I remember being in a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, Canada, where my four brothers, mother, father, and I were waiting for our food to come. My father was telling us a story about our favorite topic—how our parents met—and even though the food was late in coming, we were all enthralled.
I think we’d heard this story a bazillion times, but we couldn’t get enough of it. My father’s story began like it always did, after one of us gave him the directive, “tell us about how you and Mom met.”
In a way my father’s storytelling was similar to what job candidates must do at an interview when asked to tell a story. Often at behavioral interviews the employer will ask for specific events meant to extract particular skills from a job candidate.
A successful story includes the following principles:
Meaning. What meaning does your story have? Here’s a big hint: it must be applicable to the job for which you’re applying. Asked how your strong verbal communication skills made a difference at a specific moment or period of time, but instead you talk about a time you demonstrated strong written communication skills does not have meaning.
You’re a skilled writer who has been published in countless trade magazines. You go into great detail about this in your story. But you fail to realize that the employer seeks someone who can verbally communicate with the media, partners, OEMs, and customers. Your story lacks meaning. There was meaning behind Dad’s story for us; so much so that we didn’t mind the food coming late.
Form. In a Complete Interview Process workshop I lead, my participants construct a story using the following form: the problem or situation, approximately 20% of the story; the actions taken to meet the situation, 60% of the story; and the result of the action taken, the remaining 20%.
Some of my workshop attendees have difficulty keeping the situation brief. They feel the need to provide background information, which in effect distracts the listener from what’s most important—the actions taken to meet the situation. The result is also important, whether it’s a positive or negative resolution. Twenty-sixty-twenty is a good formula to keep in mind.
Achieving success. When the candidate has achieved success, a couple of things can happen. First, the employer may smile and indicate approval by saying, “Thank you. That was a great answer.” This likely means that your story addressed the meaning behind the question and adhered to proper form.
Or the employer may come back with follow-up questions, such as, “How do you know you saved the company money by volunteering to take over the webmaster responsibilities?” Bingo. You’ve gained the interest of the employer who follows up with additional questions.
Dad’s story about meeting mom was always met with follow-up questions from all five of us. Mom always blushed.
Preparation is paramount to success. There is really only one way to prepare for telling your stories. You have to completely understand what’s required of the position. Know what competencies the employer is looking for, e.g. time management, leadership, problem solving, problem assessment, and customer service skills. Based on this knowledge, you will construct five stories in anticipation of directives like, “Tell me about a time when you felt your leadership skills had a positive impact on your team…and a time when it had a negative impact.”
With all the practice Dad had telling his story about how he and my mother met, the stories got better and better as time went on. That was a great time in the Chinese restaurant in Vancouver. Not because the food was great—I don’t remember eating any—but because the story was what we all wanted to hear.
Photo courtesy of Flickr, Honey Bunny.