Telling a Compelling Story in Your Interview

by Carl Dierschow

Job Interview Story

We’re all storytellers.

Stories are the way you talk about your life to others. Through a story you can convey who you are, what you’ve experienced, and where you’re going.

It seems that humans are hardwired to like and remember stories which stitch together facts and emotions into a structure that has direction and purpose.

When you’re in an interview and you’re asked to describe a past accomplishment, are you reciting high points and facts, or are you telling a story? Here’s the difference:

  • There’s a setting. You talk about the work situation, the location, the people, perhaps the time. This puts a picture in the listener’s mind, and lays the groundwork for why your contribution was important.

  • There’s characters. Starting with you, of course, but also the other people you were working with: bosses, customers, co-workers. This helps to highlight your “soft skills” and gives more credibility to your story. Saying “I was in a team meeting” gives a different impression than “I was working with a couple of co-workers, Tim and Ellen.” Now your listener starts to see faces in their mind, and your language will become more specific.

  • There’s a plot. Something happens, something changes, something advances. Look at the difference between “we completed the project” and “starting with just a diagram scribbled on a whiteboard, we designed and completed the project in just three weeks.” There’s a sense of movement and accomplishment, and you can even hear a sense of pride and motivation.

  • A conflict gets resolved. This is what really attracts peoples’ attention, especially if it’s a conflict that they can relate to and the resolution has an element of surprise. “My boss set the challenge to get this done by the end of the week, even though we had no extra money to spend and the customer was breathing down our neck. By working with the customer, I found a way to satisfy their need in two steps. The very next day, I delivered part of the work which solved 90% of their need, which gave us more time to deliver the other part. I didn’t even have to work through the weekend, the customer was totally happy with what they had and my boss was too.” This shows creativity in resolving an important tension, and the solution satisfied all involved, perhaps with more impact than originally expected.

  • There’s a theme or moral. At the end you have to reinforce the point of the story: perhaps your listener got so engaged in the progress of events that he’s not sure you answered the question. So make the link back the point you were trying to make, whether it’s about initiative, technical accomplishment, soft skills, persistence, or whatever.

When you’re creating and submitting a resume, it can be tougher to tell a story in that format. But think about it this way:

  • Your setting is the timeline of jobs, locations, projects and assignments.

  • The characters are specific people and groups you worked with, so you should seek to make these specific and paint images with few words.

  • There’s several plots, associated with projects, jobs, and your various careers or career steps. How are you showing a sense of progress and vitality?

  • Achievement is compelling when you’re talking about resolving a conflict. “I closed $1M in sales” is different than “I closed $1M in sales, 120% of the target, while the industry was down 30% because of the recession.”

  • Your theme comes from the conclusions you paint about each accomplishment, tied into how you’re going to make a contribution for the specific job you’re applying for. Information that’s not relevant to the theme should be downplayed or removed entirely.

Telling a story in your resume is difficult, but remember that you also have your cover letter, pre-interview exchanges, and interviews. Make sure you’re telling and reinforcing your key messages in every interaction using your powerful stories.

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