November 30, 2018 / Esther Choy

Performance reviews can be nerve-wracking for everyone involved since massive career decisions can potentially hinge on the results. When we are the ones being evaluated, can we make the process less anxiety-inducing? More importantly, are there ways we can make sure our accomplishments get the notice they deserve? The answer to both questions is a resounding “yes”– if we take the time to apply storytelling techniques. The checklist below shows you how.

A Role for Storytelling

Performance reviews might, at first glance, appear to be such objective, fact-driven ordeals that storytelling doesn’t have a role. But the truth is that even though our managers might think they’re being completely objective, human resources professionals say that biases, fears and forgetfulness can often creep in. For instance, many bosses simply have trouble remembering a whole year’s worth of performance and, instead, judge employees based on the past month or two. This happens so often it’s been dubbed “the recency effect.”

Facts are easily forgotten. But storytelling has the power to make your performance stand out. Facts are up to twenty times more memorable when part of a narrative. Telling a story can influence the details your manager remembers. You want your manager not only to have a good impression of your performance, but also to be able to repeat key points to anyone who has a say in whether or not you get recognized for your contributions.

Using the “IRS model,” you can craft a story with only three or four sentences:

  • I – Intriguing beginning (first sentence or two)
  • R – Riveting middle (next sentence or two)
  • S – Satisfying end (final sentence or two)

Here’s an example that takes the manager on a journey with the employee:

“Our company has traditionally relied on individual customers, but this year we diversified our revenue by approaching corporate clients. I led the effort to serve our first corporate client. The pilot was not only successful as the client has agreed to renew the contract, it also served as a roadmap as we scale our services to corporate clients. The company asked me to continue leading the initiative.”

The beginning is intriguing because it positions the company as trying something new. The audience perks up, wanting to know how this worked out. The middle takes the listener on the journey, showing this employee’s new responsibilities. The ending shows how everything worked out.

Some companies require employees to jot down a few of their accomplishments in writing, and that presents an opportunity to tell a brief story. Other managers might have an informal chat with employees a few days before the “crisis” of the evaluation day. Whatever approach your manager takes, the IRS structure is useful on the form itself. It can guide you as you complete any comments sections in your self-appraisal.

Performance Review: A Storytelling Checklist

Follow this checklist to make your accomplishments stand out throughout the performance review process.

    • Gather stories about your accomplishments. If your manager were to repeat one of your accomplishments to others, what would you want it to be? Dig for stories using questions like:- What are my biggest contributions to the company/ team this year? What makes these contributions above and beyond my call of duty?- What positive impact have I made this year that few people might have noticed?
    • Gather stories about improvement. Inevitably, the evaluation will identify areas for improvement. Craft a story about what you are doing to improve. Ask yourself questions like:- What was the biggest investment I made this year (at work, in professional development, etc.)?- What have I read or listened to this year? What difference has it made to my colleagues? What does it tell me about how I want to grow?
    • Choose stories about your goals. Use stories to convey your dreams, choosing stories from two categories: Those most logically tied to your organization’s overall goals, and those that build on the accomplishments you’ve already achieved.
    • Structure your stories with the IRS model mentioned above. You don’t have a long time to tell a story, so structure is everything.

Tell yourself the right story afterward. What if you get bad news or difficult feedback? As Wharton professor Adam Grant notes, performance reviews can reveal our blind spots, “but we don’t want to admit we’re blind.” When a manager’s feedback comes as a surprise, make sure you are telling yourself the right story about the bad news. Verbalize that story, and try running it past someone you trust.

Looking for stories encourages deeper reflection. Much like shuffling through photographs to create a scrapbook, it helps us make sense of our year. And shifting from proving our performance to reflecting on what matters to us can defuse our anxiety.

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The One Secret To Acing Your Performance Review

Need help preparing your stories for a performance review? Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary session with us today!

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

This article originally appeared on

Photo credit: Raw Pixel via Unsplash

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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