“A story does not intoxicate or narcotize or descend and smother. It opens up a little window or a door. And the world gets in it in an intimate way.” (Moore, 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories)

Using stories to grow your career is not a new idea. But, the types of stories you use when promoting yourself have changed. You no longer need to squish your stories into the constraints of an elevator pitch. Or write a bland third-person profile. There is room and an appetite to share diverse story types. As organizations embrace “bringing your whole self to work,” there is more interest in hearing about whole selves.

I use 10 different story types when I share my ideas and work (read this article to learn them). When I work with clients, we first find their career brand and then create a plan using 10 different story types.

The first of the 10 story types is the source story. It is a story that helps people understand who you are and what you hope to do next.

A source story has three parts:

Situational grounding + your emotional reason for the change + super skills

Let’s dig into these three parts:

1. Situational Grounding

A source story is like a back story, except that instead of telling it through action (like in a play or movie), you summarize and share it yourself. This grounding lets people know what you have done in your career, and what you hope to do next.

“Good exposition provides just enough backstory to explain how the protagonist happens to be in a particular place, at a particular time, with the wants that will lead to the next phase of the story.” (Hart, Storycraft, 27)

The purpose of the source story is to ground yourself and your audience to where you’re coming from. You are never just a job title. You are the job title, and something else.

Take an accountant for example. An accountant is never only an accountant. Each accountant has a different amount of experience, a specialty, sectors they have worked in. Their goals differ too.

The situational grounding for an accountant could be any of these:

  • They worked for the government for 10 years and want to transition to a start-up
  • Worked three years in payroll, but want to move to an insurance firm to focus on investigative accounting
  • A new CPA grad, with 15 years in retail

These grounding statements don’t tell a story. They give context and the situation. In her book, The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes the difference between situation and story.

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” 

So, if you are using storytelling in your career, and I encourage you to, facts, titles, and degrees don’t make something a story. Adding in an emotional experience does.

2. Emotional Experience

An emotional experience is how you felt in the situation, usually, this is what prompts a change. This adds a layer to your story and builds connection and trust.

One warning: Often when people think of emotional experiences, they think they need to name the emotion, but a better method is to describe the emotion. So instead of, “On the last day at the office I felt sad,” you would want to describe the sad. Like this, “On the last day at the office, everything moved fast and I wanted it to slow down. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, it felt like I was holding my breath the whole time.”

Let’s try adding an emotional experience to one of the sample accountants from above.

Accountant 1: worked in government for 10 years and transitioning to start-ups

When you read this situation, what do you want to know?

I want to know (and a recruiter or hiring manager will also) why after 10 years he wants to move from government work to a start-up environment. What prompted this change?

There could be plenty of reasons. But, I want to know what experience he had that led him to decide on this move. That is the story.

Perhaps, the story is that he loved working for the government happily for 8 years leading a team and suggesting new ways to improve the process flow. But, when his department got a new Executive Director, he was asked to “stop innovating and keep the status quo.” He tried for months to “just do the job and collect the paycheque” but he couldn’t do it. It started to affect his health. He started taking sick days, it affected his sleep and didn’t feel right in his guts. He realized that his career path was going in a new direction and his innovative nature could be used elsewhere. At the same time, he was on the board of a business incubator program, and one day he met a bunch of entrepreneurs who had great ideas, but no financial systems in place. He started sharing simple ways they could track their finances, and they were grateful. He couldn’t believe how good it felt to share that knowledge. He took on a few side projects to help three start-ups create financial protocols, and every project made him feel light again. His smile returned.

With this emotional experience, the accountant’s source story now has heart and intrigue. It has change. We see him go from an innovative, but discontented civil servant, to an even happier start-up consultant. The accountant will be strategic about which parts they share — they may leave the status quo ED out — but they can talk about the joy they get from helping new start-ups. That’s the emotional experience we want to hear.

3. Super skills

The third part of a source story is a mention of your super skills. These are the three things that you excel in no matter what the job. You want to make your skills clear for the person meeting you for the first time. This is also useful for letting people who know you but don’t know your current career goals, understand your value. This is your special sauce.

The easiest way I know to find out your super skills is Step One of The Career Stories Method. The super skills are the same as your career brand. You want to mention the actual skills.

Let’s work with another accountant example.

For this example, we know they worked three years in payroll, but want to move to an insurance firm to focus on investigative accounting.

We know their situation. But, we can’t tell what they’re good at. Payroll and investigative accounting are different. When I worked with this client and they shared their stories with me during a career analysis session, I saw they were exceptional at:

  • Spotting errors and discrepancies
  • Communicating not only the error with people but the root cause and a suggested fix
  • Making work interesting for others, they helped give meaning to the work

By sharing these skills in their source story, we know exactly what we’ll get if we hire this person — they won’t let anything be missed, they’ll work to make things better, and they keep their team engaged. What a value add right? And, it adds more than just the situation. 

Adding in the super skills helps to transform the story focus from them to us.

Why you need a source story

A source story is necessary to help people understand you and what you are. In career development, it helps people to know what kind of work you’re exceptional at, how you got exceptional at it, and what you’d like to do now.

For you, it gives you focus. You don’t have to freeze up when you’re asked about your work.

A source story is not only for job seekers. It’s for every professional. A source story helps your manager, clients, employees, partners, and yourself to know your career purpose. There is no guessing. A great source story can make people fall in love with the way you work and want to be a part of whatever you’re doing — whether serving coffee or building a creative social justice design firm.

A source story makes sure we are all on the same page as you.

If you aren’t being deliberate about your source story, people will make one up for you. Or worse, assume you don’t have an interesting one. If you want to be noticed at work, speak at conferences, get involved in cooler projects, get clients excited about you, develop your source story.

A source story will help you to find the words and narrative about your own career. And, while it’s not the only story you want to use in your career stories strategy, it gets a lot of mileage.

Where to use source stories

Source stories are everywhere. They are your LinkedIn summary, your networking introduction, how you are introduced on panels and podcasts, your “Tell me about yourself” answer, your resume profile, your about page at work, they are used everywhere. Know that if you’re current source story only describes the situation (for example your job title, degrees, and years of experience) it’s not actually a story. It’s a situation. You could do better.

The limitations of a source story

The source story is a superb story type to have because you can use it in multiple places. The limitation of this story type is that while it draws people to understand your work, it’s still an overview. And, while you can use it for your LinkedIn summary and your introduction, you can’t keep posting it over and over again as content. So, you’ll want to build this one up, and then choose another story type to build credibility, interest, and delight.

How to develop your source story:

The resources:

  1. Tell me about yourself video. This video can help you figure out where to start your source story when sharing it at a networking event or job interview.
  2. Five ways to introduce yourself as a podcast or panel guest
  3. And, if you are apprehensive about showing personality on your resume. Try this article on cruddly resumes or watch this TEDx

The process:

1. Define your situational grounding

2. Explore what change and the emotions associated with it, you want to highlight (try this article on adding an inciting incident)

3. Find your career super skills (step one of my book or this course)

4. Put it all together and play with how you want to tell it

5. Once you like how it sounds/reads, look at your existing LinkedIn summary, resume profile, company about page, and see what needs to be updated

Happy story shaping.


Kerri Twigg

Career Coach | Mindfulness and Stories Training for Career Contentment

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