Corporate Eye

Got Stories? Lessons from the competition


The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition–one of the most prestigious events in all of classical music–occurs every four years, just about twenty miles from my doorstep.  Full disclosure:  I am not a pianist, though I practice occasionally just for the adventure.  Nevertheless, I have always wanted to attend the Cliburn start to finish, from the perpetual motion preliminaries, in which thirty contests play for fifty minutes each, to the suspense-filled final round when six survivors play their hearts out, and someone wins heaps of future fame.  (Yes–it’s basically a reality show with fancy music.)  But every four years, like clockwork, something interferes and I never get there.

Now the spell has been broken.  Though I haven’t made it to the concert hall, I’ve actually had a much better view of the proceedings.  Live webcasting has given me a seat onstage, with perfect views of every note played and every expression of the pianists.  If I miss a performance or just want a rerun, I can watch the archived editions.  I can tune in for rehearsals, research the players, read live-blogging by music critics, and get Twitter updates on every aspect of the competition.  What a world we live in!

So am I happy?  Not exactly.  The new problem is:  I now know too much.  Having seen all the preliminary rounds, I have a more informed view regarding the twelve semi-finalists recently chosen to continue in the competition.  Setting aside that some of my personal favorites didn’t make the cut (that’s just subjective) and acknowledging that I’m not sufficiently expert to recognize subtleties considered by the judges–I’m still pretty sure that at least two of the candidates who moved into the second round have much less chance of winning than some who were left behind.

It’s not that these particular candidates are romantic “long shots” or feisty “under-dogs.”  It’s just that they don’t have quite the level of musicianship or performance excellence that could reasonably be expected to put them in the top spot.

So why were these probably-not-winners advanced?  My theory:  They will attract media attention to the Cliburn, because they have personal stories that can be easily dramatized and neatly fitted into a headline.  Their stories also engage the live audience and energize the hall, quite apart from the particulars of their performances.

Which brings me at last to the relationship between the Cliburn and the Careers website.  Actually there are several potential lines of thought that could be applied to any kind of competition, including the competition for jobs (from the applicant side) and the competition for talent (from the recruiting side).  But I have one particular point in mind, and that’s the importance of story.  So consider:

  • Does your company website tell its employer story effectively?
  • Are there compelling employee stories included in the Careers section?
  • Do applicants have an opportunity to tell their own stories as part of the application process?
  • How does a candidate’s personal story fit into the evaluation process--and how should it?

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Cynthia Giles has followed a serpentine career path from academia to publishing to marketing and design to information technology and corporate communications. There’s plenty of detail about this journey at, but briefly--the common theme has been ideas, and how to present them effectively. Along the way, she became an accidental expert on data warehousing and business intelligence, and for the past ten years she has combined corporate contracting with an independent consulting practice that focuses on marketing strategy for smaller businesses and non-profits. Having spent quite a bit of time looking for work, and anywhere from two weeks to two years inside a wide variety of American companies—she has given much thought to what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating a great employment fit.