The Power of Narratives

August 17, 2020

Skill Development

The Power of Narratives

Most people understand the importance of personal narratives, but too few people take advantage of the impact that can be achieved by leading with a specific story. Here’s how it works:

Start with a specific incident

Don’t begin with a grand thesis statement, start with a specific incident from which you can build towards the more general case for your admission. Then, after you get to the central idea, follow up by layering in additional stories about experiences that build out the depth and breadth of the general case.

Starting with the story will serve to engage the reader. Waiting to make a declarative statement about why you should be selected until after the reader knows some things about you will (if you have told the right story) trigger a reaction of agreement and start to build trust. Unfortunately, starting with the declaration does just the opposite: the reader is more likely to say: “Well that sounds good, but prove it.” At that point, the reader may now be suspicious and looking for ways that your claim is not supported rather than on your side and thinking about how you have even more to offer than you claim, which is what leading with good stories can do.

Good story characteristics

With the stories that are being used to illustrate the central ideas, be specific. Write as much as you possibly can remember about the incident you are describing. How did you feel? Was it clear or confusing? What did you notice about the environment? Specific images, sounds and smells as well as the inclusion of emotions give authenticity to the narrative. You want the reader to be able to feel like you have brought them with you to the incident. Specifics also increase credibility. In general, people do not think that you will be dishonest on your personal statement, but speaking in generalities leaves so much unknown that the reader can never be certain about what you actually mean.

Stories as memory tools

In addition to increasing authenticity and credibility, people remember stories. If you can tell an engaging story about an incident, the reader will remember the story and then they will remember you and your case for admission because, just like you used the story to bring us to the framing idea, the remembering of the story by the reader allows them to then re-access the central ideas of your case for admission.

How do I do it?

While all of this may sound easy, it’s not. Which is both good news and bad. One of the things I always tell my students with their cover letters is that they do not necessarily need to be the best applicant to land a job, they simply need to be incredibly compelling building a case that they are a good enough one. Better applicants who can’t figure out how to be convincing or authentic in their personal statements may well get passed by simply because the reader is uncertain, and people generally avoid uncertainty.

Your job is to be absolutely convincing about building the best case for yourself. In the end, that’s the best you can do. If you are not accepted because there is a better applicant, well, life doesn’t always go our way. If you are not accepted because you did not do a good job convincing people about the strength of your candidacy, you need to learn how to communicate your strengths better.

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