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    Getting distance on yourself


    Seeing yourself as others see you is so very challenging to do, yet so crucial in searching for a job.  Through the series of texts and interactions that you are run through as jobseeker, you really have no choice but to look at yourself as others see you, and it is probably one of the most frustrating, challenging and painful aspects of the entire process!


    And I know of what I speak!  This is the time of year when I have to write my self-evaluation at work, and I have spent most of the morning writing this blog post about why it is so very hard to talk about yourself as a way to actively avoid talking about myself!  But this is exactly why we linguists are lucky.  We know lots of linguists as friends who can help us practice talking about ourselves and focus on aspects of our professional self-presentation that might be getting in the way of our effectiveness.


    We focus on language – and after all, job searching is really just a string of highly textualized moments of interaction.   From the inquiry e-mail to the resume, to the job interview, through the negotiation, having the ability to step back and achieve distance on your language is invaluable!


    Which is why I love to use storytelling as a way of thinking about the process of professional self-presentation.  In storytelling, we cultivate a practice of looking at our stories with distance.   We tell true stories but we know that we are packaging them for consumption by an audience and that we have to do work to help them understand it.   When you think about a resume as a story, you start to think about the agency that you have in telling it.  …and maybe, just maybe…. the fun that you can have doing so as well!


    You get to choose what aspects of identity that you want to highlight / others that you may not. The choice to say one thing is a choice to NOT say something else.  The choice to say it one way is a choice to NOT say it another.  Even silence carries meaning, as we all well know.   We make these choices every time that we talk, but the need for clarity of focus is especially true in high stakes interactions.


    Whether we believe it or not in the moment, we have to talk like we know we are the thing that this organization is looking for.  Whether we feel it or not, we have to speak in ways that communicate enthusiasm, and finally whether we actually feel that way or not, I think we have to talk like we believe we are going to get the job.   If at all possible, and it doesn’t come off as obnoxious, like we already have the job.  “When I work here” not “if”


    One apparent contradiction here is another truth of job searching which is that no one seems so irresistible to an employer as someone who acts like they don’t want the job.  I know in my gut that it is an effective strategy to talk in ways that help the employer picture you working in the organization (and encourage the use of storytelling to plant visual images of yourself working in your application materials), but I also know from experience that when I actively do not want a job is usually when I get an offer!


    I want to suggest that this is the same conundrum that we encounter in storytelling about rehearsing.  When you rehearse only a bit, the story sounds stilted and rough and it also loses its spontaneity.  If you were to advise someone at this stage, your advice would be “don’t rehearse,” better to sound a bit unpolished than to sound stilted and stiff.


    But in storytelling, what I have learned is that when you push through this awkward phase to rehearse more, you break through to the other side where the story has been rehearsed to the point of KNOWING/OWNING, and it starts to sound fresh again.  So maybe when we show up for a job that we DON’T want, it is the distance that the employer can hear.  There is also the happy bonus of not sounding nervous.  With more practice, maybe we can talk in ways that achieve the same distance for jobs that we really do want.

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      TMAY in everyday life

      In the course that I teach, the MLC Professionalization seminar (Prosem), we practice professional self-presentation by focusing on genres like the elevator pitch and the Tell Me About Yourself (TMAY) question in job interviews.   But opportunities to talk about yourself are not limited to the job search context.  In the classroom, you are often called upon to talk about yourself and your interests when there is a new instructor, at work when new teams are introducing themselves or at an association meeting or a conference, you will often hear  “why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves?”

      What would it mean to be ready for this moment?

      Go first!

      If the situation allows for it, see whether you can talk first.  Often what happens is that the rest of the group subconsciously patterns their responses on the model established by the first participant to this interaction (topics addressed, key, length of turn at talk).  If you are the first one to go, you can set the frame, and if you are not, you can break it.  You actually often hear this done anyways, for example if everyone is talking about the sports teams that they support, you may hear a person contributing their turn by saying “well, I don’t really follow sports, but…” they have attended to the discourse slot and will likely find something that might be appropriately comparable to slot in there.


      Length of time

      Groups often come to have a shared understanding of how long one talks about oneself in such occasions.  In the business school classroom context, where I do research, this turn is significantly longer than in the Linguistics classroom – about 30-40 seconds on average to 10-20.  Just imagine what you could do with that lost time!  Plant the seed about a collaborative research idea, communicate to someone that you share an interest (like music or cooking or travel).  You really never know who you are talking to and who they are connected to.  Could be that this person is 2 degrees from a potential employer or client or new friend.


      If you are a woman, chances are that your turn of talk in this context will tend to be shorter than that of your male counterparts.  Consider whether you might try to “take up more room” conversationally, perhaps by telling a narrative.


      Tell a story

      Narratives tend to take a little bit longer, and provided that you are telling a story that paints you well, this is an excellent way to teach people about you or about something that you care about.  I am of the opinion that a good story always teaches something and also gives insight into your unique way of seeing the world.  A compelling story doesn’t even call the awareness of the listener to having done either.


      A recent example was a visitor to our Prosem class who told us about how he got a job at a concert.  Out on the town at a musical event, he ran into a former boss who happened to be looking to hire someone, and when she saw him, her brain made the connection, and he was happily in the right place at the right time to be lucky!  When he told this story to our class, he spent a bit of time talking about the kind of music that was featured at this conference, a style of music that most of us were unfamiliar with.  His enthusiasm was contagious and his passion for the topic endeared us to him.  One of the best ways to connect to your audience is just to let them see what you care about – they can connect to you as a person, which is what networking is all about, really!


      What do you care about?   Start collecting and building some small stories that you can pull out as your personal pocket examples!  Share them with us here or on Twitter or on LinkedIn, or…or…or….J


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