How to tell a story about yourself without sounding like an ego-maniac

To paraphrase Annette Simmons, “People won’t listen to you until they know who you are and what you want.” And one of the best ways to introduce yourself and answer these two questions is to tell a story that reveals something about your character and experience.

The challenge for many people, however, is to find and tell a story that doesn’t sound like you are just blowing your own trumpet. One approach is to take the spotlight off yourself and make someone else the lead. You can then play the supporting role.

When I introduce myself to a new audience I often tell the story of how I got started in storytelling by meeting Dave Snowden. Dave is a world leader in knowledge management and narrative techniques and is an impressive speaker and storyteller.

At this point you might want to have a look at this video below where I tell the story of how I met Dave. After you’ve watched the video, and before you read on, please jot down what you inferred about me after hearing the story and pop your answer in the comments. This will help illustrate a key point to this approach.

For those of you that didn’t watch the video, here’s the basic plot. Dave comes to Canberra and presents at a seminar I organise. He captivates the audience for the whole day with stories and new ways of seeing the world. I’m so taken with the performance that I resolve to do similar work one day and that night write a story and send it to Dave. He admonishes me for missing the whole point of his work, which is to help organisations make sense of their own stories, not to craft stories. We become friends and I join to lead his research centre on complexity in Australia and New Zealand. Then I leave IBM to set up Anecdote in 2004.

So Dave is front and centre in this story. He is the star but I play a significant supporting role.

When I ask the participants of our storytelling for business leaders workshops (which I’m giving in London in June) about what they infer about me after hearing this story (I tell the story at the beginning of the day and ask for their feedback in the afternoon), they say the following:

  • you are passionate about storytelling
  • you are willing to take risks
  • you have large organisation experience
  • you’ve worked for a highly respected company
  • you are confident to share your mistakes
  • you are experienced in storytelling

I never get the sense that they think I’m a poser (mind you, that might not be saying). To the contrary, it feels like we make a connection quickly and the workshop is off to a good start.

So think about those times when you’d lent a helping hand, where you’d help create the conditions for others to succeed, and tell these stories to introduce yourself and build rapport. These stories speak volumes about who you are, what drives you and they reveal your character; the pre-requisites for trusting collaborations.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Stuart Reid says:

    Here’s what I wrote down after watching the YouTube video:
    – he has worked for IBM
    – he is really into ‘the storytelling business’
    – he is willing to take a risk
    – he is willing to reveal that he got something wrong (and in doing so powerfully illustrated the difference between storytelling and story-listening).
    After reading further down I was impressed by the similarity between my list and the feedback you normally get.
    Nice video by the way – short and to the point.

  2. It was easy to picture a big man with beard in a crumpled suit who captured his audience all day.
    Here is an expert who doesn’t need to tell me he’s good I experienced that without the need to be told.
    Along the way I noted IBM experience, working with other professionals and in 2004 started own business applying what you had learned from other brilliant people.

  3. I liked the video, especially the turn-about at the end. I’ve always loved to hear great stories, but been terrible at telling them. Anyway, one thing I’ve been working on is finding questions that inspire/get other people to tell long answers, stories, to.

  4. Thanks for your comments Byron. Interested to hear what you have learned about how to prompt long stories.

  5. Jack Willis says:

    watched the Snowden video. Here’s what I picked up about you: 1) a researcher– searching the the “right” knowledge management person; 2) careful– searched and got feedback on Snowden; 3) somewhat conventional– Snowden’s off manner of changing clothes and the hook up with story-telling; and 4) risk-taker– going with Snowden after he got there and adopting the story-listening approach.

  6. E. Stanford-Bruce says:

    wha-oh! Learning event alert! This is one of those things I have to read several times to get its personal app meaning! That only happens when something commands my soul’s focused attention–no multitasking allowed. How I love these moments!

  7. Scott says:

    Interesting business. I am in search of telling my own stories, and to make sense of them. When speaking to people, I find myself giving too much detailed information, and I miss my point or they don’t understand. I work up to my point by telling reasons for it first. Maybe just because my inner thoughts are jumbled.

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