An inciting incident is a common storytelling term, you learn it on the first day in a screenwriting class. If you have not studied film and theatre, you may see stories as things that have a beginning, middle, and end. Becoming familiar with the inciting incident could help your career story. 

Ask anyone who has done work on their personal brand in the last year to introduce themselves, and you‘ll likely hear.

“I help x to do x.”

Mine is, “I help people use their stories to land ideal work, and if they don’t know what kind of work, I help with that too.” (If you don’t have this yet, no worries, read this blog post to learn how to make one).

A networking introduction is a great tool to have, but only for limited settings. This type of introduction works when you meet people for the first time. You want to know what to say next, and how to keep them interested if they ask, “How did you get into this line of work?” You can keep them interested by telling them a story that includes your career’s inciting incident. 

Your networking introduction is the exposition of your story 

In terms of a story arc, your networking introduction is the exposition part. It explains who you are and what you do. It sets the scene. I love the way Betsy Warland says we need to locate the reader. Exposition helps the person who is meeting you to understand:

  • what you do
  • how long you’ve done it
  • how you do it
  • how it benefits a company, client, or the world

Your introduction whether it is your headline on LinkedIn, your resume profile, or in-person is all exposition. It grounds the person in what you do now.  Visually, exposition is the start of a story, or point 1 in Jack Hart’s story arc. 

The next part of the story is the inciting incident. This is shown on Jack’s chart as the little line in exposition. For this article, I’m not assuming you’re developing a full story with a crisis or climax — you can — but all you need next for the purpose of using stories for career development is to know where you’re starting the career story.

What is an inciting incident?

The inciting incident is the event that happened to you that caused an action, and hopefully a change. Dara Marks explains is like this, “the inciting incident simply instigates the beginning of a chain of events that must eventually pull the protagonist into the story and call him or her to action.” (Marks, 192). 

In your career stories, you are the protagonist, the one who has things done to them and takes action. Without change or action, you aren’t telling a story. 

In career branding, it is easy to focus on what you are now. But, it makes you less memorable. You can’t be perfect at the beginning of your story because it lessens the interest of the person hearing your story.

How does an inciting incident improve your career story?

An inciting incident will improve your story by making it interesting. You give the person listening or reading you a chance to not know, but also want to know more. An inciting incident, as explained by John Yorke is, “ an invitation to begin the journey. They say to the protagonist: ‘This is your goal.’” (84). 

If your career story is told in pure exposition, you are not going to hook or leave a lasting impression on your reader or listener. Plus, it’s not nearly as fun to state a bunch of facts, when tweaking a few lines makes it a joy to tell. It moves your story from being didactic to moving forward — this is where we can have fun. I like the advice of Charles Dickens: “Make them laugh. Make them cry. But, most of all, make them wait,” 

The human brain loves stories, particularly when there is a change. 

Researchers from the University of Vermont analyzed 1,700 studies using data-mining techniques. Through sentiment analysis that categorized words with a positive or negative emotional impact, they found a clear pattern of high then low repeated over and over. The human brain is wired to focus on anything that changes. (Friction)

Changing up the tone of the story to get someone interested in what happened next, and the choice you made, draws them in. You bring attention to where you want it. 

There are several inciting incidents

We both know you didn’t end up in your career situation because of one incident. 

If you were to draw a line to represent your career and mark the significant moments, you’ll have more than one inciting incident. When you use stories to help people understand you and gain their interest, you need to strategically focus the story for them. You choose which incident will help people to know and understand you. You build a narrative around your choice.  

Here are four significant incidents that happened in my career:

career stories line

Depending on my audience and what I’m trying to get across, I’ll select a different inciting incident.

Say I wanted to show that I have been helping people figure out their stories for a long time. I’ll choose the 2003 story about a time I was teaching an acting class and a student, a senior manager said,


“Taking this acting class has helped me understand myself better, but also how I express myself at work. I got a promotion and the only thing that has changed is how you taught me to be aware of myself,”

I would add to the story that I knew for years that story and drama were effective in helping people grow their careers. Then I can explain the steps I took to specialize in this work.

When I shared my story in my TedX talk, I started it with the time I realized I was crying about money too much and needed to take new action.

In both of these examples, I share the inciting incident and got the listener/reader interested in what I did next. You can be strategic about which one you choose.

How to find your inciting incident

Get a piece of paper and draw a line. Think about the significant moments in your career that caused you to rethink things or take a new direction. They may be small like a side comment made by a stranger. Or they might be big, like a time you lost your job or got a graduate degree. Write them all down. 

When you’re done, look at them and choose the one that you think will be the most fun to tell and will engage your audience.

A quick tip: if you are a junior and trying to grow your career brand, stick with recent jobs instead of telling university stories. If you’re a CEO and want to appear more approachable, your inciting incident could come from your first job, something like:



I’ve been a CFO for the past 15 years, with a specialty in helping creative start-ups grow and become profitable. I like to say I help make people’s dreams come true. 


How did you get into that?



My first job was a small auto shop near my house, my cousin owned it. One afternoon he said, “I don’t think I can afford to keep you.” It didn’t make sense to me, we were always fully booked. So, I said, “Give me a week to find a way to make this place more profitable and if I can’t, I’ll leave.” After a week, I identified 5 quick ways he could make more money, soon I became the accountant and ended leaving to go study finance. Some people are good at ideas, some people are good at making sure those ideas earn them money. 


What to do with your inciting incident

Once you have chosen an inciting incident, practice saying it so that when you need to say it, you’re ready. I’m also a big fan of getting mileage from the same story. So, after you know the networking version of the story. Look for other places you could use this. 

  • Would it work in your LinkedIn profile?
  • Or would another inciting incident be better?
  • Could this be a post or video? 

It’s worth reviewing where you are and how you start your story every year or so.  If stories get remembered better than anything, you want to make sure you’re telling the right one.