Leveraging the power of detail

When you are preparing a story for a networking event or an informational/ job interview, it is often useful to begin with a specific moment. Often this is a moment when you made a decision, or had a realization, or an interaction that set you on a path, that motivated a journey.

For linguists, this could be how you discovered linguistics, or the reason you decided to become a linguist. In the course of becoming a linguist, I have many such moments that I story: how I came to take my first class in linguistics, when I was advised by an adjunct not to pursue the subject it at the graduate level because there were no jobs, how I convinced my employer to pay for my MA, feeling like a kid in a candy store when I came to Georgetown to begin my PhD, my first job as a linguistic consultant, or my employment post PhD.

Come up with an example of as many of these as you can (not all kinds of work lend themselves to having customers or clients).  Write them out.  And then sit back and listen to them like a linguist.  Some questions to ask yourself:

Am I showing and not telling?
Advice that you were given by your 5th grade writing teacher no doubt, but it still holds true.   Can you find a way to show your listener that you are passionate about cross-cultural communication rather than saying it?

Am I being specific, but not too specific?

You want to provide enough details to enrich the story and show you my perspective so as to make it enjoyable, but not so many that it becomes yours alone and ceases to be relatable. You want your listener to be able to put themselves into your shoes (in this case literally as well as metaphorically). One of my favorite ways to do this as a storyteller is to choose an image to communicate an emotion, like for example instead of saying that I was nervous for a job interview and that I felt like I didn’t belong, I chose to share a detail that I was wearing shoes that I had borrowed, which were two sizes too big and had Kleenex stuffed in the toes, and I felt like my interviewer was going to be able to see right through me.  Your listener can choose to project themselves into that moment either as the interviewer or interviewee, and can experience it through their own emotional lens.

Am I attending to impression management?

In choosing among moments to share with a listener, you will make decisions about which story to tell on which occasion. Ultimately, you want to be sure to select moments that do for you what you want them to do for you: show you as smart, agentive, impassioned. And don’t do what you wouldn’t want them to do: reveal you as inconsistent, portray you as unduly impacted by forces outside your control, or as bitter or pushy or indecisive, or arrogant etc. etc. etc.

For a networking event, and when talking to people who you don’t know, err on the side of being very clearly positive and optimistic.  For example, you may be very witty, but this may come across as unnecessarily sharp or cutting on a first encounter.  Focus on moments that clearly communicate your passion: a recent project that went well, an (upcoming or recent) event that you are particularly excited about, an idea for which you are looking for a home.

Have I used the power of geography?

Put in specifics, lots of details about geography especially. People connect to places, so when you are designing a story to be used at a networking event, talk about the places where the experiences you describe took place. Generally speaking, when it comes to storytelling, you don’t always need all of the who, what, where, when, and why, but in networking, WHERE does seem to work particularly well. My advice is to mention places that you have lived, traveled, worked, gone to school.

And let me know how it went. Did these details help others connect to you and to remember you? Did they lead to a networking connection?