Esther Choy was one of six admissions officers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, one of the top MBA programs in the country (currently ranked third in the US News rankings).
“Like all top schools, the University of Chicago’s MBA program had far more well-qualified applicants than available seats,” Esther writes in Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success. During their busy season, the admissions team would read hundreds of applicant files weekly.
“In a competitive environment, almost everyone has strong qualifications. Almost everyone has facts in their favor. But how valuable are facts alone?” she asks. “After all, don’t facts speak for themselves?”
No, they don’t, she realized as she reviewed thousands of applications.
“They don’t at all,” she writes. “Think back to the most recent lecture or presentation you attended. How many facts do you remember from it? If you’re like most people, you can’t recall many, if any.”
What do we remember?
“The average person today is inundated with facts and data, and we let most of this pass through our brains with minimal retention or reaction—unless something makes the information stand out in a meaningful way.
“That’s where story comes in,” Esther emphasizes.
Reflecting on her time as an admissions officer, Esther has three insights which have an impact far beyond business-school applications. These insights will help us demonstrate “our authenticity and value to others with unprecedented effectiveness,” she writes.
INSIGHT 1: A Story Is Worth More than Strong Qualifications Alone
“The applicants who stand out from the crowd of fellow smart, accomplished professionals are the ones who tell the most compelling stories,” Esther writes. “More specifically, a story that connects an applicant’s values, accomplishments, and future plans with the institution they are targeting will set that candidate apart in the right way.”
INSIGHT 2: We Are All in a Perpetual “Competitive Admissions” Game
Hardly a day goes by when we aren’t trying to inspire someone to join us in some effort. Life is competitive. Life is busy. “The true luxury good is [our] audience’s attention, and everyone is clamoring for it,” Esther notes.
To succeed, we must stand out in a strategic, authentic way. “At the heart of leadership lies persuasion. At the heart of persuasion lies storytelling,” she observes.
INSIGHT 3: We Don’t Need to Be a Super Hero to Tell Great Stories
“Most people, including me, aren’t born master storytellers or destined to be world-renowned superheroes and never will be,” writes Esther.
Many people struggle with telling their stories. Just like we wince when we hear our recorded voice, we also believe our life isn’t that interesting. “I don’t have any stories,” we say.
“We generally lack the distance, perspective, and objectivity to evaluate what story, if any, is worth telling,” notes Esther. We don’t notice or appreciate the great story unfolding right in front of us.
The good news? We can learn to tell great stories.
Reflection: When I make a presentation, do I tend to rely on facts and data or stories?
Action: Share a story today – in a meeting, as part of a presentation, or just in conversation with a friend, family member, or colleague.