Brianna was frustrated.
After six impressive years in PR, and having interviewed with half a dozen marketing agencies, she still had no job offers. She prepared diligently, presented herself well, understood her industry, and knew where she wanted to go. She was confident, experienced, and genuinely passionate about her work.
But whenever Brianna shared that confidence, experience, and passion with a hiring manager, “It was almost like I could feel them turning against me.” That’s how she described it to me when we talked about her job hunt. Which was infuriating for her, because the jobs she was chasing explicitly asked for self-starting, dynamic, passionate candidates.
So Brianna took a different tack. In her next few interviews, she played down her confidence, understated her experience, and tempered her excitement. But that didn’t work either. She felt like a shell of herself, an imposter failing to make much of an impression at all. When she looked back at those interviews, “I wouldn’t have hired me either.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, her voice draining of hope. “If I get excited about my story, I come across as arrogant. If I don’t get excited, I come across as unqualified. I literally don’t know how to talk about myself anymore.”
I literally don’t know how to talk about myself.
This is a problem I’ve heard hundreds of times over the last 15 years. People of all backgrounds, experiences, temperaments, and genders struggle with this issue, torn between owning their confidence and hiding behind false modesty. They can’t seem to find a middle ground that allows them to be pumped and grounded, confident and humble, passionate and realistic. So they swerve between the two, depending on context and mood, either leaning too far into their desirability or apologizing for how desirable they really are.
Through conversations like the one I had with Brianna, I realized that we need some new principles for conversations like these. We need a set of techniques and mindsets that will allow us to tell our own stories without falling into this trap. We need to learn to talk about ourselves without coming across like a**holes.
That’s what this article is about. And it all starts with some internal work.
How to Talk about Yourself
Resolve inner conflicts.
The first thing I noticed about Brianna was that she was wrestling with a simple but paralyzing conflict: knowing she was capable, but being anxious to fully own that capability. I wondered: Could that conflict be part of the reason she wasn’t coming across the way she hoped?
As we unpacked the issue, Brianna realized just how deep that conflict went. When she leaned into her excitement and confidence, a self-consciousness gnawed at her. When she put on a more sober and humble persona, a voice in the back of her mind told her to stop pretending and be herself. It was as if she were two different people, each fighting for the best way to portray herself, but each failing to be authentic.
When we have an inner conflict like this, it always manifests in some way. It creeps into our body language — through posture, eye contact, and hand movements — and affects our facial gestures and vocal tonality. Our words could be saying one thing — whether it’s “I’m a badass” or “Aw, shucks” — but our bodies will always communicate the deeper truth. When those two layers of communication are in conflict, they undercut the message.
I asked Brianna to go back into her memories of these interviews and describe how she felt inside.
She quickly zeroed in on a general sense of unease, a self-consciousness about how she was presenting, and an excessive focus on the interviewer’s reactions. She remembered looking at objects on the hiring managers’ desks, keeping her hands balled in her lap, and toggling between a big smile and a sober nod as she calibrated the impression she wanted to make. When I asked how she felt in the interviews where she played down her passion, she described feeling “distant” and “small.”
All of these behaviors speak to inner conflict. Inconsistent eye contact. Constrained hand movement. The sense of smallness she described was partly an inner emotional experience, but I’d be willing to bet it also manifested in a submissive, avoidant posture, which has a way of reinforcing whatever emotional experience is causing it.
Before we could work on any of these aspects of her presentation, we had to address the deeper issue. I asked Brianna about it, and after a few attempts to articulate what her dilemma was, she finally blurted it out.
“I guess I just feel weird about being good at what I do.”
That thought, right there, was at the heart of Brianna’s challenge.
What seemed like a number of external issues — the personalities of hiring managers, the awkwardness of the interview process itself, Brianna’s way of articulating her story — was actually feeding on a tension she hadn’t resolved — hadn’t even acknowledged — in herself.
Over a couple in-depth conversations, we unpacked that conflict.
We talked about the mixed messages Brianna received about ambition and accomplishment from a young age. We explored how she perceived other people’s passion and drive, and found that she had directed some of her subconscious judgment about them toward herself. And we found, interestingly, that she had some shame around the difficulty she was encountering in her job search, which only grew worse the more she compared herself to other people — something she had been doing for years.
At the end of these conversations, we hadn’t solved every one of Brianna’s problems. But we had identified an important cluster of them, maybe even their core, as they related to her job search.
After some time to process, Brianna said she had made a small but important shift.
She was no longer interested in hedging her feelings about her talent and ambition. She saw how a lot of the difficulty in talking about herself stemmed from another voice — one she now saw as inherited and false — telling her that she hadn’t earned, or maybe didn’t deserve, the right to promote herself the way she needed to. She realized that her problem wasn’t that she had too much or too little confidence, but that she hadn’t resolved the tension underlying that confidence.
Most importantly, she finally saw how she had been thinking about ambition as an either-or proposition: either she could be a ruthless opportunist seeking to advance her own interests, or she could be a humble employee content with what she had. She now saw a third option, a middle ground, where she could be ambitious, kind, confident, and self-aware all at the same time.
She saw the conflict for what it was, and was already resolving it.
We then ran a few mock interviews, adjusting her voice, wording and paralinguistic cues to match her new mindset, and found that her presentation felt not just more animated and confident, but more grounded and authentic.
Of course, the particulars of this step in the process look different for every person. We all have different conflicts to resolve. Some of us wrestle with likability and belonging. Some of us waver on career choice and roles. Inner conflicts can develop around how we see ourselves, what we want, whether we’re good enough, or why we’re pursuing an opportunity in the first place.
Whatever the particulars, we need to resolve these conflicts inside of us before we can present the best version of ourselves to other people.
If we don’t, then we end up in Brianna’s predicament. Either we compensate for these tensions by becoming too confident — coming across as brash, arrogant, or self-involved — or we indulge the other side of the conflict, and slip into weakness, standoffishness, or indifference. Or we straddle the two, sending mixed signals that are hard to decipher.
Highlight emotions, not just facts.
When we talk about ourselves, we often focus on plot — that is, on facts. We share what we did on vacation, we describe what we accomplished at work, we talk about what we want to achieve in the future. But underneath these facts are emotions, and emotions are what makes the facts meaningful and compelling to another person.
Trevor, a civil engineer, recently discovered this principle in his relationship-building.
Knowing he needed to build his network, and eager to connect with other engineers in his field, he began booking coffee chats with new contacts and attending industry conferences every few months.
But whenever new people asked about his experiences, he explained, he felt a barrier go up. He seemed to only be able to talk himself in a way that sounded dull, pompous, or self-satisfied, and he could feel their interest waning. So he worked on committing even harder, thinking passion would solve the problem. But the more confident he pretended to be, the worse his impression became.
I asked Trevor to share some examples of what he talked about in these conversations. He told me about the freeway overpass project he helped manage for his firm, the roads and tunnels he had a hand in designing, and his ongoing collaborations with structural engineers and architects on various municipal projects.
I knew that Trevor was describing some really fascinating and important work. But even I was having trouble getting pumped about it. When he talked, I could see how he might come across like an a-hole. Which was surprising, because he was a truly kind, interesting, thoughtful person with an obvious gift for engineering.
That’s when I realized Trevor’s problem. He had an extraordinary connection to the intellectual aspect of his work. What he didn’t have was an emotional one — or, at the very least, a willingness to share that emotional connection with others. In that instant, I knew what Trevor had to work on.
I asked Trevor to repeat his talking points again. But after each one, I stopped and asked him how it felt. He laughed, a little uncomfortable, which told me we were on the right track.
Eventually he began naming the feelings he had encountered on every project. Pride about the freeway overpass. Frustration about the tunnel projects. Fulfillment partnering with other smart people to solve problems. And running through all these projects, he realized, a real joy about designing systems that help make cities liveable.
In just a few minutes, Trevor had accessed a world of emotional content he had overlooked. Which, given his role, actually made perfect sense. He had approached talking about himself like an engineer, not as a storyteller. He now had to learn to present himself as a human being with experiences, not just a brain with accomplishments.
Facts convey information. Emotions convey an experience. And an experience is what people use to empathize and bond.
Consider the differences between a fact-based approach and an emotion-based approach in a few common statements:
|I built a strategic plan that guided the organization for the next three years.
|I built a strategic plan — which I was really proud of — that helped the organization focus and execute on projects that truly mattered for the next three years.
|I’m looking for a role that would allow me to use my engineering background and interest in sales.
|I was trained as an engineer, so I love breaking down problems. But I’m really passionate about sales, because I love giving people the exact product they need. I’m looking for a role that would let me bring those two worlds together so I can build a book of business I’m proud of.
|The company was acquired, my whole department was eventually let go, and then I decided to move into the payments industry.
|The company was acquired, which was exciting but really tough. It was hard to see all my colleagues out of jobs. Suddenly I had to find one too — which is always stressful. But I decided to use it as an opportunity to ask myself what I really care about, and I realized that I’d be really fulfilled helping companies figure out how to let their customers pay for products more easily.
As you can see, highlighting emotions doesn’t just list relevant feelings, but pushes you to expand on your talking points. It gives your facts emotional roots, while also bringing more humanity, authenticity, and depth to what you’re saying.
So if you’re having trouble communicating who you are, consider digging into your emotional experience.
That doesn’t mean word-vomiting every feeling you have onto another person, or sacrificing substance for raw emotions. It means using both facts and feelings to paint a full picture of your experience.
When we understand the emotions behind a set of facts or events, we immediately relate. This is how human beings are wired. I might not understand the ins and outs of building a bridge, and if I’m being honest, I don’t really care. But I do understand what it’s like to be puzzled, to be frustrated, to be exhausted, to be excited, to be proud.
These are universal experiences. And universal experiences are gold for empathy.
When we truly understand someone else’s experience, it’s hard to perceive them negatively.
As long as what they’re presenting is authentic, respectful, and properly motivated, our natural response is to identify with them. If a story rings false, is unearned or comes from a place of wanting to please, seduce, or win approval, then it’s still possible to view the person negatively — but for entirely different reasons.
After working these new insights into his talking points, Trevor continued his meetups and conversations. Almost immediately, he noticed a huge difference.
When he talked about his work, he felt more open, alive, and present to what he was talking about, even when the subject matter was technical. Unsurprisingly, he found people more engaged in what he said, more invested in his ideas. He didn’t get the sense that he was being boring or self-absorbed. And there was another benefit he didn’t expect: the more connected he became to his own emotional experiences, the more curious he became about other people’s. That made him a better conversationalist, creating a powerful feedback loop between him and the people he met.
Six months later, Trevor accepted a position at the firm of one of the new people he met after this shift. There, they partnered on a presentation about a notable civic project at an engineering conference, where they shared not only the technical aspects of their work but their personal experiences working on it. Trevor now speaks and mentors other engineers regularly, something he never considered before he realized how powerful these deeper conversations really were.
All because he accessed the emotions behind the facts.
Focus on others.
Just as focusing only on facts can alienate your audience, focusing only on yourself can create the impression of self-importance.
This is a tricky pitfall, because in many contexts, like job interviews and first dates, we’re supposed to talk about ourselves. At many companies, you’re even docked if you fail to make it clear what you were specifically responsible for in your previous positions.
So how do you own your accomplishments without sounding self-obsessed?
The answer is to widen the scope of your storytelling to include other people.
Casey, a talented diagnostic-lab manager, put this principle into action in his recent job search.
After failing to land offers in his first round of interviews, he realized that he had been articulating his accomplishments from a limited point of view. He talked about the projects he spearheaded, the roadmaps he created and the operational impacts he made. He talked about how he learned to step up as a manager, take ownership over results and guide his lab through key transitions. He wanted to communicate that he was a leader, but he ended up sounding more like a hero.
So Casey revisited his stories. He pushed himself to consider the wider impact of his work — the thousands of people both inside and outside the lab who were affected by his decisions.
He wrote down the ways in which his efficiency projects made the lab staff’s jobs easier and more fulfilling. He quantified the savings upper management enjoyed because of his improvements. He talked about the more valuable work his teammates did with time freed up by operational improvements. And he imagined the thousands of patients whose lab results arrived more quickly and accurately, helping them make smarter decisions about their healthcare, improving and maybe even saving scores of lives.
Suddenly, Casey had connected what he had done to what his work meant for others. This was the piece of his story he had overlooked.
On his next few interviews, Casey worked these new insights into his talking points.
When he shared his efficiency initiatives, he gave them deeper meaning by talking about how they changed people’s lives. When he explained the way he ran meetings, he explored how a well-run meeting changed the way his staff felt about their ideas. As he did, he found himself more passionate than ever about what he was saying. Paradoxically, not making it all about himself made Casey even more passionate about his own story.
With this new approach, Casey didn’t downplay his role in any of these accomplishments. He didn’t discount his contributions or play down his talent. He just took the time to appreciate what those contributions meant to people other than himself. And in doing so, he actually ended up highlighting those accomplishments while avoiding the trap of sounding self-important. He communicated that he was a good technician and a strong leader, a dedicated manager and a caring human being.
Casey landed two job offers after that, and took one that allowed him to rise up in the diagnostics world.
Focusing on other people communicates self-awareness, humility, and empathy.
When we only focus on ourselves, we give the impression that we’re self-interested, solipsistic, and indifferent to other people’s experiences. We sometimes give this impression even when we’re none of these things, simply because we didn’t do the work to consider how our story relates to other people.
Take a look at a few common statements retold with more focus on others.
|I spearheaded a departmental re-org and increased sales by 130%.
|My CEO challenged me to turn around my department. With her help, I reorganized the team in a way that made our work more efficient and more impactful, and partnered with my sales team to increase revenue by 130%. I was responsible for the producing the results, but I honestly couldn’t have done it without a great team that understood what we needed to do.
|I was the main UI engineer on the app and helped develop our go-to-market strategy.
|As the main UI engineer, my job was basically to make the app engaging and useful for our customers. So I spent a lot of time figuring out what they wanted. Our go-to-market strategy was based on that understanding. My team and I worked really hard to launch the app in a way that got it into the hands of exactly the people whose lives we thought the product would change.
|I put myself through college, landed my first job and climbed my way up.
|I put myself through college, which was tough, but I know I got that determination from my family. My first boss took a chance on me, and I honored that bet by working hard, which is why I climbed my way up. Now I look for other people with the same drive, because I want to pay it forward.
But including other people in the way we talk about ourselves isn’t just lip service. It isn’t just about checking the “I care about other people box.” It requires an honest accounting of how other people fit into our worlds. If we bring other people into our stories and don’t genuinely mean it, it will ring false and inauthentic, and it will work against us.
We have to truly consider how our experiences — professional and personal — impact other people.
Because no matter what we do, whether it’s managing hundreds of people or freelancing alone in our apartment, what we do always touches someone other than ourselves. It’s up to us to really appreciate that aspect of our work, and make an effort to share it.
Track your change.
Every story is ultimately about change.
Sometimes the change is small — learning a new fact, growing to like someone, or visiting a place you’ve never seen. Sometimes the change is huge — ending a relationship, switching careers, or forgiving a parent.
This change, big or small, is why we want to listen to stories in the first place. We want to feel that the way things were at the start of the story is different from the way they are at the end.
If that transformation is meaningful, then we enjoy the story. And if we enjoy a story, we don’t judge it — and we don’t judge the storyteller for being self-involved. To the extent that the person telling the story is self-involved — aren’t we all, a little, when we tell a story? — they’ve paid us back for our attention by sharing a meaningful experience: a story that captures a change.
Tracking that change was part of the work Brianna and I did together. In her earlier interviews, she told stories that highlighted facts without tapping into emotions, which also missed the opportunity to explain how she had grown. When she realized how much she had evolved through her work over the past few years, she began communicating her transformation as a marketer — elevating her talking points to true stories that didn’t come across as purely self-promotional.
Communicating change short-circuits the tendency toward self-promotion. Capturing transformation frames self-promotion as a meaningful journey.
And it does this in two interesting ways.
First, communicating change makes your healthy self-promotion meaningful.
Listing what you’ve done, what impact it had, and why it makes you a good candidate is straightforward pitching. Pitching is the mode we’re in when we feel we have something to prove, and it’s usually the vibe that makes us look (or at least feel) like a**holes.
But telling a narrative that captures the change you and other people went through is storytelling. A story recasts your self-promotion as an experience, and that experience embodies why you’re a good candidate (or partner, or friend, or colleague) without sounding pompous or self-absorbed. You’re no longer just pitching facts, but bringing those facts to life through a story that communicates change.
That meaningful change could take a number of different forms. Consider these two versions of the same basic story.
|Story without Change
|Story with Change
|I’m a pretty practical, results-oriented manager.
|I used to be a very academic leader, always reading books and taking classes on managing people, but over time I’ve realized how much more important it is to be practical.
|I prefer to keep a few close friends.
|When I first moved to Portland, I felt all this pressure to have adventures every day. Now I know how much I treasure a few close friendships.
|My dad taught me a lot.
|It used to bother me when my dad gave me career advice. Now I see that I actually inherited a lot of wisdom from him.
As you can see, change-based storytelling — like emotion-based storytelling — creates a much more vivid and meaningful experience. It doesn’t just suggest a change, but allows you to expand on your points in a way that suggests a transformation — a journey — even if it’s a small one. Oftentimes we overlook those transformations because we don’t take the time to articulate how we changed over time. But that change is always there, because change is an essential part of life.
Transformation is buried within every story. Who you are at the beginning is never quite who you are at the end. So when you prepare to talk about yourself, take the time to identify that change. Weave it into your conversations. Make it the centerpiece of your story. The more meaningful the change, the more likely it is that people will view your story positively. Our perceptions of a storyteller are tied to how we feel about their journey.
Second, tracking change through a story makes your story entertaining.
That might sound pejorative — after all, are we really trying to “entertain” a hiring manager in an interview? — but every good story has an element of entertainment.
When you hook your audience’s curiosity, take them on a ride, and pay it off by showing them how you changed through an experience, you earn the right to talk about yourself. Why? Because you’re interesting. What makes a story interesting, of course, is not just how you tell it, but the way in which you bring to life the transformation you’ve gone through.
That transformation is what your audience takes away from the conversation. If they get a meaningful and entertaining one, then it’s hard to feel negatively about the storyteller. We listen to stories to grow, understand, question, and learn. But we always listen to stories to be entertained. And there’s nothing more entertaining than a well-earned transformation.
Emotions, People, and Change: Connecting Up Principles
As you’ve probably noticed, all of these principles are deeply connected. Finding emotions, focusing on other people, and communicating change are all part of the art and science of personal storytelling. When they operate together, you can transform the way people perceive you when you talk about yourself.
When Casey revisited his stories, for example, he realized how proud he was of the work his lab had done. He also felt connected to the anonymous patients whose tests moved through his lab, and fulfilled that his decisions could make their lives better. He saw how he had evolved as a leader, and how his understanding of the lab had changed. He leaned into those universal emotional emotions, touched on the other people affected, and charted his transformation as a lab manager. That combination allowed him to talk with even more authority, and avoid sounding like an egomaniac.
This connection applies to all kinds of settings, not just job interviews. Whether you’re talking about yourself on a first date, accepting an award at an event, sharing an experience with a friend, or introducing yourself at a mixer, tapping into emotions and including other people in your story will save you from coming across the wrong way.
To put this connection into practice, ask yourself a few key questions.
- Who, besides me, is impacted by the story I’m telling? What happened to them? How were their lives affected?
- How do I feel about those people? What does the connection between my actions and their experiences mean to me?
- What universal emotions about the entire experience — my work and its impact on others — can I share?
- Who was I at the start of the story? Who was I at the end? In which specific ways — qualities, values, beliefs, feelings — did I change?
- What does that change say about me? What does it say about the audience I’m talking to? How does it relate to the reason we’re communicating now?
If you answer those questions in specific detail — I recommend writing them down, and maybe even rehearsing them if it’s helpful — then you’ll have a grasp of words and style that will shift the impression you make on other people.
To be good personal storytellers, we don’t need to talk about ourselves more or less than we already do. We just need to talk more meaningfully about ourselves — while also remembering that we don’t have to talk only about ourselves. Because if you struggle to talk about yourself in the right way, it’s usually not because you’re telling a story about yourself in the first place. It’s because you’re not telling enough of one.
[Featured image by Thomas Young]