resonates. Oftentimes new personal insights float to the surface when we talk things through, and you might be surprised by the feedback you receive!