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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Be kind to yourself

"Smile have a nice day sign" by larryc - Smile. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you are a paid mentor/coach or a volunteer I believe the act of mentoring another is at its core an altruistic one. To be successful at this act one must connect at some level with the person across the room. Ideally a mentor would be open, at peace with themselves and kind. Sure there are your 'gruff' coaches here and there (mostly in the sports world :) ). But business and executive coaching require a certain finesse. One must be balanced and centered before one can balance and center others.

Now I am more of a Type A personality. Type A's are usually very hard on themselves in their never ending quest for over achievement. But a lesson a mentor taught me long ago was to be kind to myself. When you are kind to yourself then you can more easily by kind to others. It's akin to the famous saying "charity begins at home". I thought about that for a long while and decided there was much truth in that. As an example, if one is constantly judging oneself against high standards doesn't it follow that this same person will likely be judgmental of others? Being judgmental rarely brings out the best in people.

So what does it mean to be kind to oneself? There are many how-to articles out there (here's an example) but for me it boils down to 3 core values:

  1. Be healthy - exercise! Among the many benefits of exercise is the release of endorphins which help relieve stress and make you feel good. As you feel good so will the people around you! Have you ever been around grumpy people and felt it rub off a little? Well the opposite is true. Positivity can also be contagious. Would you go to a mentor who is always in an unhealthy or unhappy place? Probably not. Go for a run, do yoga, lift weights, climb stairs, etc. Don't just carry a mobile device - be a mobile device yourself and move around!!
  2. Be patient - slow down! Slowing down helps reduce stress in a number of ways. First it allows you time to take in what you are experiencing in the moment. It also allows you time to prepare for upcoming events rather than being rushed. When you slow down you can more easily find a natural balance. Being patient with yourself and others is also critical when working with a mentee as it creates a calming space for them to share whatever they are dealing with at that time. It's hard to be deep when you feel you're in a rush. To slow down some people learn to meditate others simply pack less activities in their day. Still others re-examine their life goals and make sure they are overall realistic. Whatever you do make 'being patient' a priority and you may notice it will start to happen naturally.
  3. Have fun - this may be the most important of the 3 values! Make sure to treat yourself to something, however small, every day. Perhaps it's a glass of wine, favorite tv show, trashy novel, surfing the web, phone call to a best friend or a simple walk in the park. There are enough stressful things out there we each have to deal with on a daily basis that I think it's key to reward oneself in some way every day. Having fun also involves not taking everything so seriously and laughing often and much.
Given that I'm Type A I am of course still perfecting my approach to being kind to myself and I still haven't gotten good enough yet :) . But I've come a long way since taking a step back and learning that kindness, both inwards and outwards, can make all the difference!

"Kindness, I've discovered, is everything in life." - Isaac Bashevis Singer