What Is a “Career Story” and Why You Need One

by Sharon Elber

Career Story

A “Career Story” is nothing more than a narrative about your professional life that tells the listener some highlights about why you have chosen your career path and where you hope to take it. Although it is not overly complicated, it is important to be strategic about how you frame your professional trajectory when dealing with potential employers and even your social network.

This article is designed to get you thinking about how to develop your career story. But first, let’s dive right into why you need one, particularly if you are currently seeking your next job.

1) Why You Need a Career Story

Taking the time to develop your career story will come in handy in a variety of ways during the job search. Here are just a few:

It will help you write a compelling resume and cover letter. Recruiters will spend just seconds reviewing your application materials during the first round of screening candidates for a job. Your resume and cover letter should quickly convey a clear picture of why you not only have the qualifications for the job, but that it’s a great fit for your overarching career goals.

It is a great answer to common interview questions. While it is unlikely that you will be asked “What is your career story?” in a job interview, many common interview questions nonetheless allude to your career story. For example, “Why are you a good fit for this position?” and “Why should we hire you?” can be answered, in part, with a compelling narrative about your professional journey.

It is a fantastic talking point while networking. Whether you are networking online or in person, your career story is a memorable way to get a conversation started with new contacts. It is a form of “getting to know you” that has a focus on your professional ambitions. In addition, it opens the door for the other person to offer advice, encouragement, or even leads that could land you that next great job.

It can be the beginning of developing your personal brand. Many of the elements of a personal brand, such as your values, passions, and unique selling proposition, will become visible to you as you work on developing your career story.

It can help you decide what you really want. Too many people simply allow the next low hanging opportunity for advancement drive the direction of their professional lives. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for finding yourself in a job you may do well, but just don’t enjoy. Instead, take some time to develop your vision for that dream job, and think about how you can get there from here.

2) Where Have You Been? Where Are You Now? Where Are You Going?

A great place to start when developing your career story is to think through these three questions. This chronological organization is the most common way to tell your story because it quickly creates a sensible order for the listener. Of course, the story you choose to tell is infinitely malleable, as long as it sticks to the facts.

Here are some ways to further think through your professional journey in more detail:

Your Dream Job

An essential element of your career story is a clear vision of your dream job. Take the time to really get serious with yourself about what you want. This is not about what people want to hear, it has to be about your authentic desire to bring your talent and passion to maximum impact in your vocation.

It isn’t about just describing your dream job. Your career story needs to include information about why that position appeals to you. Ideally, this goes beyond financial gains and extends into your sense of the emotional, spiritual, political, or intellectual rewards of the work itself.

Include Anecdotes

When you meet someone that tells you a story about a time in their lives that changed their perspective, it tends to leave an impact. Short and relevant anecdotes are an excellent tool to use when developing your career story. They can also forge a personal connection that leaves a lasting impression.

For example, you may choose to include a description of an experience you had during your internship. You saw firsthand how helping an older couple make sound investments enabled them to pay off their mortgage, granting them a sense of financial freedom their lives had previously lacked. This experience may have been the moment when you knew for sure that you wanted to pursue financial advising over mortgage lending.

Notice how the use of this story adds an emotional element that showcases your values and sense of purpose in the work that you want to do. It showcases your personality and gives the listener a sense of why you have chosen this particular professional path.

Tailor Your Narrative

Ideally, your career story identifies the jobs you are applying for as the next logical step in your professional trajectory. Of course, this may mean tweaking your story by wisely choosing which elements to highlight for each individual opportunity. As long as you are being honest, this is perfectly acceptable, and even desirable. The difference is usually a matter of emphasis.

For example, imagine your dream job is to one day run a doggy daycare facility. Your previous job as an administrative assistant taught you critical time management skills. Your current job working at a pet store has increased your education regarding pet care needs.

You may be applying to different jobs for the next stage in your professional journey. And, the specific skills for each of these opportunities may be a little bit different. For example, a job as a veterinary assistant would call for more emphasis on your technical knowledge such as learning about the different nutritional requirements for a vast array of pets while working at the pet store. The professional dog walker job might call for a stronger focus on your time management abilities which you picked up as an administrative assistant.

Either way, your career story is focused on facts and positions each prospective job as the next logical step in your ultimate career ambitions.

Get Creative

Eventually you will want to be able to tell your story in conversations with new professional contacts, recruiters, and even old colleagues when the time is right. However, sometimes exercising your creative side can help you develop your narrative.

You career story is a chance to express yourself and showcase some of your creative skills. For example, if you enjoy photography, a well curated slide show may be a way to help you develop your narrative. You may find that posting the slide show on your social media profiles is a great way to share your story with your professional network. This may lead to some great feedback or even a lead on a relevant opportunity.

Creative expression using media is a way to increase your visibility and cut through a crowded media landscape. Getting your career story out there is a fantastic way to alert your entire network that you are looking for that next opportunity to learn and grow professionally.

A Special Note for Job Seekers in a Career Transition

For those that have a long gap in their work history, or who are changing direction in their professional lives, a well-crafted career story is critical. Recruiters, in particular, will need to know why you will still be a value added member of their team despite your lack of direct, recent work experience.

It is important to frame your gap or shift in a way that highlights it as part of a journey that led you to where you are now, and where you are going. For example, you may have learned about your passion for teaching while raising your own children. Or, perhaps a specific experience while volunteering made you realize you had a talent for organizing and community building, hence your decision to move in a new direction.

If your career story does not include a reason for large gaps or major shifts, unfortunately your listener will fill in the gaps themselves, often with a less favorable narrative. Don’t miss this chance to control the narrative with your own story framed in a positive light.

3) Practice Your Career Story

There is a certain vulnerability that comes with sharing your dreams with people. But operating from a fear of rejection is a surefire way to not get what you want in your professional life. After you have taken the time to prepare your career story, it is time to get brave and start putting it out there.

The best way to get your confidence up is to start with a sympathetic audience. Tell your career story to friends, family, and colleagues who you trust. As you practice your story, you will get more comfortable telling it. In addition, you will start to see the most important elements, as well as get a sense of which details provoke the most powerful reactions in your audience.

With a little practice under your belt you are ready to trot out your career story whenever you need it, be that in a job interview or when meeting someone new at a social event. It is one more tool you will have at the ready when the time is right.

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