The Art of Your Story

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
March 30, 2009
By Alexandra Levit

Working on your `story’ is a major part of what we do together as we support you through your transition. Great article!

For some, making the decision to change careers is the easy part. It’s harder to convince others, especially potential employers, that you’re doing the right thing.

During your transition, you’ll often be asked why you’ve decided to move in the new direction. I’ve learned to communicate my story quickly, and more importantly, in a way that makes sense and puts listeners at ease.

Beth Zimmerman, the 46-year-old president of business consulting firm Cerebellas, experienced a similar challenge when she made the leap to brand management after 10 years in architecture. “If I was lucky enough to get an interview, I was typically met with incredulity as to why and how an architect could become a brand marketer,” says Ms. Zimmerman. She knew she needed a story that showed how her transition was “a logical and natural application of the capabilities I developed during my architectural career.”

Tell a Factual, Compelling Story
Ms. Zimmerman created an interview narrative that drew on her architectural background and related it to her new field. “I explained how architecture and marketing share many of the same core competencies — process-oriented thinking, intensive discovery of a client’s business and an ability to navigate between big ideas and the smallest details,” she says.

She also focused on how her problem-solving skills could be applied to new kinds of challenges. “Coupled with a skills-based résumé, my story helped me draw the picture for potential employers.” After just a handful of interviews, Ms. Zimmerman landed a job.

Whether your career change is your choice or not, you must carefully craft your story before heading out on interviews.

“I recommend writing down your story. Try to stick to the facts, and rather than sulking or blaming other people, put in positive statements about how you turned a challenge into an opportunity,” says Cy Wakeman, a workplace expert. “Employers like candidates who reflect on and learn from their own experiences, take control of their lives, and show that they’re bulletproof.”

Counter Skepticism
The more drastic your reinvention, the more persuasive your story must be. Make sure you’ve consulted with several contacts in your new field to find out what interviewers will be looking for. And have a plan that shows employers how you’ll acquire any missing skills.

If a hiring manager expresses skepticism, don’t argue with her. “You can say, for instance, that great leaders have a wide range of experiences, and that while you haven’t done this specific task, you’ve compensated in other areas and are willing to work hard,” says Ms. Wakeman. This is also a good opportunity to point out any work you’ve done in the new field, even if it was completed on a pro bono or volunteer basis.

Remember that your goal is to make a potential employer as comfortable as possible with the decision to bring you on board. Your reinvention may lead a hiring manager to suspect you’re less qualified, so your story has to immediately address those concerns.