The hero complex: elevate your career through storytelling

2021-09-29 | BY Michelle Pencer | IN Free Resources, Hiring, Job Seekers, Work Life

The hero complex: elevate your career through storytelling

Humans can’t resist a good story – hiring managers and job seekers included.

Whether we realize it or not, we subconsciously interpret our world in terms of narratives – we seek out villains and heroes; we thirst for adventure; we delight in closure. Stories are what connect us to each other and what allow us to make sense of our lives. Without a narrative structure, our experiences would just be an endless jumble of information without direction or purpose. 

Creatives have long exploited this fact. Through movies and books and successful ad campaigns, they’ve carefully distilled what makes a compelling story. And it’s a lot less complicated than you might think.

Take the world of work, for example: you’re often selling a product – your skills, expertise, guidance, etc. – to hiring managers who have their own villains, struggles, and visions of success. The more you can leverage the elements of good storytelling, the better you’ll be able to connect. 

Let’s take a look at how it works:

1. Learn the formula

A story might appear unique at first glance, but once you start to break it down you’ll notice how formulaic storytelling really is. Almost without fail, a story has a…

  • Hero
  • Adversity
  • Villain
  • Helper/guide
  • More adversity & setbacks
  • Personal growth
  • Happy outcome

To prove our point, think of any blockbuster movie. Literally any one. We’ll do Finding Nemo, because almost everyone knows it and it’s a cinematic masterpiece.

In it you meet a hero (Marlin) who faces adversity (his wife and most of his children die, leaving his one remaining son handicapped) who is faced with a villain (his inability to let go/fear of loss). He meets a guide (Dory) who helps him overcome more adversity (getting lost; meeting scary fish and humans) and leads him through a period of personal growth (befriending Crush and the pelican; overcoming his fears). In the end, he is finally able to come out of his shell and put fear behind him, living a happy life with his son. 

Not so complicated, right? Now you know how to tell a good story – and it’s actually an incredibly simple formula. Just apply these steps, and you too will be an expert storyteller. 

2. Don’t be the hero

Here’s the tricky bit – while you may be the hero in your story, you certainly aren’t the hero in anyone else’s. And when trying to sell to an audience, you have to appeal to their vision of reality. 

What it comes down to is this –

  1. Everyone wants to see themselves as the hero
  2. In someone else’s story, you are the guide

That’s it. Tell a story – using all the same steps of the formula – with your audience as the hero and you as the guide, and you’ll hold anyone’s attention. 

Remember, heroes aren’t perfect. They’re flawed and they need help. Marlin is far from well-adjusted – he is a nervous wreck with control issues who is still recovering from the trauma of losing his wife and kids. He, like all heroes, wants help. He wants to be taken somewhere. To reach a happier state of being. 

If you can offer him – or anyone – the help they so desire, he will be willing to listen to you. If you tell the right story, people will want to hire you, or purchase your services, or buy your product, or work for your team. 

3. Obsess about your audience

Which brings us to the most important point – you better understand your target audience. If you plan to offer the help they “so desire,” you have to understand what kind of help they want. 

Say you’re interviewing for a software engineer job. You’ll want to tell a story where you help relieve your hiring manager’s stress, make them better equipped to do their work, improve systems and outcomes for the team, streamline processes so everyone can be more productive, etc. The hiring manager doesn’t care about how you would love the job – they mostly care about how you can help them. So tell them what they want to hear. 

This means understanding what your hero wants. Where are they in their career? Where do they hope to go? What do they want to achieve, in what timeframe, and for what reason? What is their aspirational identity, and how can you help them get there?

The better you know your audience, the better you’ll be able to hold their undivided attention.  

4. Think big picture

Before you go out and storytell your way to success, reflect on these key features of the narrative process:

Good stories are contextualized

Hard as it is, don’t jump to the “happy ending.” Spell out the struggles, the adversity, the trials and errors. These are universal human experiences. If every story skipped to a happy ending, no one would care. Just imagine watching Finding Nemo, except it’s the story of Marlin and his son, a well-adjusted father-son pair who have no problems and love each other. Boring. 

Good stories use examples

Specific examples and data points help strengthen the impact of your story. Point to testimonials/references/reviews, statistics, time/money saved, etc. to help illustrate your impact. 

Good stories go somewhere

Heroes want to be taken on a journey. Paint a picture for them – what will their life look like if they hire/work with you? In what ways will it be improved? 

Good stories have a philosophical dimension

People like engaging with a cause. If you can connect the story to a larger impact – making work easier, changing lives, improving quality of life – people will more readily connect with you. 

Storytelling is a magical tool – so obvious but so little utilized. Once you crack the code, you’ll start seeing stories everywhere. The next step is to create your own stories, and to cast your audience as the hero. Once you can do that, the world is your oyster. 

This same strategy can be applied to hiring (in that case, the candidate would be the hero and you/your company would be the guide), selling products, or simply persuading someone to your side of an argument. 

Want to learn more about compelling storytelling? We’re happy to share our secrets – just message us!

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