How to describe why you’re passionate about what you do - Women's Agenda

How to describe why you’re passionate about what you do

Think about your passion story. The better you know it, the better it will sound next time you tell it. Remember, you rarely launch into a long tale about all the things that make you passionate about what you do. You start with a spark, something that will intrigue people. Once they’re drawn in, it bursts into flame, and then you can fan it with more details about your story until it becomes a fire.
Here are three strategies you should have ready to go.

  1. The spark

    The key here is to spark the interest of the person you’re talking to.

    You want to provide information about yourself in an easily digestible way that intrigues them enough to want to know more.

    Focus on: describing your passion

    Depending on the circumstances, you might use this when you meet people for the first time or when you have only a short time in which to explain who you are and what you do.

    Try this: I love [describe your passion]. I love doing this because [talk about what excites you and what you find rewarding about it]. The best part is [describe an outcome of what you do].

    Example: I love helping people who want to get published, improve their writing or change careers to become a writer. I love doing this because there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing people realise this is possible. The best part is when they actually take those steps and I can see that it’s changed their life.

    Take a few minutes to write your version now.

    So how does this differ from your elevator pitch — your 10- to 30-second spiel about what you do and what your business is about? We’ll go into detail about your elevator pitch in the next chapter. There is definitely a subtle difference. But don’t overthink it. You don’t want to get into an internal debate about which pitch to pull out every time you meet someone. You’ll wind up tongue- tied as your brain tosses up which one to use. Trust your gut. And tell whichever power story comes most naturally to the conversation you’re having at the time.

    If you’re interacting in a more formal or corporate environment, you may choose to use your elevator pitch about your business. Let’s say you’ve bumped into the chief financial officer of a major multinational company during the coffee break at their annual general meeting. Chances are this won’t be the ideal moment to share your passion story. But if you met them in a social setting — say, at an informal networking drinks session — that could be perfect.

  2. The flame

    Now it’s time to turn that spark of your story into a flame. But when you’re still getting to know someone, you want a slow comfortable burn so that people aren’t overwhelmed with too much information.

    Focus on: how you help others

    After you spark people’s interest, they’ll typically ask a follow-up question, such as: ‘How do you do that?’ This is the perfect opportunity to turn the spark of your story into a ‘flame’.

    Try this: I do this by [succinctly describe the way in which you achieve the outcomes described in the ‘spark’].

    Example: I do this by running short courses in many different types of writing. So whether you want to write a novel, a screenplay, a business book or a media release, you can discover exactly how to do this through one of our courses, which can be taken online or in person, at the Sydney Writers’ Centre.

    The key here is not to go into too much detail. You don’t want listeners to suffer from information overload. That’s why it’s important to refine your ‘flame’ so it’s short and succinct. You want to pique people’s interest so they ask you for more information. You don’t want their eyes to glaze over.

  3. The fire

    Now you want to fan that flame so it turns into a fire. This is when you get to tell other aspects of your story and give other people a real insight into your business, passions and life.

    Focus on: conversation

    Once people are engaged in a deeper conversation with you about your story, this is where you’ll reveal some or part of your entrepreneur’s journey (which you identified in the previous chapter). This could happen at a dinner party; or you might be questioned by a job applicant you’re interviewing; or maybe you’re pitching to investors and they want to hear more about your story than what’s revealed in the budget forecasts you’ve given them.

    Again, don’t get caught up in wondering which part you should reveal when. Just treat it as a conversation and bring up the points you think most relevant and interesting at the time. Like a fire, your story can glow subtly or burn intensely. It’s up to you to fan it when you feel the time is right and to pull back when it’s time to talk about something else. You can draw on different elements and showcase different aspects of your experience to suit the circumstances.

    If I’m giving a one-hour keynote presentation about how you can achieve your dreams, you might hear most of that story. Among business owners on Twitter, I might give brief examples of our challenges and how we overcame them, or I might respond to someone else’s tweet by sharing a photo or link to illustrate what I’m passionate about.

To call on the right parts of your story when you need them, however, you need to be clear on what your story is. That’s why identifying the various parts of your passion story is so important.

Don’t have passion for your business?

If you’re clear on what you’re passionate about, this exercise is going to be very easy. But what if you’re not really that passionate about your business, or if you’re struggling to identify how your passions connect with your business? Don’t worry. Your passions are probably there, bubbling below the surface, but are simply covered by layers of … life — that is, responsibilities, children, relationships, studies, other people’s expectations and all the things you think you should do, instead of the things you’d simply love to do.

Business coach Ali Brown points out that entrepreneurs sometimes ‘fall into’ their businesses. Based in Los Angeles, Ali coaches business owners around the world, including in the UK, Australia and Asia. She was named one of Ernst & Young’s Winning Women Entrepreneurs in 2010 and was featured on the ABC television show The Secret Millionaire in 2011. Ali says she often sees people go into business simply because they have a particular skill, whether dog grooming or sales training or IT maintenance. ‘When you’re skilled at something, it can be tempting to open a business based around that skill,’ says Ali. ‘On paper, that might make sense. However, you could also end up with a business you’re not actually passionate about.’

Without a passionate connection to your business, it will be hard to maintain your enthusiasm for it. And that is palpable when you’re talking to other people, whether they are customers, employees, investors or suppliers. So it’s worth taking the time to identify what you are passionate about. To start figuring this out, Ali says: ‘Ask yourself: “What did I love to do when I was 12 years old?” ‘ It sounds like such a simple question. But it will help you get to the core of what you want to identify.

When I was 12, I was in Mrs Heath’s history class. I was supposed to be studying the Renaissance. For my assignment I created an olde worlde version of Cosmopolitan magazine. Long before the days of desktop publishing and iPad apps that can create magazines with a few swipes and some Flickr photos, I was creating them the old- fashioned way, with my dad’s typewriter (we didn’t have a computer yet), cut-up photos (there was no Instagram back then either), glue and staples. Every article was a story about the Renaissance — Cosmo- style. Even back then I loved telling stories. Mrs Heath, on the other hand, didn’t see it the same way. She failed me on that assignment. She said I got top marks for presentation but felt that the tabloid-style treatment of my stories was ‘not appropriate’. Of course, I thought that was grossly unfair. But I loved the process of putting together a magazine, even though I’ll admit my efforts did look a bit crap, and I secretly hoped I would be able to do it one day for real.

What got you excited when you were young? What did you absolutely love to do in your spare time? What were you passionate about when you weren’t encumbered with a job, mortgage, kids and other responsibilities. This will usually give a very strong clue to what your true passions are.

I know there are many other more comprehensive techniques to determine your passions. You can visit a careers or life coach and write copious lists of the activities you enjoy, your hobbies, interests, values and so on. And if you have the time to do that, then go for it. But I agree with Ali’s suggestion. The quick hack on this is to simply ask yourself: ‘What did I love to do when I was 12 years old?’

Dig deep — it’s there

I once had to interview a number of accountants for a series I was writing for a business magazine. Now, I know accountants have long been the butt of jokes the world over. They are painted as boring, dull, lifeless nerds with calculators in their top pockets, and number- crunching may not be the most exciting activity in the world. But the power of story was brought home to me when I interviewed two very different accountants, both equity partners in their own firms, and had to choose which of the two to feature in my article.

When I asked the first accountant (we’ll call him Bill) why he was drawn to the profession, he said: ‘Oh, I tell people they shouldn’t do accounting. I don’t know why people want to do it. When I meet university graduates, the young people tell me: “I’m keen to be an accountant … ” But I just don’t get it. I can understand young people saying they want to be a neurosurgeon or a fireman or a policeman. But an accountant? Who actually wants to do that?

‘I didn’t have a burning passion to study accounting when I first started out. My dad was an accountant and so was my brother, so I just did it because that’s what they did. I don’t regret it though. I’m good at what I do, and so is everyone in my firm. Our clients know that when we work on their projects, they’ll get excellent advice.

‘When I tell people they shouldn’t do accounting, I say that with tongue in cheek. But I really do secretly wonder why any young person would actually find it interesting.’

I was surprised by Bill’s attitude. This wasn’t a heart-to-heart with a colleague. He was talking to me as a representative of his firm. I was interviewing him for an article about careers in accounting. And he knew this.

Bill didn’t exactly overflow with passion for his chosen career, and ordinarily that’s fine. We don’t all have to bubble over with enthusiasm about our jobs. But Bill was letting his company, and himself, down with his story. Maybe he thought he was being funny. Maybe he was just telling the truth. Maybe he was just unaware that he wasn’t leaving a particularly positive impression. Whatever the reason, he painted a certain picture of himself and his firm.

This was a far cry from my interview with another accountant we’ll call Kevin, who was also a partner in his accounting firm. When I asked Kevin the same question he replied: ‘I love the fact that I help people make better decisions. It’s not just about the numbers. It’s not about balance sheets and financial reports. They are just the technical tools we use. The technical aspect is fulfilling in itself, because I find that side of it intellectually stimulating. But I like the way this job gives me an opportunity to make a difference in the decisions made by my clients, and hopefully they have a more successful business as a result of my input.

‘As a chartered accountant, I really believe that one of the best ways you can serve people is by helping them. You help them make more informed decisions. You equip them with accurate information so they can make wise choices. That way, they get a better outcome. And that’s how we, as a country, can improve across all industries. After all, isn’t that what we should be doing? Making sure that each generation has a better world to live in than the one before.’

Kevin spoke with a genuine passion that was palpable, whereas you could tell that Bill just wanted to be somewhere else. Bill went through the motions and tried to put forward some positive points about the accounting profession, but it was obvious he didn’t believe in his own words.

Kevin and Bill. Chalk and cheese. The difference: a passion story. Kevin has nailed his. Bill hasn’t.

It’s important to note that Bill doesn’t have to make one up. He shouldn’t feign excitement about his career if he genuinely isn’t thrilled by it. But he should try to identify what does get him excited. Why did he become a partner in an accounting practice in the first place? When I asked him what gets him out of bed in the morning and makes him keen to get to work, Bill slowly began to identify what drives him.

He told me: ‘The area of accounting I love most is forensic accounting. Here we investigate the financial aspects of certain insurance claims, fraud, misuse of funds and so on. Every matter is unique. There’s a methodology in how we do our job but because every case is different, you have to look at the big picture and see how you’re going to tackle it. I’m never bored. It’s like the thriller stories I used to read when I was younger. There was always a problem to solve or a villain to bring down. Our cases are usually quite complex and challenging. It’s exciting. It’s like James Bond meets CSI, except you’re an accountant.’

Finally speaking about his passion, Bill had suddenly become a lot more interesting. Those were his exact words. He had finally identified what drove him in his business. The trouble is that many people don’t take the time to identify what they are passionate about, and therefore they rarely articulate it. Bill had been recycling his story about being a boring accountant when his work was actually far from boring. He just bought into the common perception of accountants as having less than thrilling careers compared with neurosurgeons or firemen.

Chances are you can actually connect your passion with your work. It just might not be the most obvious link. Too often we make the mistake of thinking that we have to sound passionate about our business or job, that we have to sound enthusiastic about what we do every day. But if this story isn’t genuine we shouldn’t be telling it, because it won’t be convincing. The key is to identify what you are authentically passionate about and then determine how that fits in with your job or business. That’s the story you need to be telling.

Why you need to share your passion story

Your passion might be flying kites, creating stories or restoring vintage cars, or it might be changing people’s lives. Everyone is different. If it’s connected to the work you do, great. It makes sense for you to share your story so people get an understanding about what inspires and drives you.

You might think that people won’t be interested in your passion. It’s true that your story will resonate with different people on different levels and to different degrees. That’s perfectly natural. But don’t be afraid to share your passion story just because you think some people aren’t going to embrace it. The people you meet aren’t mind-readers, so you need to be proactive in sharing your story to attract those who can actually help you pursue your passion. How can others help you on your journey if you don’t share what’s important to you? By the same token, don’t bang on about it ad nauseam. You need to strike the right balance.

Share your passion story with others. When you share your passion with others, they can see you’re bringing something extra to the table. You’re bringing more than just your technical skills, you’re bringing a chutzpah that can make all the difference.

Whether you allude to it in your tweets or your blog posts or elaborate on it in a keynote presentation, the act of sharing your passion will help you make that all-important emotional connection with others.

Your passion story is often intrinsically linked to the call to adventure on your entrepreneur’s journey. When you let other people share your entrepreneurial journey, you not only empower them to help you pursue your passions, you open the door to opportunities that may have once seemed out of reach.

Determining your passion story

Pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, get a notepad and step away from your computer. You don’t want to be distracted by emails, tweets or items on your ‘to do’ list that are calling your name. You want to dig deep and think about what you are truly passionate about. This is going to form the core of your passion story.

  1. Write down what you are truly passionate about and describe how it drives your business and/or what you do professionally.
  2. Explain how this passion helps other people.
  3. If you don’t feel passionate about your business, ask yourself: What did I love to do when I was 12 years old? Connect that passion with what you currently do.
  4. Identify situations, either in real life or online, in which you can share your passion story.

This is an edited extract from Valerie Khoo’s new book, Power Stories, published by Wiley and available in all good book stores. 


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