Tag Archives: storytelling

4 important principles of your job-search stories

In a recent networking event, I started facilitating it by having the members introduce themselves with their elevator pitch. When it was my time to deliver my pitch, instead I began by saying, “When I was a child….” This immediately grabbed their attention.

father lessson

I proceeded to tell the networkers a two-minute story about a hard lesson I learned from my dad.

Then I broke them up into groups of four and had them each tell two stories. (Because it was an odd number, I participated…again.) They could select from telling a story about a:

  1. tough life lesson they learned;
  2. rewarding life experience;
  3. failure experienced in work; and
  4. success they achieved in work.

After each networker told their group two stories, I asked for volunteers to tell the whole group their favorite story. As it turned out, the members had told their individual group a story that addressed each topic. I must say all the stories were extremely good.

Finally I asked the members if their stories were related to networking. Yes. I followed by explaining how stories, no matter what the topic, have to be relevant to their audience. They must include the following principles:

Meaning

What meaning does your story have? The exercise I had my networkers perform required them to address the aforementioned topics. I gave them specific instructions, which they adhered to.

The purpose of the exercise was not only to teach them the importance of storytelling; it was also to illustrate that networking is more than delivering your elevator pitch. For example, you might have the opportunity at a networking event to tell a brief story about your vacation in northern Italy.

The same principle applies to interviews. When an interviewer asks you to tell them about a specific time when you demonstrated excellent conflict resolution skill, they don’t want theoretical answers.

Don’t start with, “Conflict resolution requires a level head….” No, begin with, “There was a situation where I last worked….” Interviewers want to hear stories that have meaning to them. You also have to use proper form.

Form

A story you tell to answer a behavioral-based question will be less open-ended than a story you tell in a social gathering or for an activity I gave my networkers. It has to have form, should not exceed two minutes, and be specific to a situation or problem.

Remember what I mentioned above; don’t start with a theoretical answer to describe a specific time when you dealt with a conflict, or any other specific situation.

In workshop I lead called Mastering the Interview, I have my participants construct a story using the following form: 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 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.

Create a connection

When the candidate creates a connection in an interview, a couple of things can happen. First, the interviewer may smile and indicate approval by saying, “Thank you. That was a great answer.” This likely means that your story addressed the 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. You’ve created a connection.

My networkers achieved success by eliciting some emotional response from the group. One story a man delivered was about how he was tasked with telling his aunt that her father had passed away. No one in the family could bring themselves to do it. So, he did the tough act. His was an emotional story.

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.”


My networkers didn’t have time to prepare for this exercise; they had to think on their feet. But all of them did extremely well. The stories they told might not have been geared toward the job search, but it showed them the importance of making a connection through storytelling.

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7 tips for your interview stories

Telling Story

If you’ve read my posts, you probably realize I like to begin them with a story. I do this because stories are an effective way to get your point across to readers. The stories I’m talking about in this post are the ones you’d tell at an interview.

In one of my posts I began by telling how my son wouldn’t listen to my basketball advice (why should he; I’ve never played b-ball in my life) and how my attempts to teach him the importance of being able to lay up the ball with his opposite hand relates to my attempts to get my customers to listening to common sense career advice.

Now I’m going to set the stage for the importance of being able to tell a story during the interview. When I interview customers, I ask them behavior-based questions. The reason I do this is because the majority of blue chip companies use behavioral interviewing techniques to find the best candidates; and I want them to be prepared.

If the jobseekers aren’t prepared for these type of questions, they will commit a number of blunders. Their stories will be too long, they may not use the proper format (STAR) in telling them, they may go down the wrong path, or they may simply crumble and lose their composure.

But those who are prepared for behavioral-based questions will tell stories that knock my socks off. Here are seven tips for telling a successful story.

1. You show your ability to relate your experience in a concise, yet persuasive manner. Using the STAR formula, your answer is no longer than two minutes, two and a half at most. Keep in mind that interviewers have limited time and, after many interviews, short attention spans. The crux of your story is the actions you took to solve the situation.

The situation (S) and task (T) are brief and set the stage, the actions (A) are longest because that’s what the interviewer/s are most interested in, and the result (R) caps off your story. Make sure you hit the major points in your stories. I’ve had to ask my customers, “So what was the result?” One said, “Oh, we won the five-million dollar contract.”

2. You demonstrate self-awareness. You get the directive, “Tell me about a time when you reversed a problem for which you were responsible.” First you need to briefly own up to a problem you caused, as this isn’t the core of your answer. This, like all questions that involve a story, demands truth.

“There was a time,” you begin, “when I instructed my team that a product had to be shipped a week after the actual delivery date. I had miscalculated.” This is the situation, or problem. You are owning up to a mistake you committed. “I took the following steps to correct the late delivery….In the end, the customer was slightly angry but he stayed with us as a loyal customer.”

3. You reveal more skills than asked for. Your stories delivered during the interview will reveal more skills than what the interviewer asks for. A question about how you were able to improve communications between two departments at war with each other will show not only your communication skills, but also your interpersonal, leadership, problem solving, coordinating, etc., skills.

Because your stories deliver more than what is required, one story can answer multiple questions by putting a twist on the stories. More importantly your stories give the interviewer more insight into your behavior and personality than traditional-type questions that can be answered with speculative or theoretical answers.

4. You elicit follow-up questions. 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 question and adhered to proper form.

Or the employer may come back with follow-up questions, such as, “How did you feel about volunteering to take over the webmaster responsibilities? What did you learn about yourself?” Bingo. You’ve gained the interest of the employer who follows up with additional questions.

5. You show enthusiasm. In your story you talk about organizing a fundraising event that leads to donations that exceed last years’s event by $50,000. That’s a big deal, yet your voice is monotone. There’s something missing, isn’t there? Or you were able to establish a relationship that you nurtured through understanding your client’s needs and providing customer service, which lead to increased revenue. But there’s no excitement in your voice.

When you tell your stories, make the interviewers’ care about your accomplishments as much as you do. Lean forward in your chair and look each interviewer in the eye, smile when you talk about your actions, and speak a little louder to capture their attention.

6. Your stories are about your value. There’s a fine line between talking only about yourself or just about your team. I’ve heard answers to my questions which left me wondering if my customers had performed the actions or someone else. You don’t want to leave the interviewer/s wondering the same. Don’t be afraid to use the word “I.”

On the other hand, employers want team players; so sprinkling in “we” every once in awhile is a good thing. If you led a team that did a great deal of the work, while you oversaw their work and corrected any errors; make sure to mention this. Give credit where credit is due, demonstrating you’re a leader who doesn’t take all the glory.

7. 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 questions being asked about the identified skills. Also keep in mind that not all questions will require a positive result; some may ask you for a negative outcome. Note: Three stories may cover the five skills you’ve identified.


Many interviewers will tell you that one story about a particular skill is not enough to determine that past performance is a true predictor of future performance. You’ll be asked to tell multiple stories about a time when you successfully, and unsuccessfully, performed desired skills. One thing your stories will prevent you from doing is fibbing; it’s very hard to veer from the truth.

Photo: Flickr, Besttoptrends

Stories have different meanings. Here’s one that relates to the job search

A recent post by Tim Mushey, Engaging People Is Not Only A Work Thing, has the quality of writing that made me want to actually finish reading it. Given its length–over 500 words–it’s quite a feat to hold someone’s attention (especially mine) to the point where you enjoy the story and its meaning.

Tim’s post has a storytelling feel to it that gets the message across loud and clear. I’m not writing to comment on Tim’s storytelling; I’m writing to once again say that stories have various meanings.

Tim talks about engaging people in your daily life activities, walking your dog, taking a run, and getting trapped at the mall because of a loquacious former teacher–his pops. He even talks about overcoming his stutter and having the courage to engage and how it took years of practice:

“This was not always easy for me; because I was quite shy growing up due to my stutter,” he writes. “Speaking up and meeting people was very difficult well in to my teenage years. But with practice and patience, I consider myself very engaging now, and will always take time to speak with others.”

I encourage you to read this insightful story and to engage.