When someone asks you to “introduce yourself” but offers no parameters, what do you say?
If you’re like most people, your brain flips the autopilot switch and you start uttering some mix of these “things:” name, job title or college major, certification, and maybe if you’re feeling extra comfortable, a hobby.
Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with thousands of people in nearly every occupation and stage of life. When I ask people “who” they are, their responses are eerily the same. People define their thousands and thousands of days of living and working with a list of mundane statistics.
The problem is that if you remove your name from your list of facts you could be anyone. Anyone can do what you do. Anyone can accumulate the training you’ve accumulated. Anyone can acquire the work or school experiences you’ve acquired.
You are much more. You are what you believe in, your unique experiences, your struggles. You are your story and that story is your value, your one-of-a-kind contribution to the world around you.
And research finds that when we introduce ourselves and start with our story – a vivid description of why we do what we do and who we are – people are much more likely to remember us.
People Are Compelled By Your Story, Not Your Facts
When people meet us for the first time, their brains start making key decisions: Is this person of value? Can this person be trusted?
When we introduce ourselves with “facts” about ourselves, we’re not helping them out.
Twenty-five years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a powerful discovery. He studied people who had damage to the ventromedial frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotion. Despite leading normal lives in almost every other way, these patients were incapable of making decisions. He observed that even the smallest of decisions like what to eat were plagued by almost endless deliberation.
Over a quarter of a century of neuroscience research has confirmed Damasio’s thesis: The engine of our decision-making is emotion.
This rings especially true when looking at the interesting research on first impressions.
Daniela Schiller and her team at New York University found that when someone meets us, two parts of their brain work together to make the ultimate decision of whether to take the relationship further. The amygdala is our home for collecting information from all of our senses. It controls our motivations and it tells us who to trust and why. Meanwhile, our posterior singular cortex is where our emotional influence on memory is located. It exerts this emotional influence to tell us what choices to make.
Storytelling is a powerful way to affect someone’s emotional influence on their decision-making processes – especially the decisions they make about you. In a Princeton University study, scientists hooked participants up to an fMRI machine. When the participants were told facts, the data-processing regions of their brains lit up. These parts of the brain, called Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, simply turn words into meaning. Nothing more, nothing less.
But when the participants listened to a well-told story – one that included emotion and a rich description of context – all of the areas of their brain lit up. When we hear a story, our brains begin taking in sensory information as if we were in the story. This is one reason why metaphors have been such a powerful tool of human storytelling for centuries.
The most powerful part of this research when it comes to how we introduce ourselves, is that when we describe our stories we activate empathy in others’ brains. This empathy, in turn, taps into people’s emotions which is ultimately how they make decisions about you.
This is why instead of listing your facts when you introduce yourself, you should tell your story.
How to Tell Your Story When You Introduce Yourself
1. Don’t list “what,” describe “why.” Instead of starting to list facts about yourself, briefly but vividly describe how you got to be in front of this person – why you’re there. You might describe how you came to do what you do or how you came to care about what you care about. When you do this you’ll activate empathy, the person can see themselves in your story.
Here’s how you might do it very briefly. For example, instead of me saying, “I’m Zach, I’m a consultant, speaker, and author,” I might say, “Hi, I’m Zach. You know, a few years ago after being pretty miserable and disengaged in a job, I started obsessing about what actually makes people feel good at work. This led me to become a consultant, speaker, and author who specializes in helping people discover purpose in work.” Now, it invites the person to take an interest, to ask more.
Whenever you can, use sensory information. What did you feel like? What did your story look like? Sound like? This places the other person into your life.
2. Tell people what you believe in, the problem you exist to solve.
Your contribution is your value. So, make sure that when you introduce yourself, you include a description of the problem you exist to solve. How do you think things could be better in whatever sphere you’re in? In my example above, the problem is that people tend to be disengaged in their jobs. My solution is researching purpose and meaning in work.
Don’t talk about the solutions you offer (what you do) until you compel people by the problem you solve.
3. Do the reflective work.
To be able to do any of the above takes intentional self-reflection and self-compassion. Knowing why we do what we do, what we think can be better about the world, and what we’re good at takes a certain comfort with ourselves.
To do this, try this free seven day journaling exercise that prompts you to reflect on each of the components of your story.
Then, go out and tell your story. You’ll stand out just for doing so.