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How to Use The Art of Storytelling to Get What You Want

Antony Nagelmann/Getty Images
Antony Nagelmann/Getty Images,

by Logan Ward

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Whether you want a promotion, a new job, investors for your startup business or a new relationship, your most powerful sales tool is your ability to tell stories — especially your own. In a world where computer algorithms screen everything from résumés to dating profiles, finding ways to make meaningful human connections and elicit emotion is more important than ever. 

Simply put, résumés don’t grab people. Stories do.

“Narrative is part of human experience,” says Oscar-winning movie producer and former head of Sony Pictures Peter Guber, author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story.Narrative is how we give meaning to our lives. Narrative is how we connect with other people.”

In today’s fast-paced world, compelling stories are your most powerful means of grabbing — and holding — attention, especially in an era where you can reach a wide audience via social media. Being able to share where you’ve been, who you are, and where you want to go is essential for reimagining your life as you want it to be. Says Guber, whose own rags-to-riches story could be torn from a Hollywood script: “If you can tell it, you can sell it.”

Peter Guber,former CEO of Sony Pictures and author of Tell to Win, believes that by envisioning outcome of your story, you help make it happen. , Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Guber has come a long way from his humble Boston origins. Raised during the post- World War II era, Guber was a curious, self-motivated bundle of energy. His father ran a scrap metal yard, and Peter took to tinkering at an early age, piecing together crude robots from parts stripped from old vacuum cleaners and floor polishers. He loved books and science fairs and Radio Shack. He desperately wanted to explore the world, but his family didn’t have the means for travel. That didn’t stop Guber from inserting himself into stories of global exploration.

Starting around the age of 10, Guber reached out to foreigners using ham radio transmitters, receivers and antennas he built himself. “I traveled in my imagination,” he says. “I was talking to people in Iceland and the Soviet Union and Antarctica late at night, studying maps.” By high school, international travel had become such an integral part of Guber’s aspirational personal narrative that the means for actually going overseas almost smacked him in the face: He would organize trips abroad for wealthy students in exchange for travel vouchers rather than money.

It worked. Guber took his first overseas trip in 1961 at age 19 and soon visited the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and Japan. He married at age 22 and spent eight weeks traveling the world with his bride courtesy of his budding travel business. By controlling his personal narrative, Guber says, “I directed my heart and feet and wallet to go where my head wanted to go.”

Throughout history, regardless of country or culture, people have used storytelling to make sense of their lives and the world around them. The stories we tell ourselves and others shape who we become. Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a storyteller, your personal narrative unspools every day through your actions and the private commentary running through your head.

Knowing how to tell a story in any context is critical — job interviews, college applications, even if you’re on Wall St. working with numbers.

Sarah Haberman, Executive director of The Moth

To a large degree, you have the power to shape your story — and your fate. Scientific studies show that clinical “story work” — writing about personal experiences for as little as 15 minutes per day — improves mental and physical health. Personal narrative is so powerful that clinicians now use it to treat victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related conditions. In short, becoming the master of your own personal narrative can help you find success, fulfillment and well-being.

By envisioning the story you want to unfold, you help it come true. “What you tell yourself becomes what you believe,” Guber says. “And what you believe either limits or expands your potential.”

Throughout his remarkable career, Guber has used storytelling in two main ways: by constantly reshaping his own personal narrative to match his dreams and by drawing others to his vision through authentic and compelling storytelling. He won over Hollywood powerbrokers to earn promotions and get his film projects greenlighted. After a stint as head of Sony Pictures, he founded Mandalay Entertainment. One of the world’s top media moguls, Guber has produced dozens of the most successful films ever, including Batman, Flashdance, Sleepless in Seattle, The Color Purple, Rain Man and A Few Good Men. He’s an author and co-owner of three professional sports teams.

Ask Guber what he does for a living, and he’ll tell you he’s in the “emotional transportation” business. “Stories,” he explains, “teach, mold, unite and motivate by transporting audiences emotionally.” 

Facts are facts, but stories are who we are. They connect us with others.

Richard Leider, Executive coach, bestselling author and Life Reimagined Institute thought leader


“Throughout the course of history, the world has turned on stories, not atoms,” says executive coach, best-selling author and Life Reimagined Institute thought leader Richard Leider. “Facts are facts, but stories are who we are. They connect us with others.”

Today, folks are using stories not just to entertain but to persuade, sell products and sell themselves. That’s true whether you’re on a social network like LinkedIn, penning a company memo, having lunch with a prospective employer or cultivating personal relationships. A concise story that grabs someone’s attention gives you an edge when it comes to old-fashioned human networking.

And telling a good story is crucial, says Sarah Haberman, executive director of The Moth, a popular arts organization that promotes the art and craft of live storytelling. “Knowing how to tell a story in any context is critical — job interviews, college applications, even if you’re on Wall Street working with numbers,” she says. “You need a beginning, middle and end, you need high stakes, you need to have a point to capture peoples’ attention.” 


Humans become storytellers soon after birth. Based on research on imitation and attention, social scientists conclude that by the end of year one, infants begin to see other humans as characters in a story, intentional agents who act in a goal-directed manner. Year two, when infants begin to insert themselves into the story, marks the emergence of the personal narrative. “Consciousness begins when brains acquire the power … of telling a story,” writes University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

Adolescence marks a critical milestone in the personal narrative, the identity stage. According to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, from around age 13 to 20 teenagers ask two main existential questions: “Who am I?” and “What can I be?” The answers they find send many down paths from which they never diverge. For years the conventional wisdom among developmental psychologists held that identity forged during adolescence, though not set in stone, was difficult to change.

Proponents of the storytelling approach to personality have a different take; they feel that life stories constantly evolve. “A lot of research suggests that starting in the teenage years, humans become more and more inclined to think of their lives as narratives, with reconstructed pasts and imagined futures,” says Northwestern University psychologist and personal narrative expert Dan McAdams. Think cause and effect: What you’ve done so far plus what you want to achieve determines who you are and will be. From this viewpoint, McAdams says, one’s identity remains a project to be worked on for the rest of your life. You don’t necessarily have to keep a diary or blog, but it helps to take “authorship” over your story. 

Starting in the teenage years, humans become more and more inclined to think of their lives as narratives, with reconstructed pasts and imagined futures.

Don McAdams, Northwestern University psychologist and personal narrative expert

Career coach and Life Reimagined Institute thought leader Pamela Mitchell emphasizes having positive conversations with yourself to help you achieve your goals., Courtesy of Pamela Mitchell


Taking ownership of your life story isn’t easy, especially in today’s complex, ever-changing society. Reaching middle age complicates matters. With Americans living longer than ever, the midlife years have become a time of transition and uncertainty. People are working longer, facing younger competition, and struggling to keep up with changing work environments, while at the same time seeking more purpose in their jobs, family life and friendships.

Story work can help. Whether you feel pushed into change by external circumstances — downsizing, divorce or the like — or pulled by an exciting new opportunity, you can improve the outcome by taking authorship over your personal narrative. Life Reimagined and the Life Reimagined LifeMap™ system are science-based tools developed to help you rewrite your own story after uncovering your gifts, passions and values, and identifying how you’d best like to make an impact.

Think of yourself as a playwright, who organizes emotional life in terms of salient scenes and recurring scripts. You do this through the way you view your past, present and future. You don’t have to literally write out your story, McAdams says, though journaling can help you organize the details. If expressing yourself in writing feels like a chore, try something different. Maybe you find it easier to work through your story while taking long walks with a friend, or by exploring personal issues during a monthly book club.

“We talk to ourselves all day long,” says career coach and Life Reimagined Institute thought leader Pamela Mitchell, founder of the Reinvention Institute. “There’s always a conversation running in your head, and that conversation is either helping you get what you want or blocking you from getting it.” Taking charge of your story and using your story to inspire others is important in your Life Reimagined journey.