Do you really know who you are? Maybe. Do you have the ability to tell people who you are? That’s another question entirely and one that probably too few people can answer in the affirmative. Ultimately, not being able to tell your own story cleanly, precisely and in an honest but engaging manner is a big problem for all sorts of professional and personal reasons. But don’t worry. Dr. Dennis Rebelo, a master at this feat, is here to help. His recent book Story Like You Mean It even provides insights into why so many fail at the task while providing a road map on how to systematically build your narrative. He took some time recently to sit down with WellWell to discuss how to frame your tale.
So much of your book, Story Like You Mean It, is based around how to best answer the question: “Tell me about yourself?” What are some of the practical benefits, both from a personal and professional standpoint, of being able to tell your own story in a concise and precise fashion?
The far-reaching nature of Story Like You Mean It is designed to be a book but also a manual to answer the question “tell me about yourself.” Whether it is voiced to you as a human being in an interview or as a voice that you know inevitably shows up. As human beings, we want to make sense of our lives. The lived experiences that we’ve had in our lives, some that we can control and others that we can’t, actually hold meaning that needs to be included. And when we use some of the tools in the book, like the story stamp to unpack those moments, we can understand the slices of each lived experience. So really, the book fosters analytical thinking but not in a rigid sense.
You mention in the book how we’re essentially born with this ability and as children, we are natural storytellers. Why did we lose this skill as we age?
It’s like any muscle. We are always taught about our core muscle, you know, maybe a little bit here and there in gym class or maybe in physical training because it allows you to stand up. If you’re latent, if you’re idle, if you’re not using this muscle, you tend not to be able to have other functionality. Storytelling is a bit like that, it’s a muscle.
We have this innate ability to communicate through narrative, through storytelling. When we’re at the beginning of school, we’re allowed to be in circles and there’s a little less rigidity or rules. There’s more openness, there’s more anticipation to say something. But as we start to go through grade school into middle school, it’s an only-speak-when-spoken-to environment. Then you end up getting a job and you’re in a cubicle, you must be invited to the meeting, which might allow you to speak but maybe not depending on who’s in charge. So, we really just don’t practice our storytelling muscle.
The crux of the book is the peak storytelling model, which you created based on these blue dot moments. What is the peak storytelling model? How did you first develop it?
The model is really like an apparatus or a way of just starting to look at your life. It’s a three-stage story system. If you think about your life in stages, you’ve had lots of experiences so essential to the method is that some experiences hold greater weight than others. I was always witnessing people struggling with coming into an organization with all kinds of skills but then not being able to articulate a provisional sense of self. So, the model looks at three different dots or blue dots as I call them. These are self-event connections and are the most significant ones. We call them blue because it’s like the blue sky. So, the first dot is the hero dot, which is really about overcoming an obstacle. You could have been adaptable, maybe you had to stand up for yourself, use communication, use leadership or influence.
The book title is really important too, Story Like You Mean It. Pick those moments that were so important to you that you reflected upon, guided by the methodology so that you can find the different components of that blue dot and how it brings a certain richness and meaning to your life. It’s important to give a story over time and that’s what a narrative is. It’s not just a recollection of a thing, it’s a story over time.
Given how fundamental these moments are to any particular person’s life, why do we struggle so much to tell the story of these moments? Why are stories such a struggle to articulate?
We first must think a little bit about what self-reflection is. Do we really self-reflect in a deep way? Is it guided by any structure or process that leads to any uncovering of anything? Is it informed by any research? Reflection without guided research that helps channel that activity is not going to help land you on those moments. You have to have a structure. When I conducted research, I saw a lot of theory, a lot of good research but no codification of a methodology.
I think that’s number one. If you were absent on methodology to help enhance self-reflection in a way that’s pragmatic, we can’t really blame people. The second thing is that we stop telling stories. Why do we stop? Because it’s easier to stop. It doesn’t matter what the generational sort of example is. If I’m in my twenties or thirties and have a question for an older person in their forties, fifties, sixties at work, I might not ask because I feel like they’re more devoted to their device than wanting to give attention to me, even though that might not be the actual case.
Just what is the role of technology, how does it hamper our storytelling abilities beyond just taking our attention? And that’s just the core.
I think it’s a great question. It is a natural extension of what we were just exchanging about. Sherry Turkle is a psychologist at MIT. She’s wonderful. She really gets that we can be so focused on wanting to get together but not even really being together. We’ve all seen or witnessed that. Ultimately, do we have discernment when technology gives us an upside edge and when it gives us the downside, you know, really squelches our ability to progress in our lives? I think that’s the key. What is the upside/downside?
If you can have these conversations with yourself saying “What’s the upside?” and then let yourself loose for a little while and then identify “What’s the downside?” you can probably monitor yourself a little bit better. You want to be able to know that focus is something that you can do, right? But you have to be tied into how it is purposeful. Again, back to the narrative. If I form a narrative, then that narrative isn’t just my speaking points, my peak story, the beginning of my leadership talk on my interview transition talk or job transition work. Your peak story really is a meta-framework. It’s like a giant umbrella. It says, “This is where I’m headed.” Of course, your blue dots might change, things might happen, somebody gets sick in your family, there’s a job that you end up doing that you don’t like but then you find a silver lining in it. Well, you can replace these blue dots and rearticulate your narrative.
As we mentioned at the beginning, the crux of the book is responding to the question “Tell me about yourself?” Do you think that this is the best way to inquire about people? Do you think there’s a more productive question or manner in which somebody could ask someone to “tell me about yourself?”
Straker started studying this in 1976; the identity question. So, studying identities is relatively new and in a complex world where our identity isn’t like the brick wall builder, the mason. I think it is the question and I think when we start facing it, we sort of get on with our lives. We can run around it; we can sidetrack it. We can say “well my resume got me the job, but wouldn’t it be nice to say that my story got me the job? That’s it, right? And it’s not because my resume wasn’t good, but because what I represent, who I represent as a human being was articulated by me in such a way that people said, “You know what? We don’t need the next interview” or “We’d like to talk a little bit more.” or “Let’s do a tour of the factory or of the executive suites now” or “the school now.” All of these opportunities exist because the rhetoric that you chose to articulate that sense of who you are was provocative. It was like lyrics to a good song, and people get their brains loaded up with it, so they get to retell your story. Because you created this viral impact by articulating such a story that made you the exotic bird. Not falsely so, it just made you uniquely qualified, maybe not so exotic but uniquely qualified to provide value to the organization, the team or the school.
About Dr. Dennis Rebelo
Dr. Dennis Rebelo is a professor, speaker and career coach. He is the creator of the Peak Storytelling model. His research-based method for crafting the personal narrative is now used worldwide. A former president of Alex and Ani University and co-founder of the Sports Mind Institute, he received the 2020 Thomas J. Carroll Award for Teaching Excellence at Roger Williams University.
Story Like You Mean It can be purchased at Amazon.