I recently had coffee with a senior partner at a large consulting firm. He’d just had a “milestone birthday” and now hoped to shift into roles that felt more meaningful to him — speaking, writing, teaching, and becoming a thought leader. He had great contacts; newspaper columns and teaching positions could be his for the asking. The only problem, he told me, was he didn’t know what he wanted to say.
Should he focus on the industry practice areas where he’d made his name? Global leadership, since he had so much international experience? Education or healthcare, topics of great personal interest to him? He had no idea where to begin.
“Message development” is a process I’m certainly familiar with. As a former presidential campaign spokesperson and political consultant, I’ve worked with innumerable candidates to hash out their visions for America and their policy stance on the issues of the day. But I don’t think a top-down process is generally the best way for executives — or candidates, for that matter — to determine what they really stand for.
Oftentimes, we’re too close to our own experience to be able to distill the common strand — the narrative thread that’s implicitly guiding us. That was the case for Chris Guillebeau, an eclectic entrepreneur who has written books including The Art of Non-Conformity and The $100 Startup. “Is there a larger narrative [to my life]? Yes, but it took me a while to find it,” he told me in a recent interview. “The larger narrative stems from the central mission: ‘You don’t have to live your life the way others expect’…[but] it took some time to get specific on what this looked like. In the beginning I floundered a lot.”
John Hagel, the co-author of The Power of Pull and co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, agrees. Even among corporations, he told me in a recent interview, “Narratives can’t be handed over to the PR department; they emerge from shared experiences. The first step for businesses is saying, ‘What’s our narrative?’ Because even if you don’t have a conscious one, you’ve been living one.”
We’ve all, as individuals and as corporations, been living an implicit narrative. But articulating it, as my consultant friend found, can be devilishly hard. There is a pathway to discovery, however. One strategy I developed in the course of writing my book, Reinventing You, is for executives to block out time to write down their “war stories” — the anecdotes that best capture their experience, successes, failures, and views of the world. Whether it’s insights about how to build a team or launch a new product, those recollections often contain the kernels of what matters most to them.
Sure, your personal brand and your message can be focus-grouped and wordsmithed by others. But the best place to look, at least initially, is at the stories you tell, to yourself and about yourself. You’ll start to see patterns and themes — if most of your most meaningful experiences are centered on global leadership, or if the “moral” of most of your stories is about the need for better executive communication, then you’re on your way to finding the essence of your brand.
After a recent lecture at Harvard Business School, a 20-something student came up to me. “I want to start blogging,” she said, “but I’m not sure what I should write about. What should my topic be? What if I change my mind and decide I want a different brand later on?” My advice to her — just like to the senior consulting partner — was to get started, try it out, write things down, and iterate (an approach definitively articulated by Len Schlesinger, Charlie Kiefer, and Paul Brown in their book Just Start.) You’ll only find your voice, and your authentic brand, by seeing what stories matter to you most.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on June 28, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.