“Tell me about a time when…” is one of the most common lead-ins to an interview question — e.g., about a time when you failed, went above and beyond, made a tough decision, had a confrontation, learned to compromise, worked as a team, etc. One of the best ways to answer that question is with a story. More specifically, you can use storytelling in interviews to bring a relevant experience to life, share what you learned from it, and convey something about you that you want the interviewer to appreciate and remember.
A story can connect one person to another in a way that means something to both. And aside from, perhaps, a first date, nowhere is a meaningful connection more important than in an interview, where you are trying to set yourself apart from others with similar (or even superior) experience and education. Your goal in an interview is to connect with the interviewer in a profoundly human way, transcending the information of your resume to give them a palpable sense of what makes you tick and what they can expect of you. Storytelling in interviews is a great way to do just that.
However, if you’re going to tell a story, make it the right one, and a good one. Outlined below are five tips on how to not only use storytelling in interviews, but also to ensure those stories deliver the right messages about you and have the impact you want them to have.
1) Identify five key impressions you want to make on the interviewer.
Storytelling in business situations is most effective when it’s strategic. And being strategic about storytelling means first thinking about what you need a story to achieve, so you can identify and develop the right story to achieve it.
When thinking about what you need an interview story to achieve, ask yourself the impression(s) you want to make, and what you want your interviewer to understand and appreciate about you. Getting more specific, if there were only five characteristic of yours that an interviewer could remember, what would you want those to be? Think about these in advance, write them down (seriously, write them down), make sure they’re true to who you are but also provide a dynamic and compelling view of you. For example, a specific impression about…
- How reliably you follow-through on commitments
- How well you work with others and contribute to a team
- How you handle confrontation, deadlines, or stressful situations
- How much you self-start and figure things out
- How you analyze and think through things
Strong workplace stories, even stories that are very personal, always contain and reveal a key message. So, think of these desired impressions as the messages (learnings or realizations) your interview stories should bring to life. And do your homework about the industry, company, and job you’re applying for. Use informational interviewing, networking, and desktop research to make sure you understand what’s needed of someone in the available role so you can tailor your answers, messages, and stories accordingly.
2) Find interview stories that will convey the right messages and make the desired impressions.
With each desired impression (message) of you in mind, start thinking back on your many life experiences for possible stories connected to it. More specifically, try to identify one experience that is most reflective of each desired impression and that will have the intended impact on the interviewer. And as you look back, don’t limit yourself to professional experiences. Consider relevant personal experiences as well, especially for younger interviewees, who haven’t yet worked as much.
As an example, when I was interviewing for an entry-level account management position in the advertising industry, I did my homework to understand the personal traits and characteristics that that role required. To be clear, I had absolutely no marketing or advertising experience and was a text-book Liberal Arts college graduate who knew a little bit about a lot of stuff. Still, I was able to point to the different jobs and personal experience outlined on my resume and tell stories that brought those desired (and role-required) traits to life. For instance:
- I told a story about being a camp counselor and how that experience taught me how to effectively persuade and inspire a group of people to do something they didn’t necessarily want to do.
- I told a story about being a waiter at a fancy summer resort and how that experience taught me what resourceful and attentive client service is all about.
- I told a story about back-packing through Europe with two high school friends, and how that experience taught me about how to compromise and work together towards a common goal.
For each of these stories, I knew the message I wanted to communicate (i.e., what I learned from that experience), the personal characteristic I wanted to convey and, ultimately, the impression I wanted to make. I then tailored each story to, as explained below, make sure it strategically achieved those desired goals.
3) Map out the plot of each story and make sure it drives towards the desired message.
A key mistake people make when using storytelling in interviews (or any workplace situation) is not thinking through and mapping out the content in advance. Storytellers who “wing it” usually end up with stories that lack direction and wander aimlessly along until they eventually and thankfully…just…stop. So, if you’re going to use a story in an interview, take time to make it worth the interviewer’s time. It should be well thought-through, tight and focused. And importantly, the plot of the story — the drama of it, the tension and resolution of it — should set-up and drive towards the point of it: your desired message.
In considering the content and plot of your interview stories, don’t hesitate to talk openly and candidly about times where you struggled or even failed. As long as you learned something meaningful from those experiences – a learning that you carry forward into the future – it shows no weakness of character to share that story: in fact, just the opposite.
4) Practice your interview stories, out loud, a lot.
Storytelling is a skill: one that can be taught, sharpened and, with practice, perfected. So once you’ve mapped out your stories, make sure you practice them, out loud: in your car, in your office or apartment, walking the dog, etc. Thinking through those stories helps, reading them helps, but nothing takes the place of practicing the verbal delivery of your stories. Doing so will ensure you work through any bumps or challenges before your interview, not during it. To be clear, practicing out loud is not about memorizing your story, it’s about internalizing your story, embedding it firmly in your head and heart.
5) Know when to use storytelling in interviews, and when not to.
As powerful as storytelling can be, it is not right for every single situation. And like any good thing; too much of it can do you wrong. So, be strategic and judicious in using storytelling in interviews. Answer with a story on questions that are more open-ended, probing and investigative, where you sense the interviewer is truly trying to get to know you as a person. But if the interviewer is asking you a more direct question (e.g., “What interests you about this job?” or “Why this company?”), a more direct, informational answer is appropriate.
In the end, well-crafted stories well told can not only help you have a better interview, but also make sure the interviewer remembers you and your stories once the interview is done. And in a competitive job market, that can sometimes make all the difference.
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 12 years, BB&Co has been providing Leadership Through Storytelling training to companies and organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Prudential, Dell and others, helping their people understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and with that, their ability to persuade, engage, and inspire others.