Telling Your Story in Job Interviews

Across cultures, storytelling is one of the ways humans communicate with each other.  People share history and build relationships by telling stories.

As humans, we love to both hear stories and tell stories.  Stories allow us to experience someone else’s world, and we create mental pictures that help cement the experience in our own minds.  Often we even feel the emotions of the story as if they were our own.  I once read that we remember things that have strong emotion attached to them.  This is one of the reasons why we find it so easy to remember stories long after we’ve heard them.

I was recently asked to speak to a group of job seekers about telling their stories during job interviews.  I’m a storyteller myself, so I loved exploring this topic.  I’ve always enjoyed the recruitment part of HR because the interview process is all about hearing stories from candidates.  I’ve conducted many interviews over the years, and I’ve heard stories that have stuck with me long after the interview was done, so I know how important it is to tell a good story during a job interview.

Interviewers often ask candidates to tell stories about their past experiences as part of Behavioural Descriptive Interviews (BDI).   The idea behind BDI questions is that past behaviour predicts future behaviour.  If a candidate behaved in a certain way in the past, there’s a good chance they’ll do the same in the future. 

Suppose you’re being interviewed for a job that requires good customer service skills.  A BDI question might be, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.  What did you do?  How did it turn out?”  The interviewer is asking you to tell them a story about a past situation where you successfully dealt with a difficult customer.  Your story will give them information about the extent of your customer service experience, as well as your ability to satisfy an unhappy customer.

How can you tell a story that showcases your skills and helps the interviewer realize that you are the best candidate for the job?  There are three basic elements to a good story:

·         The hero.  The listener should be motivated to cheer on the hero of the story.

·         An obstacle.  This can be small or large, but it’s something the hero must overcome.

·         The pot of gold.  The reward.  The positive outcome for the hero.

For the customer service question, you as the job candidate are the hero.  The obstacle you face is the unhappy customer, and possibly other obstacles (not enough inventory to fill an order, for example).  The pot of gold is a happy or satisfied customer, or at least an outcome where you tried your very best.

In this example, you need to use a story that showcases your skills of being calm under pressure, finding creative solutions, or using communication skills.  All of those are excellent characteristics that will be of interest to the future employer.  You can take it a step further and apply it to what you know about the job for which you’re being interviewed.  For example, if you’ve been told that most of your customer service in this job will be on the phone, you can say that you would use active listening to make sure the customer feels heard, or that you would always call customers back within two hours.  This shows the employer that you understand their obstacles, and already have ideas for managing them.

The keys to telling a good story in an interview are preparation and practice.  Look at the job posting and think about the five key skills the employer may ask about in the interview.  Think back over your job history, and find stories from your experience that will showcase those skills.  Practice telling the stories.  You want to tell the story in about 3 – 5 minutes.  You can even practice with someone else so they can give you feedback on the flow and feel of the story.

You can also think about your own top five skills, and prepare stories around those.  You might want to think about times when you’ve done a great job, overcame an obstacle at work, or been recognized for your work.  Practice these stories in the same way.

One important tip: keep it positive.  Do not use the story as an opportunity to throw your former colleague under the bus one more time!  A future employer will not be impressed by negativity or defensiveness in the story, even if you think it makes you look more like the hero.  If you practice in front of someone, ask them to tell you if the story has a negative feeling.

When I gave my talk, someone in the audience asked if they would be bragging by telling about their successes in an interview.  The answer is a strong NO!  You are there to tell the potential employer the story of who you are.  You want them to believe that you are the best candidate for the job.  Hearing how successful you’ve been in the past will help them visualize you being successful with them.  No one else in the interview room can tell your story for you.

A way to get around this feeling of bragging is to say, for example, “My coworkers always told me I was the best person to have around in a crisis.”  This tells the employer part of your story in a different way, and gives credibility by assigning the statement to others.

Storytelling is a powerful tool.  Through practice and preparation, you can use it to tell your story successfully, and start a new chapter in a new job.