On Finding and Telling Your Story
A guide to the one of the greatest skills worth mastering
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Your story is your weapon. The best thing about this weapon is that nobody can ever take it away from you. It’s been yours since the day you were born and will remain yours till you breathe your last.
“Those who tell the stories rule society.” – Plato
Stories are the bedrock of society because they underline our strongest beliefs. Religion and history are built on the foundation of powerfully crafted stories. Those ancient storytellers who told stories about themselves, about others, about events, or about ideas, still wield tremendous influence in our world today because their stories rule our minds.
But the greatest story you can tell is the one about YOU.
The world is run by storytellers. It’s difficult to think of any person of significance who wasn’t backed by a powerful personal story. Barack Obama? Kwame Nkrumah? Steve Jobs? Nelson Mandela? Donald Trump…I guess?
As human beings who are naturally more emotional than rational, we are more easily compelled, convinced, and inspired by stories than anything else. That is why successful job interviews, grad school admissions, company pitches, idea presentations, and more are powered by stories.
Telling your story helps to humanise you, sell you, immortalise you, and inspire others.
In last week’s piece, I mentioned that you can win a lot just by learning how to tell your story. It may sound crazy to think that you need to learn to tell a story that is yours, considering it’s the one thing you’re the world’s #1 expert on. But the same way we have expert professors who suck at teaching, we can also have people with powerful stories who suck at telling them.
Part I: Finding your story
The first step to telling your story is knowing it. You can’t tell a story you don’t know. To know it, you have to find it. Yes, find it. Sometimes, we get so caught up with living our lives that we never really stop to notice the story that’s unravelling.
I had to find my story as I prepared for interviews and wrote application essays and personal statements for grad school. To be honest, I’m still finding my story even now. As I reflect deeper into myself and my past, I find new connections that add to my story.
More than anything else, my story has gotten me jobs at top companies and admission offers at the most prestigious universities. But finding that story wasn’t a walk in the park. It took a lot of time.
For example, it took me four whole months to craft my response to Stanford Business School’s age-old essay question: “what matters most to you, and why?”
I used to think that I found my story very serendipitously. But while reflecting on that experience in preparation for this piece, I found that I actually followed a step-by-step process. I just didn’t notice it at the time. I’ll share the steps I took.
Reflect on your present and find connections to your past
Think about who you are now—your character, your aspirations, your beliefs, your values, and your passions—and try to identify the things in your past that formed each of these parts of you. It could be something as simple as a book you read or something as grand as an unforgettable experience that affected you deeply.
Your present is always connected to your past, and your past is often the best predictor of your future. You just have to take time to find these connections and notice the trend lines in your story. To do that, journal often. It helps me a lot.
Identify the inflexion points in your life
There are pivotal points in our lives that permanently alter the direction of our lives. We often only find those points in hindsight. Those inflexion points are the ones that form the key chapters in the book of our lives. I’ve identified three kinds of inflexion points:
Peaks: these high points in our lives take us to a higher plane on which we naturally accelerate. They tend to open new doors of opportunity for us that usher us into a new, better phase of our lives. Example: graduating at the top of your class.
Troughs: these are the low points in our lives that crush our spirits and plunge us into periods of depression, failure, or conflict. Ascending from such low points weaves the fabrics of powerful stories of our own resilience. Example: losing a loved one to death or circumstance
Bends: these are those points in life where a wind of change blows against the boat of our lives and steers us onto a path that we otherwise may not have taken. Example: moving to a new country
Each of these inflexion points is not just crucial to your story; they’re at the core of it. The stories of the most famous people are built around their inflexion points.
Peak: Donald Trump started off his career with a $1 million gift from his dad
Trough: J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter when her life had hit rock bottom
Bends: Mark Zuckerberg decided to drop out of Harvard to build Facebook
Identify those inflexion points in your life, and the rest of your story will start to fall in place more easily.
Reflect on how each experience has affected and shaped you
Once you identify the key experiences from your past and the more major inflexion points, go a level deeper. Think beyond the experience itself.
Experiences themselves are really not that interesting. Everyone has them. What makes them interesting is the articulation of their significance and their impact. Similar experiences affect people differently.
What makes your story unique is how well you can articulate how your present is shaped by your past experiences. Doing that will show a degree of thoughtfulness that will almost always distinguish you from your peers.
Notice the patterns and find coherence
Coherence is the most important thing in your story. The interconnectedness of your experiences makes them believable and valuable.
The first step is identifying the individual experiences and inflexion points that form your story. The second and most important step is figuring out how each experience and inflexion point connect.
Notice how they build on each other and how some opportunities that have come your way were only possible because of some experiences you had or some key decisions you made.
Identifying this coherence is what breathes life into your story as it evolves from a patchwork of unrelated experiences to a cohesive plot of the wondrous life of an individual who is literally one in seven billion.
Part II: Telling your story
Finding your story is only the first step. Without knowing how to tell your story, you limit the power of your story. It’s like buying a house but never furnishing it.
How you tell your story often makes a lot more difference than the story itself. So you must get the storytelling part right. I’m still figuring it out myself, but from my experience so far, these are the things that have worked well for me:
Find and maintain an authentic voice
Your voice is how you express yourself through words, spoken or written. It’s how you weave your natural emotions and feelings into the experiences you’ve lived. Those are the things that make your story powerful when you tell it.
Find out what voice is authentic to you based on your personality and your typical expressiveness, and stick with that when you tell your story.
There’s a reason why when I was preparing for my interviews, the most frequent tip I got was “be yourself.” At the time, I was pissed each time I got that feedback. But in retrospect, I can see how that was truly the best advice.
When people hear your story, they want to learn about you; they want to feel what you feel. Being authentic in your voice will allow them to immerse themselves in your experience, relate better with you, and be inspired by your story.
Balance narration with reflection
When you’re telling your story, remember that you’re not writing or reading a novel. Don’t get lost in the narration and forget to highlight the reflection, which is the thing that adds substance to your story.
As you narrate your experiences, anchor them with a reflective overtone. As people listen to your story, they’re trying to figure out why it should matter to them.
It’s no surprise that one of the most popular interview frameworks, STAR (situation, task, action, and result), ends with a reflection on the result of the situation. Without the result, the situation lacks meaning. It’s the same way that, without reflection, your story lacks meaning.
Underline every experience in your story with a reflection on what it meant to you, how it affected you, and why it should matter to your audience. That’s how you tell a powerful story.
Sign off with continuity and nuance
For as long as you live, your story is continuously evolving and unravelling. Reflect this continuity in your story. Never end your story on definite terms. That makes it seem abrupt or, even worse, finished. But your story isn’t finished yet. Make sure your audience knows this.
Your story is also very unique to you. The way your story formed is grounded in the nuance of your experiences and how they uniquely affected you. This is very important to highlight as you tell your story so that you don’t paint an overly simplified or generalised story. Your ever-evolving story is YOURS.
Part III: Getting Started
The best way to start crafting your story is to try responding to questions that force you to.
My favourite one so far is the one I mentioned earlier that Stanford Business School uses in its application essays:
“What matters most to you, and why?”
This question is a lot more difficult to answer than it looks, unless you’re one of those hyper-self-aware folks who’ve always lived a life of constant introspection. But if you’re not that type, you’ll find this question very challenging.
You’ll most likely struggle to identify what most to you out of the many things that matter to you. Even when you do figure that bit out, you’ll most likely struggle even further to summarise it in one sentence.
After crossing that hurdle, you’ll then go into the more difficult challenge of figuring out why that thing matters most to you, and articulating it in a way that’s authentic and compelling at the same time.
But these struggles are necessary. They’ll give you so much clarity on yourself and your story. I went through the brutal process of trying to answer that question for four months, and I’m so much better now because of it.
Learning how to tell your story is painful but very worth it. I highly recommend.
Thank you, Nicole, for asking me to write on this topic after reading last week’s piece. Writing this week’s piece helped me a lot because I’d never actually broken down my process for finding and telling my story before now. You allowed me to do that. Thank you so much! 🖤
P.S. While procrastinating on writing this newsletter, I binge-watched a ton of graduation speeches. While doing that, I realised that those are actually a form of accelerated biographies.
Graduation speakers are people who are skilled at using their stories to inspire, educate, and compel their listeners. Listening to them could help you on your journey to find and tell your story.
Here’s out one of my favourite graduation speeches:
Currently reading 📖
The Three-Body Problem Part 1 – Cixin Liu
A song I’ve been playing on repeat this week 🎶
Heartboxing - Jimmy Nevis (so much nostalgia 🥺)
An article that got me thinking 📜
Solitude and Leadership - William Deresiewicz (this is my favourite article)
Thanks for sharing this well detailed guide to finding and telling our stories. Will definitely try to answer the question “What matters most to you, and why?” and share what I discover on my substack. Great Job 👏
When I was applying to college and reading the essays that "got in", I could tell that they stood out because (of how) they told their story. Since then, I've tried to do the same but I hadn't quite figured out how until now. Thank you so much for sharing your process! I will definitely be using this as a guide from now on.