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What you will learn:

  • How to distinguish good from bad storytelling 
  • What happens to the brain when we listen to or read a good story, and how that influences our behaviour
  • How storytelling can help your career, your job search, from giving better product demos to getting hired or promoted
  • How to figure out your brand of storytelling and build your own audience 

About the speaker:

Emily Kager studied neuroscience and classical studies, then got an MA in Interdisciplinary Computer Science. She's now a mobile developer in San Francisco at Uber working mostly on Android, and went viral on TikTok after posting a satirical video about women's hiring processes at tech companies.

Our favourite quotes: 

  • “It's human to empathize more with a real person and their personal account than a statistic.”
  • “If storytelling can get a tech bro to do some self-evaluation, then I'm convinced that it's truly magic.”
  • “Without public stories like theirs, would change have ever happened at these companies?”
  • “The way that you narrate your own autobiographical story, even to yourself, can impact your sense of well-being and lead to higher confidence and better outcomes.”
  • “You all deserve to be known for what you do”
  • “Stories live in all of us and can be an incredible tool for building your brand, being better at your job and creating change.”

The Power of Storytelling

I want to start off with a statistic from the State of Women in Tech and Startups annual report: “40% of women in tech have experienced harassment.” 

Now compare that to this extract from Susan Fowler's blog post, reflecting on a very strange year at Uber:

“On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners that he wasn't. He was trying to stay out of trouble, but he couldn't help getting in trouble because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I took screenshots and reported him to HR.”

I think we can all agree that the second statement is more powerful. The post was picked up by major news sites, crumbling Uber's reputation and effecting change long after she had left. 

Or take Ellen Powell, who took her former employer, the VC firm Kleiner Perkins, to trial for allegations of gender discrimination and retaliation. Even though she lost the suit, it got major news coverage and created a lot of buzz around the treatment of women in D.C. And she still continued to express vocal criticisms of the hiring and promotion practices in Silicon Valley.

Next, Erica Banks and Ifeoma Ozoma, who both left Pinterest this year after being under-leveled and then denied promotions and pay raises. This despite leading the internal charges on new policies around vaccine misinformation and plantation wedding venues, that got Pinterest major positive news coverage right before their IPO.

After Pinterest posted a large campaign in support of Black Lives Matter, they felt that it was necessary to speak up, and they told their stories about racism and sexism at Pinterest. The shareholders have now sued Pinterest over gender discrimination. 

The more of these stories that are out there, the more powerful it is for other people to tell them and for companies to actually make changes and hold people accountable. So an interesting question is: without public stories like theirs, would change have ever happened at these companies?

Obviously choosing to speak up about these things is not an easy decision, but these stories create real change and ripples throughout the industry. 


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Satire and points of view

So other than harassment issues, which are obviously very high profile, tech has other issues, and to combat those, we can, you guessed it: tell stories! 

And they don't even have to be real experiences. I've made satire videos that are clearly fake, but based on reality to examine these topics—they’re usually compilations of real stories I've heard, plus some exaggerated ones that might have happened to anybody.  

I'm not saying that we all have to be comedians. Stories don't have to be satire or even involve any comedy. A personal story about a bad interview experience could be just as powerful as a drawn comic or a song. The medium really doesn't matter. 

I've discussed interviewing tech bros, egos, discrimination, and just plain old annoying work practices. A joke can be disarming. A story can be enthralling, and I hope that together they can start to make discussions. 

Some narrative tools that I want to mention that I've been enjoying lately are points of views: what stories allow us to take something accepted and attack and see it out of context? For example, what if doctors were interviewed like software engineers? Point of views put the viewer in the seat as the protagonist, having to deal with the antagonist of my choice. 

I've had people reach out after starting using the video format for some of my satire that seeing a point of view video made them actually reevaluate their own behavior. And if storytelling can get a tech bro to do some self-evaluation, then I'm convinced that it's truly magic. 

The elements you need to tell a good story

When I'm sitting down to make a satire video or even to write a Twitter thread, there are some good questions that I run through that I think are a good starting point for telling an engaging story. 

  • What do I want to sell (whether it's an idea, something I'm annoyed about and want to build awareness for myself)?
  • What's a good perspective to tell this from? 
  • Who is a good protagonist? 
  • Who am I selling it to (remember: the audience really matters)? 
  • Can I surprise people with some reversal of reality? Maybe some hyperbole: what could be exaggerated or distorted to really make people think about this? 
  • How can I add a layer of empathy or make sure that people are empathizing? 
  • Can I add comedy to disarm people while helping to prove a point?
  • And what are some likely questions and responses to my story, what are its criticisms? 

How storytelling can help your career 

Here are some examples of areas in which storytelling can help your career advance,

  • Lobbying for new features: Creating compelling user stories can help you lobby for features or tickets that you think are important. Let's imagine a made up food delivery app that wants to make a new feature in the pandemic for no touch delivery. Instead of arguing, this was mentioned by one percent of our users and feedback, you could try adding a human element to it: “An immunocompromised user has been home during the pandemic and wants to spice up their meal options but can't risk leaving the house. With a new no contact delivery protocol, the driver can keep driving and the customer can spice up their meal options.”
  • Give better product demos: These same techniques also make for better demos. Instead of saying, “click here, now click here” you could say: “Now try to imagine you're a mom on the go and you just need to complete a task quickly before your next pick up. You enter the app short on time, and instead of scrolling and not being able to find what you're looking for, the item is now right up top to save you time and get your task completed faster to be able to spend more time with your family.”
  • Ace job interviews: Or if you're looking for a new job, not every job that you've had in the past will be super glamorous or relevant to the new job that you're interviewing for. But you need to tell it in a way that's highlighting what you want the interviewer to know about you. 
  • Get promotions: The same goes for promotions and raises: these decisions are heavily influenced by the perspective of stories. Matching your own experience and goals to those stories will help you get promoted and may even help keep you focused and on track. Some sort of diary will help you write those stories later. 
  • Nail your networking: The dreaded question: who are you? Tell me about yourself. What do you do? The way that you answer this question will drastically change how people remember you. This is your chance to identify the highlights of your life that you care about. It's always good to have an elevator pitch ready about why someone should care about you or your work. 

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Storytelling yourself to yourself

So we've discussed selling yourself to others, but what about to yourself? In other words: what about your inner narrative? 

For example, I have a nontraditional background, but instead of talking about it as a weakness, I talk about it as a strength, even in my own head. I entered the field later than most, which some may think is a weakness, but I think about how I'm so lucky to have worked outside of tech to gain additional perspective. 

Whenever I'm feeling imposter syndrome, I just try to rewrite the narrative, trying to frame it as, “look how far you've come”.

There's a lot of psychology research showing that the way that you narrate your own autobiographical story, even to yourself, can impact your sense of well-being and lead to higher confidence and better outcomes. 

How to build your audience

Every good story needs an audience. But how do you build one? I wish there was an easy way to build up a huge following very quickly, but there's no magic way that I know of. 

In my case, I've built my connections over at least four years of just slow growth and staying active. And over that time, I think I've become at least somewhat known for being both a funny voice, but also a genuine critic of the industry. 

This is what we call a brand. It's not disingenuous to make a brand: it's focusing attention on what you care about and want to be known for and forming your story that you tell to the public. So when people think about someone who does X, Y and Z, they'll think of you. And they'll have something to remember you by. 

Here are some tips to grow your audience:

  • Highlight what you care about by talking about it often and using your bio space to tell people who you are and what you care about.

  • Find the balance between oversharing and posting consistently, you don't always have to have some very deep thought, but you probably don't want to share every thought either.

  • Stay topical by taking inspiration from industry news or popular trending topics. Usually after big news, there will be some sort of discussion, and that's a good time to get involved on the topic and piggyback on larger accounts.
  • Be genuine and be a part of the community by interacting with other people positively and helping and supporting others when you can.

  • Don't overuse hashtags, at least on Twitter, these have somewhat ironically gone out of style, but the exception to the rule is for a trending topic or an event.

  • I really can't understate the impact that social media networking has done for my career, even on not truly professional networks. 

You all deserve to be known for what you do. I've had a lot of women tell me that I'm brave for being out there and being public. I know it can be scary to be public and out there online for anybody. There are some real vulnerabilities there, but there's also a ton of opportunity, and if we're not there, then we're going to be missing out on the benefits too. 

Some final “warnings”: if you're posting to a public audience, you do need to be more careful about the amount of public information or personal information that you're including in your stories. Be careful about discussing too many specific things from work and don't discuss family or partner issues on the public sphere. 

I never share photos or videos of my home or neighborhood. You know, we have to balance being genuine in public with staying safe. So don't give your whole self to a public online audience. 

I hope I've convinced you that stories live in all of us and can be an incredible tool for building your brand, being better at your job and creating change. 

I urge you to go out and tell them and find your audience.

This content was created based on a talk during our Bootcamp What I Really Really Want in 2020. 

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