How to Tell a Story That Will Deeply Impact Your Career


bird soaring (image edited by Kevin V. Zhou (Kevin Victor Zhou))

One of my earliest memories as a child was looking out through the window of my family’s second story apartment and watching birds take-off from the window ledge. I was fascinated by how they could seemingly defy gravity by simply flapping their wings. I was disappointed that humans couldn’t do the same. We don’t have wings, but we do have big brains that allow us to create technologies to overcome our limitations. My desire to help the human species overcome its limitations led me to become an engineer. I worked in the aerospace industry and contributed to projects such as the Boeing 787 and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. I learned a great deal while working in big companies, but the corporate bureaucracy was stifling, and I felt like a caged bird. Wanting to work in an environment where innovation is embraced with open arms, I enrolled in the Startup Institute. I want to help new companies overcome their limitations and soar above the competition.

During my eighth week at the Startup Institute, this was my answer to the question “why do you want to work for a startup?” My answer during the first week was “I want to work in a company that embraces innovation and where I can directly shape future growth. I’m naturally curious and love solving problems. I’m hoping to utilize the critical thinking skills that I developed while working as an aerospace engineer.”

Most would agree that my answer from the eighth week is the better than the one from the first week. The answer from the eighth week is in story form, while the other one is a list of facts.

Facts vs. stories:

While most people believe they make decisions based on objective reasoning, scientists have discovered that humans suffer from confirmation bias — the tendency to seek out information that confirms one’s beliefs and discount opposing information. When trying to influence someone, facts alone are often not enough. From The Story Factor by Annette Simmons,

Facts are neutral until human beings add their own meaning to those facts. People make their decisions based on what the facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves. The meaning they add to facts depends on their current story. People stick with their story even when presented with facts that don’t fit. They simply interpret or discount the facts to fit their story. This is why facts are not terribly useful in influencing others. People don’t need new facts – they need a new story.

In addition, a 2006 study performed in Spain using functional MRI scans demonstrated that stories have more influence on a listener’s brain than facts alone. Hearing a list of facts only activates the language processing centers of the brain. Listening to a story can simultaneously activate multiple parts of the brain, such as the sensory cortex and motor cortex in addition to the language processing centers. Furthermore, a good story can cause the brains of the speaker and listener to synchronize. A 2010 Princeton study showed that when certain areas of the speaker’s brain activated, the corresponding parts of the listener’s brain lit up. In short, stories allow a speaker to more effectively connect with the audience and keep them engaged.

Types of stories:

Craig Wortmann, a Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, came by the Startup Institute and taught a session for the sales and account management students. He described a classification system for stories that splits them into four categories: success stories, failure stories, funny stories, and legends. Each type of story has strengths when used properly and drawbacks when overused.

Success stories

As the name implies, a success story recalls a time you prevailed. These can be powerful tools during a job interview, sales presentation, or any other situation where you need to sell yourself and/or your ideas. However, using too many success stories will make you seem like a braggart.

Failure stories

The opposite type of story, the failure story, creates an image of humility and demonstrates that you’re strong enough to show vulnerability. An extreme overuse of these stories may make you look weak, but using these stories increases trust. Professor Wortmann argues that failure stories are the strongest of the four types; over 70% of the stories that he tells in his class are of this type.

Funny stories

Funny stories lighten the mood, making it easier to win over your audience. Telling too many of these will damage your credibility and make the audience question your seriousness.


Legends encompass ancient teaching stories (“Once upon a time…”) and stories about historic figures (e.g., Martin Luther King). Legends use cultural symbols to motivate listeners to strive for lofty goals and can contain elements of the other types of stories. Legends tend to be longer, so you might not want to use them when you have limited speaking time. Also, the goals advocated by a legend can seem unrealistic and unattainable.

The moral of the story:

A good storyteller uses all four types of stories. Build a large collection of stories so that when a storytelling opportunity arises, you’ll have many to choose from.

Reflect on an experience. Write a story. Tell the story. Edit the story to emphasize important details and improve conciseness. Retell the story. Edit and repeat.

The only way to become better at storytelling is to practice. You’ll learn which stories fit your personality best and which stories your listeners find most interesting. Storytelling is a powerful tool that can make listeners hang onto your every word. Use stories to build rapport, influence others, and sell ideas. Incorporate storytelling into your conversations, your elevator pitches, interviews, and presentations, and watch your career take flight.

This article was written by Kevin V. Zhou and originally appeared on the Startup Institute blog. It was also selected to appear on Women’s iLab.

Photo credit: Hash Milhan via Flickr cc. Image enhancements by Kevin V. Zhou.


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