The most powerful stories are the ones we tell other people about ourselves.
These stories can be opportunities for emotional connection, venues for healthy self-promotion, or beginnings of new relationships. They can also be vehicles to impart wisdom, moments to entertain at a dinner party, or ways to ace a job interview. As we teach on day one of our residential program, talking about yourself is the currency of trust and rapport.
And yet personal stories can also produce the opposite effect. For every engaging personal story we’ve heard, we’ve also sat through dozens of self-indulgent monologues told by people who seem more interested in hearing their own voice than in truly connecting.
So how do we talk about ourselves without being that guy? How can we tell stories about ourselves without coming across as boorish, self-involved or smug?
That’s what this article is about: how to talk about yourself without sounding like an asshole.
- Get vulnerable.
There’s something godlike about telling a great story. You’ve lived it, you’re recreating it, and someone else is hanging on your every word. It’s tempting to feel that you have to be Superman by glossing over the uglier parts of a story — in other words, feeling like you need to make yourself look good at every moment.
But as we know, vulnerability is the most powerful way to connect with others. Only when we drop our defenses can we show who we truly are beneath the carefully crafted artifice of a public persona. That’s the person you want to be talking about when you talk about yourself.
Think back to your favorite stories, and you’ll always find imperfections. We’re not drawn to the perfection in people’s stories, but in the dysfunction, the missteps, the mistakes — in other words, the human in them. Once you realize how much you identify with vulnerability and imperfection in other stories, you’ll be more willing to include them in your own. And it’s very hard to be an asshole when you’re just being human.
- Don’t manufacture empathy.
As important as it is to be vulnerable in your stories, it’s just as tempting to manufacture that vulnerability in order to come across as more empathetic.
Many people do this by opening up too much, indulging in details that are too personal, too raw or too intense for the context of the story. Other people do this by straight-up inventing details to hit the right notes, embellishing moments that feel vulnerable. Either way, being overly vulnerable is even worse than making yourself look perfect in your stories.
So how can you stay honest without overindulging your honesty?
The key is to ask yourself if your vulnerability is rooted in authentic moments. Are you including raw details because they were a real part of your experience, or because you want the audience to like you? Are you harping on old wounds because the story depends on them, or because you’re trying to play the role of the vulnerable storyteller?
Examine your motivations for including certain details, and commit to being authentically honest. If a story is coming from a true place, then it will play well. If it’s not, then it will set off your audience’s authenticity alarms, and backfire.
- Avoid being “too much.”
Authentic vulnerability is key, but even true honesty has its limits. As storytellers and as audience members, we have crazy sophisticated internal compasses. We just know when people are being self-indulgent or self-involved — in other words, when they’re being “too much.” So how do you keep your story within the appropriate bounds of intensity?
A good general principle is to err on the side of caution. If you think you’re whining, bragging, or going overboard as you talk, assume you are and rein in your story. Stay connected to your experience of yourself, and use that experience to temper your rhythm and intensity.
Of course, your relationship with your audience really matters here. Talking about an excruciating job interview with a circle of close friends is bonding, while talking about the same interview at a dinner party with strangers might turn into a therapy session. Consider the context, and tailor your conversation accordingly.
The key is to trust your instincts. You can always adjust your story as you go, but you can’t take it back when you’re done.
- Check in with your audience.
Self-indulgent storytellers drone on without caring about the audience’s experience. So one simple way to avoid being the asshole is to regularly check in with the audience, and make sure that what you’re saying is truly landing.
Of course, this can be tough when you’re talking about yourself. How can you make a personal story reliably relevant for other people?
In short, by focusing on the common humanity of your story — the details of your story that anyone can relate to. You might be a banker telling a story about the financial crisis to a group of farmers, but all bankers and all farmers understand the themes of crisis, adversity, passion and drive. They also appreciate the same questions, like whether family matters more than work and whether adversity is a good teacher. These themes are common to all humans, and they are the real substance of a great story.
The best way to connect with that common humanity is to commit to authentic honesty, as we discussed above. If you think back once again to the stories you love, you probably haven’t lived anything like them personally — but you have lived enough to connect with the emotions, impressions and themes that underlie them.
Along the way, you must continue to check in visually and auditorily with your audience. Are they holding eye contact? Are they really listening to every word? It’s possible that a great story can still fail to connect with an audience that’s distracted or uninterested. A great storyteller knows when not to tell a story, as much as how to tell a great one. Sometimes the occasion calls for a conversation instead of a story, or you’ll want to make the story more dynamic and interactive. Sometimes you’ll decide not to tell a story at all.
When you’re going to talk about yourself, take a second and ask yourself what you’re really talking about, and why. What is the common, universal experience that you’re talking about? Where’s the shared humor? Why are you talking about yourself at this moment, with these people, in this context? When you focus on creating an enjoyable experience for the people around you, you can rest assured that you’re not being an asshole.
- Be willing to laugh at yourself.
True vulnerability is almost always hilarious. The most humiliating moments eventually become funny. Events that seemed hopeless take on irony with age. The same details that made us cry will eventually make us laugh. That’s the beauty of vulnerability. We connect with embarrassment and tragedy by celebrating it.
As it happens, laughing is one of the best ways to talk about yourself without sounding like an asshole. Why? Because it’s hard to hate someone who takes their own foibles in stride. When you laugh at yourself as you talk, you signal that you’re not defending your ego or pretending to be something you’re not. That is authenticity.
Jokes are an excellent device to find the levity in your stories, but they don’t need to be pre-planned and perfectly quippy. Simply focusing on the honest, funny moments and appreciating their absurdity achieves the same effect. So as you talk about yourself, really hunt for the less-than-stellar experiences you’ve had. Can you build stories around those moments? Which key details come to mind? What about those details do you now find funny? As you tell those stories, be willing to laugh at yourself, and discover that you can talk about yourself without creating a negative impression.
- Avoid the humblebrag.
We all know the cliche of the guy who mentions in casual conversation that he “went to college in Cambridge.” You ask which college, and he mumbles “Harvard” with a practiced nonchalance.
This kind of humblebrag has become a fixture of our generation. It actually speaks to how badly we need to talk about ourselves in a world defined by self-branding, but how insecure we are about truly owning our experiences.
Now, some humblebrags are perfectly fine if you simply stop apologizing for them. But many humblebrags are thoughts that, stripped of their false humility, would be the very comments that make you seem like an asshole. “Ugh, owning a Ferrari is such a pain ‘cuz I’m constantly getting pulled over” is a particularly annoying brag, and doesn’t get much better by removing the humble. Other humblebrags, like “Just won a Fulbright Scholarship, freaking out, no big deal,” are perfectly fine to share, if you simply own the accomplishment.
Those accomplishments also come across better with a touch of self-deprecation. “I went to Harvard. I know, I know, but I’m only a little pretentious, I promise,” is a great example. Once again, you’re laughing at yourself, and the humor defuses whatever negative charge the humblebrag contains. But just like honesty, self-deprecation has to come from a real place. Simple tacking it onto a statement is manipulative, but genuinely celebrating the irony is meaningful.
When you think about it, bragging is just pride with the wrong intentions. You can celebrate your wins by authentically owning them and sharing them with your audience, or you can talk about them with false humility for your own benefit.
Remember that talking about yourself will always involve some form of self-promotion. Self-promotion isn’t inherently bad; it’s inauthentic self-promotion that becomes a problem. The asshole mentions how quickly he climbed the ranks at Morgan Stanley within the first few minutes of meeting someone. The good storyteller listens to someone talk about his first job, then shares a similar tale about his brutal first year at Morgan Stanley and the mistakes he made on his way up the ladder. It’s all about owning your accomplishments, then combining that pride with the right intention, self-awareness and audience connection.
- Talk about yourself by talking about others.
Sometimes, it will be difficult to talk about yourself without sounding pompous or self-involved, no matter how well you tell the story. This often happens in networking conversations and job interviews, where you need to be clear about your accomplishments without coming across as big-headed.
One way to get around this problem is to talk about yourself by talking about others. People can infer a great deal about you when you discuss how you work with other people.
For example, when talking about your furniture design business, you might open up about your dad, how he taught you how to build furniture for the house, and why you owe your business to him. When talking about your sales records at your previous job in an interview, you might mention your boss’ guidance and wisdom, which helped shape you into the salesperson you are today.
Bringing other characters into your story allows you to brag without coming across as self-centered. It signals a clear empathy in the way you view your past and demonstrates the way you build relationships with other people. In some contexts, like a job interview, this is precisely the quality your audience will be looking for. In others, it will simply be a helpful device to avoid sounding self-obsessed.
Final thoughts on talking about yourself.
Following these tips will keep your personal stories meaningful and balanced. But as you learn how to talk about yourself, you’ll almost certainly stumble into moments of self-indulgence.
If you find yourself coasting into asshole-ville, there’s nothing wrong with stopping, laughing at yourself, and commenting on it to your audience. “Oh man — I’m seriously bragging right now, aren’t I? I’m sorry. I just get really excited sometimes.” By calling it out, you’re saying a few important things: that you’re self-aware enough to recognize your missteps, that you’re human enough to admit it, and that you’re more interested in laughing than talking about yourself. You can then pivot the conversation toward your audience, and invite them to talk about themselves. In most cases, that will save you from being “too much.”
At the same time, you also have to risk making mistakes from time to time in order to develop your social persona. You can’t control 100% of people’s perceptions of you — in fact, doing so will stop you from authentically being yourself. As important as it is to check in with your audience, you also have to give up control over what they think of you.
Ultimately, talking about yourself is both an art and a science, and it always reflects your intentions, good or bad. Stay focused on the fundamentals — authenticity, vulnerability and a genuine interest in your audience — and you’ll find yourself talking about yourself in that sweet spot between self-absorption and insecurity. That sweet spot is true connection, the reward for talking about yourself in just the right way.