Career Path

We've Heard That Story Before

It’s common to connect with colleagues through stories—but only when they’re fresh and new.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

It’s a line we’ve all heard—and potentially grimaced at—in the office. Because when someone says those words, it almost definitely means you’ve heard the story. But you grin and bear it (particularly if the storyteller is a higher-up), listen, and then fake a polite response before moving on with your day.

We all share stories at work to endear ourselves with bosses and build relationships with colleagues and clients. “The most effective networking is all about making human connections,” says Korn Ferry senior client partner Kirsta Anderson. “One of the best ways to do that is to reveal something authentic about who you are, what you care about, and why. That’s where stories can be very powerful.”

If you repeat your stories too much, colleagues will view you as insincere and inauthentic.

But that power begins to wane if you’re telling the same story over and over and over again. Indeed, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and University of Georgia found that if you repeat your stories too much, then colleagues will view you as insincere and inauthentic. Here’s how to make sure your stories hit the mark and aren’t on repeat too often.

Figure out your endgame.

Stories usually go over better when there’s a reason you’re telling them. So take a moment to understand why you want to tell that particular story at that particular time. Are you talking to your team about perseverance? Or trying to connect with a client on a more personal level? By examining your endgame, you can rotate stories to match your different goals.

Weave in tension.

When we hear a good story, we have a biological reaction that forces us to listen. One of the enticing factors for a good story is tension, or the “what’s going to happen” factor. Common characteristics that help build tension include having an exciting beginning that sucks people in, unique characters, and a satisfying resolution, according to Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University who has researched storytelling.

But don't exaggerate.

In an effort to build suspense in stories, particularly if you tell them too often, tales can sometimes balloon. Experts say people are far better at recognizing your hyperbole than you might give them credit for. “Exaggerated stories—in particular self-aggrandizing stories—immediately have the opposite impact from what’s intended,” Anderson says. “They make the person you’re talking to think that you have something to hide.”

That means some of your more remarkable stories—even if true—may be best left untold. If you have another life outside the office climbing Mount Everest, for example, but it isn’t how you carry yourself at work, then detailing your treacherous experience crossing the mountain’s “death zone” is going to come off too far removed to your coworkers.

Give yourself cover.

The researchers from the University of Georgia and Washington University in St. Louis did find an interesting outcome to come to the rescue of perennial tale-tellers: if you’re concerned you may have already told the story that comes to mind, simply make a joke, or acknowledge that you may be repeating yourself. Say, “as I always say” or “now for a tale I like to tell.” By making light of the fact you’re repeating a story, your credibility no longer takes a hit.

Another way to do this: ask people if they’d like to hear a story, says Gabrielle Bill, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. “By getting somebody’s buy-in before launching in, they feel part of the decision and are more likely to be attentive.”

free career assessment
free career assessment