Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interviewing? Tell a Story! (A How-To Guide)

“Logic can convince but only emotion can motivate.”Jonathan Alter

I was recently having a conversation with a job seeker*. Although brilliant in his chosen field of insurance through a series of uncontrollable events he has unfortunately found himself unemployed. A familiar refrain in the last year if not the last decade. Over a couple of fancy coffees at a not-so-fancy but respectable bakery chain we were reviewing his strategy and the likely questions he would be asked in an upcoming interview. We focused on one particular dimension the prospective employer would likely drill into and started to role play - I as the interviewer. Would he be able to demonstrate during the interview that he was an 'above and beyond' kind of person?

I asked my question and listened to his response which included an impressive set of achievements. These came in the form of a list of data points more or less about how much business he brought into the firm. This amount of business would be impossible to come by had he not gone above and beyond his colleagues. But his answer was, shall we say, uninspiring. Presenting this data is certainly logical but if you want to motivate someone to hire you you'll need to connect and conjure up emotion. The best way to do that is through story.

Studies have shown that people remember stories more so than facts. If you want to be remembered or if you want to communicate most effectively you will tell a story. Somehow our human brains have been optimized for the telling, re-telling, listening and processing of stories. In preparing for an interview you'll want to have constructed and fully prepared a set of stories that highlight a myriad of qualities about you. Hopefully a single story can touch on several of these qualities at once and be pulled out to answer a number of questions. (Needless to say these stories need to be true and verifiable as one should never, ever, ever lie during an application process.)

Obviously you can't answer every interview question with a story - certainly not the straightforward, factual questions such as "how many years experience do you have doing X?" (although some would argue even those questions can and should be answered with a story. I believe with those questions the simplest answer is best.)

So how do you construct a good interview story? Every story needs the following 4 elements:
  1. Introduction/context setting - this sets up the story. Give background information. Set the time frame, scene and context. Introduce yourself and your characters in that context. 
  2. Problem or conflict - every story needs a problem situation that presents itself and forces the protagonist (namely you) to make a choice and take action.
  3. What did you do or not do given this problem? Describe what your approach and thinking was dealing with the problem.  Were there additional challenges before or during your taking action that also had to be dealt with? Walk through your steps.
  4. What were the results? What would you do differently or make sure you repeated? If the end of your story was 'success' that's terrific but don't shy away too fast from a 'bad' ending. If you can demonstrate what you learned and what would do differently next time those 'bad ending' stories are even more valuable to a future employer because someone else paid for you to learn that lesson! They're getting a more experienced "you" for free. Occasional stories with 'bad endings' can be more powerful than a happily ever after one.

Use the telling of your approach and actions to demonstrate what kind of person you are. If you are an 'above and beyond' person make sure that comes out clearly when you tell that part of your story. Here's an example story excerpt for my insurance friend: "There were a series of months last winter with 16 hour days where I did nothing but research and brainstorm unchartered approaches to new clients. No one else was in the office which gave me plenty of quiet time to innovate. During those long, cold weeks with pots of coffee in hand I discovered an untapped market and developed an approach for a rarely sold insurance product. I understood why no one else figured this out - it took so much time to put the pieces together! After reviewing the approach with several of my colleagues we launched our campaign to a very receptive customer audience and doubled our overall business." etc. etc. 

That story section is a bit contrived but hopefully you get the picture. I would argue it's far more sticky than to simply say "I worked hard and doubled our business."

Take the time to prepare your stories. It will be worth it. Become a storyteller!

"Stories are equipment for living." - Kenneth Burke

*Note: some of the details of my story above have been altered for privacy reasons.

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