How the stories we tell ourselves form our identity
The way we tell our story changes who we are.
Stories alter how we look at ourselves, how others judge us, how we live. They influence our actions.
Humans are walking libraries.
We are storytellers.
We can justify anything to ourselves when framed as a different story.
Even someone who has killed another human justifies the reason with the story they tell themselves late at night.
People who are excellent storytellers tend to make a greater impact on the world.
Stories create our lives and are the golden thread running through society.
It wasn’t until I came to write my first one paragraph “biography” for an article that I stopped to think about how I tell my own story.
Why did I mention certain events and not others? What would happen if I used different words to describe my past?
I curled up on the sofa one wet and windy evening and thought of the milestones that had led me to this point.
My choice of degree, the first ‘adult’ job, tales of heartbreak, moving to a big city to work for a start-up.
Why, when someone asked me about my life, would I tell these events in a certain way? A way which was often narrated in a negative and passive perspective.
It was time for a story refresh. I sat there, a mug of hot chocolate balanced on my lap, and rewrote my story.
And yet again.
I wrote it from the perspective of someone who was empowered.
The perspective of someone who made the right choice for that moment in time.
The perspective of someone who craved to create an exciting, adventurous, and fulfilling life.
What emerged was a very different story to the one I had been telling myself all these years. Looking at the facts of my life from different viewpoints, I saw the self-imposed limits we put on ourselves by narrating our lives in a particular way.
I was starting to get excited at this point. I realised that some events that had been awful were actually the best things that happened to me.
The person I was because of them was someone who had pushed her boundaries, taken multiple leaps of faith, didn’t give up.
I had created a new identity in the process.
It was time to update the story to match this new identity.
We cannot alter objective facts, but we can reshape subjective interpretations. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we view what happened in the past. We can control how we feel, how we respond, and focus our attention on taking action.
Not one experience is itself a cause for our success or failure. The shock of an event or situation leads us to make out of them whatever suits our purposes.
We are not determined by our experiences, but the meaning we give to them is self-determining.
You can rewrite your story and change your views on yourself. How you see yourself is how you act. Our actions are how we create our future.
What is your story?
Take two minutes of your day, right now, to consciously view a major event in your life from another perspective:
- The house move that left your support network miles away? You are growing your circle in ways never previously imagined.
- The heartbreak that made you feel like you would never smile again? You have taken a shortcut through years of self-development (or in Adele’s case, become famous).
- That new job that pushed your skills to the limit? Congratulations on leaping to the next level.
How are you going to tell your story the next time you meet someone new?
How to tell a good story
Everyone loves stories.
Humans connect quicker with others when we share stories. It helps us relate to each other. They are at the root of our ability to communicate with each other. It’s even been found that speaking in stories can help you become more memorable.
But not everyone is a good storyteller. Luckily for us however, storytelling is a skill you can learn.
The important factor when telling a good story is: don’t get stuck on the details.
Your conversational partner doesn’t overly care whether it was your mother’s sister or your aunt’s niece. Spending 5 minutes explaining family dynamics usually doesn’t sit well.
Think of telling a story a bit like a video game or book:
- Introduce the characters: who are the people that your audience needs to know about?
- Set the scene. Where is it? What wider context do they need to know?
- Encounter the obstacle. Your characters desperately want something but they need to face up to the challenge.
- Overcome the obstacle. What did they do to succeed? Did they succeed?
- Resolution. Was it a happily-ever-after ending?
Adding to your story toolbox
An incredible technique I learned from my mentor Ramit Sethi, a story toolbox is a great fallback strategy you can use in conversations.
It’s exactly what is says on the time: a place where you can write down interesting stories that you can later develop.
You can create your Story Toolbox with whatever tool works for you:
- Google Docs (what I use)
- Excel Spreadsheet
- A physical notepad
The important factor is having one core place where you can store life gems that you can later share.
Step 1: Set up your story toolbox
Take 5 minutes now to think about interesting experiences from your life that you can kickstart your story toolbox with. If you don’t think you have anything to share, think about a challenge you overcame, a vacation you went on, or a hobby you’ve done.
Write down the outline of 3 stories in your Toolbox. They could be funny, entertaining, or serious. For example
- I went on vacation to Croatia with family and we did a road trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina where I swam next to a waterfall.
- I invited 3 friends round of a dinner party and everyone had to bring a dish.
- I went on a first date with someone who I really liked and split my drink all over them and the table.
Step 2: Remove the unnecessary
Pick one story you want to focus on first and elaborate on it. Follow the steps mentioned above about “how to tell a good story” and explain what happened. How did it start and finish? What happened in-between?
Now remove unnecessary details.
For example, we’ve all heard something tell a story like this:
So I went on vacation to this gorgeous town in Croatia called Split. Or was it Zagreb? Hmm let me remember, it was the time when I was recovering from a pretty major break-up and I was on the phone to my aunt who told me to just get away somewhere… you know what! It may have even been my uncle who told me that…
This is the point where people start to zone out. No one cares about the tiny details that seemed so big at the time.
A good rule of thumb is: start later and finish earlier.
You’ll be surprised at how much you can remove. The first step is to write it down. Then see if you can remove 33%.
Do this for the first story then repeat for the other two.
Step 3: Double down on the key point
Reread your stories. If you were to summarise the point in one sentence, what would that be?
Often we overcomplicate it. Becoming really focused on the core point of the story clarifies the rest of the message. For example:
- I made a bad decision
- She did something stupid
- I was incredibly lucky
- Sometimes creative problem-solving gets you everywhere
Write down the point of the story next to each narrative you’ve created.
Now double check: does this story have a point that is worth sharing?
Does it even have a point? Some stories have no point. You’ll waste everyone’s time when sharing them.
Once you’ve written down the point, decide if it’s a story you still want to share.
Step 4: Practise makes perfect
When we see someone famous tell a story, apparently spontaneously, they’ve actually spent hours and hours perfecting them. They’ve tested, refined, and practised for months in advance. Every facial expression is analysed and words are carefully chosen.
The best storytellers are those who are well-versed in their craft.
You can take this same approach to your stories.
First practise on your own. Preferably with no one else in the house. As introverts, we sometimes find speaking out loud to others overwhelming and intimidating, especially if we know it probably won’t go as smoothly as we hoped.
Say the words out loud to help your mouth get used to them.
Now record yourself on your phone. Take a deep breath, and listen back to your story.
I know, it’s painful. Most of us hate how we sound on audio.
However the best way to learn is by taking action.
As you listen, ask yourself:
- Is this story interesting?
- Does it have a point?
- Is it too long?
Take another step out of your comfort zone and tell your story again in front of the mirror. Watch your body language as you tell it.
- Are you breathing naturally the whole way through?
- Does your body language match the message of your story?
- If it’s an emotional story, do the emotions show in your face and body? (a common introvert misconception is that we lack emotions, this is false).
Tie it all together by taping yourself on video. Watch it back and notice what is going well and what you could change.
Then try it again.
It’s not just the words you use that create a good story. It’s everything: your tone, the pauses, your body language.
Practising alone before going public can change everything. Especially your self-confidence.
Step 5: Test in a low-pressure environment
You’re ready to go public!
Test out your story on someone who you trust. Pets, unfortunately, don’t count (although are great for building confidence).
You need real time feedback. As you share your story, watch how they react:
- Are they looking at their watch or over your shoulder?
- Does it provoke the emotional reaction you had hoped?
- Is it too long and you find yourself rushing the whole way through?
- Did you end it with “…so yeh, that happened” because your story doesn’t have a good point?
- Are they leaning in?
Pay attention and tweak your story according to feedback.
You could make it longer. Tell it from another perspective. Lead the reader in with a hook (“I was locked in a car boot for 6 hours”). Smile. Go faster. Go slower.
There are hundreds of ways you can tweak your story, and the more you try out, the easier it will become to see what is working and what isn’t.
What is incredible about having 3-5 ready-to-go stories in your Story Toolbox that you’ve perfected is that although it takes a little time upfront preparing, once they’re ready, they’re ready. You’re able to share them in multiple social situations, helping you not run out of things to say.
Imagine doing this exercise every month, or every week. You’ll have multiple stories ready to go at a moments notice.
We like people who tell good stories. You can totally change the way that people perceive you—all while staying totally authentic.
What a beautiful combination.
- Humans are walking libraries. Stories run our lives, our societies, our thoughts.
- We have the power to change our story and look at our past from another perspective. A perspective that may be more helpful for the person we want to become.
- Creating a Story Toolbox is a tool that can help you never run out of things to share in a conversation.
- Knowing how to tell good stories and having some prepared in advance can change the way that people perceive you, all while remaining authentic to your true self.
Taking charge of your story requires confidence.
Luckily, confidence is a skill that can be learned.
In a process as small as 6 steps!
Click on the blue button below.
I’ll send you a checklist of six simple steps that will increase your self-confidence.
In it, you’ll learn:
- The strategy to become your biggest cheerleader
- A huge confidence killer to avoid
- The exact steps you can take today to boost your confidence