Telling your story

So you’re heading to a networking event, and you want to have some stories at the ready to tell about yourself.

In her storytelling for business workshops, Jessica Piscitelli Robinson of Better Said Than done teaches that you can have four kinds of business story:

  • a story about you
  • a story about your client
  • a story about your client’s customer
  • or a story about your non-client

This last category is a story about someone who could have used your expertise, but they did not, either because they didn’t know about you, or chose not to engage you. Jessica is a videographer and she can tell a non-client story about some wonderfully emotional toasts (and reactions to them) that might have been but were never captured for posterity.  I find the story of the non-client to be one that is particularly useful in networking when you are trying to motivate someone to hire you!

But I say to come up with an example of as many of these as you can (not all kinds of work lend themselves to having customers of clients).  Write them out.  And then sit back and listen to them like a linguist.

What do I mean by this?  Some thoughts

First and foremost: Show don’t tell!
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?

I advocate for beginning 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.

Be specific, but not too specific!

As I build out the details of these moments, I 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 mine alone and ceases to be relateable. You want your listener to be able to put themselves into your shoes. 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 chose to project themselves into that moment either as the interviewer or interviewee, and can experience it through their own emotional lens.

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, empassioned. And don’t do what you wouldn’t want them to do: reveal you as inconsistent, portray you as unduly impacted by forces outside my 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.


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?

How linguists listen

One of the best things about how we are trained is that we listen differently.  To help capture this, I have written a haiku (sort of).  There may be a syllable off here or there, but you get the idea.

Linguists listen to:

what was said, and wasn’t
what you coulda said but didn’t
and why that matters



Hope you enjoy!  And if you try to use this, let me know all about it!!

This I know for sure (about jobsearching)!

This process is hard work.
But Lx is hard. You did not choose to study linguistics because you thought it was going to be easy, you came here because you felt called to challenge yourself. The good news is that the job search process is going to continue to present you with plenty such challenges. ☺

This process is anxiety-provoking
But just as sure as I am about that, I am equally certain that it is not going to be talking from an anxious place that gets you the job. Practice doing the following:

• Talking optimistically
You may not feel optimistic, but what would you sound like if you were? Fake it till you make it. You probably don’t realize it, but your intereviewer is probably at least if not more anxious than you are. One of the best ways to reassure them is to…..

• Talk from the POV of the employer
Talk in a way that demonstrates that you understand what their needs are as an organization. You are writing to them (interviewing with them, etc.) because you recognize that you can give them something that they really need. ShOW them by giving some examples of you in action (pocket examples)

• Talk Your Passion
Distract yourself from your own nerves by sharing something that you are passionate about (a cause, a theory, a result, an application that you see). If at all possible, while you are talking, take the opportunity to plant a visual image, and make it a good one (of you taking charge, of you solving a problem, of you recognizing the need for a linguist, etc.). They may not know why it is that they remember you, but they will likely remember you!

Spending time on Linked-In is the very best thing that I can recommend to you
LinkedIn is a great place to practice talking the three ways above. It is also a place to educate yourself about careers. It is a place to actively network, and it is the place that people are looking to find you. It returns one of the most highly for google, Moreso than google+, Facebook,,

Concretize it. I ask that you give me 15 minutes a day for your jobsearch. If you do this for 3 weeks , tell me that you don’t already begin to feel the power of your network. I can guarantee that you will have developed better ways of talking about yourself, a greater awareness of the people who you already know who are RIGHT NOW in a position to help you, and that you will have a more contret picture of where it is that you are heading, whih is the best way to get somewhere!

Throwback Thursday: Getting distance on yourself

I originally posted about getting distance on yourself a few months ago, but as I am thinking and writing about job interviews this morning (perhaps inspired by INALJ’s recent post about interviews?), this topic seems as relevant as ever!!!

Seeing yourself as others see you is so very challenging to do, yet so very crucial in searching for a job.  Job searching is really just a string of texts (or highly textualized moments of interaction): From the inquiry e-mail to the resume, to the job interview, then the thank-you note, and on through the negotiation process.  Through this series of texts and interactions that you are run through as jobseeker, you really have no choice but to look at yourself as others see you, but having the ability to step back and achieve distance on your language is invaluable!

As linguists, we focus on language AND we know lots of linguists as friends who do so as well, so we can ask for help with talking about ourselves as if the person speaking and the person being spoken about are not one and the same.   Goffman’s production format might be particularly useful here: we are endeavoring to author and animate something about which we are the principal (we believe strongly that we are a good fit for the organization), but we are trying to speak as though we are not the figure in the story world.  And crucially, we are looking for assistance with identifying aspects of authorship or animatorship in our professional self-presentation that might be getting in the way of our effectiveness.   That doesn’t mean that it won’t be painful, but because of it’s importance, I argue that it is a productive use of some of our precious energy in the job searching process!

Which is why I love to use storytelling as a way of thinking about the process of professional self-presentation.  In storytelling, we cultivate a practice of looking at our stories with distance.  We tell true stories but we know that we are packaging them for consumption by an audience and that we will have to do some work to help our audience understand who we are and what we are trying to say.  The story is about the figure in the story world.   But the performance of the story is all about the author and the animator.    When you think about a resume as a story, you start to think about the agency that you have in telling it.  …and maybe, just maybe…. the fun that you can have doing so as well  🙂

Part of the fun is that you get to choose what aspects of identity that you want to highlight / others that you may not. The choice to say one thing is a choice to NOT say something else.  The choice to say it one way is a choice to NOT say it another.  Even silence carries meaning here!  As we all well know, we make these choices every time that we talk, but the need for clarity of focus is especially true in high stakes interactions like a cover letter or a job interview.

An irony in job searching (at least as I have sometimes experienced it) is that I  get offers when I do not want the job.  But of course received wisdom is that the way to get a job is to show enthusiasm for the job.   So how to reconcile this?

I want to suggest that this is the same apparent contradiction that we encounter in storytelling about rehearsing.  When you rehearse only a bit, the story sounds stilted and rough and it also loses its spontaneity.  If you were to hear the story at this stage, your advice might be “don’t rehearse!!  better to sound a bit unpolished than to sound stilted and stiff!”  However, as a storyteller, when you push through this awkward phase and continue rehearsing, you actually break through to the other side where the story has been rehearsed to the point of KNOWING/OWNING.  With distance, you can now appreciate it differently as a performer and the telling starts to sound fresh again.

So maybe what this means is that when we show up for a job that we DON’T want, it is the lack of immediacy and the achieved distance on yourself that the employer can hear and is attracted to.  There might also be the happy bonus of not sounding nervous.  With more practice, maybe we can talk in ways that achieve the same distance for jobs that we really do want.

Focus on cultivating your inner animator and tell that story about that figure in that story world!  Whether you believe it or not in the moment, talk like you know that you are the thing that this organization is looking for.  Whether you feel it or not, speak in ways that communicate enthusiasm, and finally without presumption or arrogance, talk like you already see yourself in the job.   Obviously you don’t want to come off as obnoxious here, so here is a place to really practice, but what would it sound like if you were picturing yourself in the job?   Help the employer picture you working in the organization by using storytelling to plant visual images of yourself working there!

 ….and let me know how it goes!

TMAY in everyday life

In the course that I teach, the MLC Professionalization seminar (Prosem), we practice professional self-presentation by focusing on genres like the elevator pitch and the Tell Me About Yourself (TMAY) question in job interviews.   But opportunities to talk about yourself are not limited to the job search context.  In the classroom, you are often called upon to talk about yourself and your interests when there is a new instructor, at work when new teams are introducing themselves or at an association meeting or a conference, you will often hear  “why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves?”

What would it mean to be ready for this moment?

Go first!

If the situation allows for it, see whether you can talk first.  Often what happens is that the rest of the group subconsciously patterns their responses on the model established by the first participant to this interaction (topics addressed, key, length of turn at talk).  If you are the first one to go, you can set the frame, and if you are not, you can break it.  You actually often hear this done anyways, for example if everyone is talking about the sports teams that they support, you may hear a person contributing their turn by saying “well, I don’t really follow sports, but…” they have attended to the discourse slot and will likely find something that might be appropriately comparable to slot in there.


Length of time

Groups often come to have a shared understanding of how long one talks about oneself in such occasions.  In the business school classroom context, where I do research, this turn is significantly longer than in the Linguistics classroom – about 30-40 seconds on average to 10-20.  Just imagine what you could do with that lost time!  Plant the seed about a collaborative research idea, communicate to someone that you share an interest (like music or cooking or travel).  You really never know who you are talking to and who they are connected to.  Could be that this person is 2 degrees from a potential employer or client or new friend.


If you are a woman, chances are that your turn of talk in this context will tend to be shorter than that of your male counterparts.  Consider whether you might try to “take up more room” conversationally, perhaps by telling a narrative.


Tell a story

Narratives tend to take a little bit longer, and provided that you are telling a story that paints you well, this is an excellent way to teach people about you or about something that you care about.  I am of the opinion that a good story always teaches something and also gives insight into your unique way of seeing the world.  A compelling story doesn’t even call the awareness of the listener to having done either.


A recent example was a visitor to our Prosem class who told us about how he got a job at a concert.  Out on the town at a musical event, he ran into a former boss who happened to be looking to hire someone, and when she saw him, her brain made the connection, and he was happily in the right place at the right time to be lucky!  When he told this story to our class, he spent a bit of time talking about the kind of music that was featured at this conference, a style of music that most of us were unfamiliar with.  His enthusiasm was contagious and his passion for the topic endeared us to him.  One of the best ways to connect to your audience is just to let them see what you care about – they can connect to you as a person, which is what networking is all about, really!


What do you care about?   Start collecting and building some small stories that you can pull out as your personal pocket examples!  Share them with us here or on Twitter or on LinkedIn, or…or…or….J


Knowledge about careers is distributed

When it comes to doing an academic research projects, students understand that finding good sources is in fact part of the research process. And it is understood that it will take a significant amount of time to find sources, narrow down the scope etc.  However, somehow when faced with the prospect of searching for a job, there seems to be an assumption that everything is going to be different somehow.  There seems to be an assumption that there exists one centralized source for information.  Just to be clear: there is no one website or list out there containing all of jobs for linguists.


Building your list will take time

In the way that the first few searches that you return when you are doing a literature search will likely not be as fruitful as those after you have found your keywords, approach the jobsearch process with the understanding that it is a process. Here also, you are looking for keywords, the right sources of information, the right events to attend, the right people to talk to. Even if the first few networking events you attend may seem to be a total waste of your time, rest assured that they are not.


These experiences will help you!


To better identify and recognize sources of information

So, the next time you are in front of a person who is a source of information, you will not take them for granted.  You might ask them to LinkIn with you, you might take notes when they talk…..


To ask the right questions

When you talk to people who are really “plugged in”ask them what their sources of information, how it is that they learn about the events that they go to.   If they were to advertise a job, where they might post it, if they go to conferences, which they might recommend to you!


And I am working on a list that I call Linguist-Friendly Organizations

This is not THE list, it is just A list of some of the organizations that have come across my radar screen.  If you know about organizations that hire linguists, please send them on to me!

Does LinkedIn have a perception problem?

If you are not currently on LinkedIn, you probably have some reasons why.  But if you are currently jobseeking or even just trying to educate yourself about careers, these reasons really need to be reexamined.  As I explore some of the more common ones that I have heard, you will have to let me know whether these resonate for you:


I get all these spammy messages from LinkedIn!

The settings on LinkedIn are such that when new users join the site for the first time (and exactly when they have absolutely no idea what they are doing), they are immediately prompted to invite their entire address book to join.  This prompt (at least when I joined) comes before you have even really gotten in to create your profile, and it feels like a barrier to entry, so some people just click “yes,” assuming that they have to do so in order to get “in,” Unfortunately, what then happens, the person often does not realize what they have done and then a friend will ask “did you invite me to join LinkedIn?” and then both parties feel violated by the site.   If this has been your experience, I would ask you to – just for now – ignore all of those requests to join, just get in yourself to start experiencing the power for yourself before you dismiss it too quickly.  ….and when you get to that initial prompt to invite your address book, do like Nancy Regan told you to do and “just say no.”


Isn’t LinkedIn just Facebook for grownups?

This is of course patently false, but if you have this conception, I can see how it would be a significant barrier to entry.  When you get to the point when you are ready to move on from Facebook, why on earth would you want to move into the “grown-up” read: dull version!  LinkedIn is only superficially like Facebook in that it has a newsfeed feature and some buttons that mirror “like” and “comment” and “status updates.”  But the entire ethos of the site is different.  Speaking of which….


I don’t know what LinkedIn is supposed to be FOR!

LinkedIn is not some job board site where you upload your resume and wait.  Getting your information into LinkedIn is only the very beginning.  You get that in there so that you can begin DOING THINGS like researching, and reaching out, and recommending, and referring, and also lots of other things that don’t even begin with “R”!  🙂  LinkedIn is about finding your community, the people who are doing what you are doing, or what you would like to be doing, or what you would love to be doing.  It is a place to educate and empower yourself, to think about yourself and the people in your life differently.  Someone who has spent time on this site will engage with people that they meet differently.  People become resources, allies, and they present opportunities to pay it forward.


Don’t you have to pay for the site?



But LinkedIn is too “business-ey”!

…and I think part of this perception might come from the frequent requests to try “jobseeker premium,” the paid subscription features.   It is true that the way the site prompts you to build your profile feels quite constraining, and especially for someone who is entrepreneurial or creative, it may feel challenging to think about how to best capture who you are and what you are looking for.  To this, I would say three things:

  • It is not all about you.  LinkedIn is as much about finding people, groups, and opportunities as it is about presenting every nuance of who you are.  At least to begin with.
  • Find ways to be creative.  There are people in the platform who have found very creative ways to talk about who they are and what they do.  Upload a video!  Use your initial engagement with the site to see how others have captured more of who they are!
  • LinkedIn needs to change.  And it does constantly change and there is every reason to believe that it will continue to change.  Past performance tells us that the site will adapt to the needs of its users, and this is one way in which the world of work is rapidly changing, jobs are coming to be structured differently.  More and more of us are doing a variety of activities: consulting, writing, participating in community organizations, etc.  That all come together into a professional life.

I have a friend who is a brilliant stand-up comedian, but his LinkedIn site only shows his temp day jobs.  90% of his professional personality is muted because he seems to feel constrained by the site and what he can share.  But LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman is a model for how to capture a professional life that is multi-faceted.  He currently has 10 things listed under “Experience” as his “current” job!     Express yourself!  I think you will find that people respond to you differently.  I started hearing from entirely different pieces of my network when I included information about my storytelling on my LinkedIn profile!

LinkedIn gives a jobseeker something to do, if for nothing else, just to take stock of your current network.  I had a soon-to-graduate student meet with me this week who expressed that she had no idea how to begin educating herself about careers.  When I plugged in her very first keyword into my LinkedIn,  come to find out that several people she already knows well were gainfully  employed and very actively engaged in the work that she wanted to know more about.  Being focused on school can sometimes make us put blinders on about careers.  I am asking for even just an hour a week on this site to start to shift that.

LinkedIn is the single best way that I know to help enact the subtle changes in thinking that move someone from passively to actively jobseeking.  Some come on IN!

Ever heard any of these myths about PhDs in the workplace?

I have – these were very much the belief of the hiring manager in the Dept where I worked in my first career in the financial industry.  I heard these myths before I had a graduate degree, and they did not ring true, and of course, they feel even more alien now – but they still proliferate.

Join the movement by busting these myths when you hear them!



Asking for what you don’t want

A strategy that I have become very aware of lately in professional self-presentation is that of telling an interlocutor who you are and what you want by way of talking about what you don’t (or something that you didn’t like, or were told you couldn’t have). A recent example was a student beginning a statement of purpose to a graduate program in which the student explained their decision to apply to this particular program and degree as the result of a series of conversations in which they were told why a different degree and school (the one this student really wanted) was not actually the right fit.

I deeply understand this strategy of telling us who you are by showing us who you are not.  It feels very close to lived experience, and it has, until I became aware of it, been a big part of my ways of talking about myself. For example, until I started becoming aware of this, when asked about why I became a linguist, I would often talk about a series of conversations I had with professors who told me for various reasons that I should not pursue gradate study in linguistics: that it was a dying field, that there were no jobs, that graduate study would kill my joy in the subject matter. I would talk about these interactions as a way of showing my perserverence, but I recognize now that it can smack of bitterness, or worse, leave my audience with a sense of concern about the field, or about me and my qualifications. The opportunity to talk about yourself is an opportunity to teach: about your field, about yourself, about your passion. You want your enthusiasm and confidence to be unambiguosly contagious!

And I have heard this strategy lately in spoken genres like the response to “tell me about yourself” or in “pocket examples” used in networking events, but it also proliferates in textual genres such as cover letters.

But let’s think about this strategy from a cross-cultural communication perspective for just a moment:

From the perspective of the speaker:
In my case, to talk about why I pursued a field that I had been advised against is to show my interlocutor that I have true commitment, perserverence. I have heard students use this strategy when talking about finding a passion for a subject matter even when the professor was a dud or a re-dedication to linguistic research after working in a job that was soul-crushing. The strategy is intended to show the speaker’s passion, commitment, and sense of calling. However….

From the perspective of the hearer:

This can sound like complaining! Talking about what you hated about a past job as a way of talking about what you will do differently in a current search or next job is a precarious strategy. It can leave your interlocutor with an image of you suffering at work (think Lakoff’s “don’t think of an elephant!” example). Your audience is left with a powerful image, but not the one that you really want them to walk away with.

Plant an image
Readers of this blog know well the power of narrative to create a memorable image of yourself in the mind of members of your network. So given this opportunity, plant an image that is positive. Don’t waste precious time talking about what you don’t love, SHOW yourself experiencing something that you do!

Ask for feedback

Have this aspect of professional self-presentation be something that you are having trusted advisers listening for on your behalf.  And remember that advisers like your parents, your partners, friends and family may not always be able to be brutally honest with you, but it can help to have there be a specific focus – like “how often do you hear me talking about what I don’t want?”  And this may also be a time to engage the help of communications experts (fellow linguists?)


Casey Scott-Songin

Career Profile: Consumer Research

The Career Profiles in Linguistics section regularly highlights career paths taken by linguists. If you would like to recommend someone (including yourself) for a future profile, please contact Career Linguist.

This afternoon, I had the very great privilege of chatting with Casey Scott-Songin of Sapient-Nitro, a Marketing and Branding agency. I met Casey at the Career Expo at the American Anthropology Association meetings last month in Chicago, and because she shares my belief in the power of pay-it-forward networking, she agreed to have a chat with me this week while she is home for Christmas vacation.

Sapient is a huge organization with over 11,000 employees and offices worldwide (Casey works in the Toronto office), and Sapient Nitro a division that focuses on “telling stories in new and unexpected ways across brand communications.” In their words: StoryscapingSM is how we help our clients create experiences and tell their story in ever-present and never ending ways by marrying imagination with systems thinking. Learn more about Storyscaping here and clients that they have worked with here.

Casey brings a background in Anthropology to her work (she studied at the University of Toronto), which means that she has a keen eye for observation, and a good ear for awareness of the ways that clients are communicating. As she explained to me “its all about getting the best data possible!” and as for the skill that a would-be researcher could bring to Sapient-Nitro: Flexibility.

I heard the truth of this over the course of our conversation, as she described no fewer than six methodologies that she draws from regularly including: usability testing (out in the field, in-store interviews, have consumers use technologies in the store), market research, persona development (who customer is, person that you relate to), participant observation (to figure out who ideal customer is), customer journeys (steps that someone go through when trying to purchase a product like a Christmas tree, what are the variables), shop-alongs, interviews (remote, in person, in home interviews), surveys, and social media analysis.

Her elevator pitch: “I work with companies to solve specific problems”

So, for example, in a recent usability testing project, Casey was working with a client who had developed a gift registry website. She interviewed users as they worked through the site, which had three sections: create, manage, and find registry, but when it came to wanting to make changes, what she heard users saying was “I just want to be able to edit.” Users were looking for a section called “edit” not “manage,” so this insight can be passed on to the client. Another insight: for the baby registry, have a chair for the mothers to sit in if you expect them to stay in the store for to hours to set this up. From the client’s perspective this is good business, because it will encourage her to stay longer / spend more. From Casey’s perspective it is a way to attend to people and their needs, to make their lives better, even in a small way.

In walking me through a typical project, Casey shared some great ideas for people who want to break into the world of consumer research. Most projects begin with secondary research. Firms like Forrester, Mintel, and Data Monitor do research and put out reports that marketers and researchers use, noting industry trends, and, analytics modeling. In sifting through these sources to get up to speed on a new client’s needs, Casey’s job is to find the right report and then summarize, to inform the primary research that her team will conduct. Students who are interested in getting into research as a profession may be interested in looking into working at one of these secondary research firms. Over the course of a project, Casey comes to work closely with her counterpart at the client: companies like Target who have extensive research departments. Often, over the course of a career, researchers might work first in an agency to cultivate a broad expertise and then when they have found a sector that they particularly enjoy and might want to specialize in, they might move over to be in-house research.

Her words of advice: in taking on this work, remember that you will not be doing research for other researchers (as you might be used to from working with colleagues in graduate school). When you interact with the client, you are the expert, but to cultivate trust and comfort with your position of expertise, you must be able to communicate why you take the approach that you do, why it is the best way to get at what the client wants (this also means that you need to be listening attentively to the client when she tells you what she wants). Luckily for you, dear reader, attentive listening, expertise in communication, and an expectation for misunderstanding come with the linguists’ toolkit.

Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing, Naming, Tech, User Experience Research.