Awareness: The Importance of Telling Your Story

I don’t think you should wait. I think you should speak now.

Taylor Swift

In my post The Power Of Stories, I described the three levels at which stories can lead to behaviour change. Awareness is the first level. A lot of the work I do with coachees is to refine steps two and three, emotional connection and behaviour change – to make sure that their story is impactful enough.

Yet without awareness, there is no story. It simply doesn’t exist, good or bad.

Imagine a world where Charles de Gaulle hadn’t been able to make his speech on the BBC on 18th June 1940.

Or one where the murder of George Floyd hadn’t been recorded and, crucially, shared.

None of the changes that came from these events would have happened, without people being made aware of them.

All of this seems blindingly obvious. And yet I am constantly amazed at how many people assume that facts are known, or will be known, without their proactively and effectively communicating those facts. This is especially true in the workplace. Whether it is an unsustainable workload, an instance of discrimination, or – on a more positive note – a great performance, the results of a brilliant initiative, or your key achievements on LinkedIn – it is YOUR responsibility to make sure the story is told.

Be more like Elle Woods, less like Fanny Price

How often have people said in exit interviews: ‘I do the work of three people around here, and no-one notices. So-and-so gets all the credit just because they know how to play the game.’

Or someone will run a brilliant seminar, or offsite, and they’ll tell me: ‘I hope someone tells the boss how amazing that was, because I’m really proud of how it went.’

One of the most common mistakes I see in the workplace is to think that it’s going to be like school. At school, or at university, you work hard, you may or may not participate in class, but there is an exam at the end and the teacher will measure your output based on this exam.

Except on rare occasions, there is no exam at the end of work, and in most cases, trust me, senior leaders do not know, exactly, what their staff do. They know whether a certain task has been completed or not, and to what standard. They hear what people who ‘play the game’ tell them they have done. But what if you are the one who always mentors the interns, stays late to organise the filing room, takes the minutes at meetings… but you don’t talk about it? Nobody will know you did it. Conversely, if you are facing serious issues or barriers, or if someone is treating you poorly, do not assume that anyone will notice unless you speak up.

In other words: you think you’re being ‘left on read’, when in fact your message has not been delivered.

The problem is is that through stories themselves we have been conditioned to believe that ultimately, the quiet, unassuming hero will win over the confident, self-promoting antagonist. In Jane Eyre, Jane, not Blanche, gets Rochester. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, not Mary Crawford, marries Edmund. A life of quiet hard work is sure to be recompensed ultimately by success in whatever endeavour we pursue. This thinking pattern applies disproportionately, although not exclusively, to women, who are more likely to have internalised this type of messaging early on.

When that doesn’t work out, I often hear from my coachees ‘I am not being noticed because I am not good at politics’. The subtext is: ‘It’s not my fault. Politics is a bad thing’.

Hang on, this is not politics. It’s a basic communication skill. And you do need to become good at communicating.

Maybe it helps to think of life – and of the workplace in particular – as more Legally Blonde than Mansfield Park? Elle Woods understands the value of highlighting her achievements and framing them in the correct light – just look at her video essay. She advises Paulette to go ahead and talk to the UPS guy (or at least ‘bend and snap’!) rather than wait for him to notice her. She takes her destiny in her hands. Be more like Elle. Tell your story.

Write the script

The other advantage of telling your story yourself, rather than hoping that someone will notice, is that you get to tell it in your words. If De Gaulle had waited for someone to notice he was in London (unlikely move, I’ll admit), he wouldn’t have the chance to coin the famous phrase: ‘France has lost a battle, but it has not lost the war’. This phrase went on to define the French resistance movement. De Gaulle had put his words to the story.

It’s been interesting, recently, to look at the various messaging around Covid-19 by the different governments around the world, and what they chose to emphasise. The Guardian did a great piece on this, highlighting the different in tone, spirit and efficacy between New Zealand’s ‘Unite Against Covid-19’ and, for instance, the US state of Oregon’s ‘Don’t accidentally kill someone’.

Words matter, you may have heard me say more than once. And being the one to tell the story allows you to be intentional about the words you want to use. If they feel right, and strike a chord, they are likely to be repeated over and over again, defining your story as much as the content itself.

(This is true of images too, of course – think of the power of picture of Tienanmen Square in 1989, or of Alan Kurdi, the little Kurdish Syrian boy whose body was tragically found on a Greek beach in 2015. The right image, the right video, will accompany your story and reinforce it for ever.)

What does it mean for you? It means you have to plan the way you tell your story, according to what you want to achieve.

This applies to giving feedback as well, or to managing an issue with an employee. What is your ideal outcome? And what is the best way to express yourself to get it? Or think about  your LinkedIn profile summary, or to the top of your CV. What’s your story? What words do you want people to use when they talk about you?

Here is an example: the same fact – you’ve done the work of three people recently – can be expressed in many different ways:

  • ‘Recently, I have picked up a lot of additional responsibilities. If I left you would have to hire three people to replace me, yet I am paid less than others in the team. I would like to discuss a salary raise.’
  • ‘Due to the various departures, I have taken on much more responsibilities in new areas. This has been a great learning experience, and I have enjoyed working with the other teams and achieving great results, but I am afraid my main role is at risk of getting neglected. Would it be possible to redistribute some of the additional tasks? Here are some options I have been thinking about.’
  • ‘I am doing three different jobs. I enjoy the challenge, and I’m sure you’ll agree that we have achieved much on all fronts, but I am getting bogged down by small administrative tasks. I would like to hire a junior person to take over the low-level bits so I can focus on delivering value.’

Three scripts, three different end games. All of them have a clear narrative, motivation and ask, and most importantly, all of them are scripts that the person you are talking to can potentially take to the decision maker(s) to discuss your case.

Let me help you help me

You know how in these mafia movies, the bad guy (or the hero) says: ‘Tell your boss I said hi’? Usually after killing an entire room full of bystanders. Or bad guys. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Well guess what: in most cases, the person you are talking to, whether it’s a sales pitch, or a salary discussion, or even an interview, is not the final, or at least not the only, decision maker. Part of your job is to help them help you, by giving them something concrete they can take to their boss for approval, sign off or next steps.

If it’s a good news story you are sharing – you’ve achieved something amazing, your team has broken a sales record, or you have a great new product you’d like them to buy – the way to think about it is as a viral video. People share memes if they think they are going to gain social status by doing it – they want to look cool, or engaged, or sympathetic. Think about the virality of your message. How can you make it more likely that your interlocutor will be talking about it not only to their boss, but to their boss’s boss, and to the person they meet in the lift? What’s the anecdote, the interesting stat, the unique quote that’s going to stick in their head and make them want to share?

If you are sharing a problem or a complaint, be aware that their first reaction is going to be to avoid taking it up. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. Think about making it as easy as possible for them to share. Be objective, be concise, and ideally suggest possible ways forward.

The take-away is this: the better packaged your message is, the more likely it is to be shared.

If you only read this…

Here are my key messages when it comes to raising awareness in a work context:

  • Never assume people know something if you haven’t told them!
  • Think about the way you deliver your story as much as the story itself
  • Anticipate who else will need to hear the story, and make it as easy as possible to share

This is worth spending time on. If it feels quite scary and overwhelming, consider working with a coach to refine your narrative and how to share it. The answer is very probably in you already, but a good coach will help you own it more completely.

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