“I remember the daffodils were beautiful that summer. I was young then, just starting out, full of optimism and joie de vivre…What? My management skills? Don’t worry, I’m getting to that part eventually.”
One of the best things about the in-person (or phone) job interview is that it gives you a chance to take your sterile-looking, rigidly bulleted resume and create a more rounded narrative of yourself and your career. But it’s an area that takes a bit of skill and finesse. You don’t want to end up way out in Tangentville, but you also don’t want to seem like you can’t back up the information on your resume.
Find Your Narrative
Before the interview, it’s important to limber up by coming up with the narrative you want to express during the interview. Is it that you’re a tough leader who always wants to improve? Are you a problem solver who thrives on challenges? Once you work out what you want to achieve with your interview (and what works well with the job description), you can shape your stories and anecdotes to bolster that narrative.
Storytelling isn’t just a way to package yourself, it’s also a way to pull in the interviewer and make them care more about the person and resume sitting in front of them.
What to Talk About
At The Muse, they recommend having six types of stories in your pocket for any interview:
Problem solving is a very highly regarded skill for hiring managers. They need to know that you’ll step in and be able to handle things on your own.
Talk about: You resolved a conflict between two coworkers, or between you and someone else. You came up with a solution to a crisis at the last minute. You identified an area of cost savings that helped save a budget crisis.
DON’T talk about: The time you brokered a peace deal between your two fighting frat brothers, or between your mom and Aunt Susan at Thanksgiving. Unless you managed a peace deal in the Middle East in your spare time, stick to work-related stories.
Everyone loves the underdog, right? And sure, it’s good to have examples of when things went well, but many interviewers want to know about how you do when things aren’t going so well. In this story, it’s important to identify the challenge, but more important to show how you conquered it successfully.
Talk about: You had a difficult relationship with your boss, but came to an understanding. You found a new and more efficient process for doing something that used to take hours. You had a crazy deadline for a project—and met it
DON’T talk about: How you started waking up on time after you got in trouble for constantly coming in late.
Bouncing Back from Mistakes
You’re not perfect. Spoiler alert…the interviewer knows that. The trick here is turning mistakes to your advantage. It’s important to be selective here; you want to pick something that wasn’t too egregious, and also something that shows real professional growth. Be sure to focus on the outcome (how you’ve pivoted and this mistake made you stronger) over the mistake itself.
For this one, you not only have to be a storyteller, but also a spinmaster. It’s important to show that you’re a better and stronger employee for the experience, which of course wouldn’t be repeated in your new job.
Talk about: A mistake you made early in your career that made you better at your job. A knowledge gap that you worked hard to address.
DON’T talk about: The time you almost got fired for negligence. A major mistake you made for which you never got caught. The time you hit reply-all to make a snarky comment about someone on the email chain, even though you meant to forward it to your friend Jake only. Or the confidential company information that somehow got made public via your Twitter account.
Making Good Decisions
This is not the time for an elaborate story that ends with your colleagues carrying you out of the conference room on their shoulders, chanting your name. Look for stories that show how you took charge of a situation, or managed others to a successful outcome.
Talk about: The team you led to a successful year of sales. The event you organized (and went well). The project you spearheaded.
DON’T talk about: Successful initiatives where you weren’t actually the person in charge. It’s a dangerous game, taking credit for things. You never know who knows whom, and what can be factchecked as soon as you leave the interview.
Working Well with Others
You don’t have to be the shining leader here, it’s more about how you interact. This one is pretty flexible—any kind of project you’ve done in conjunction with other people will do. Colleagues, clients, volunteers, all are potential teamwork stories.
Talk about: The event you organized in conjunction with others. The high-profile project that involved several different departments.
DON’T talk about: Times you didn’t get along with others, or had conflicts.
Being, You Know, a Real Person
Sometimes you get a bit of a wildcard, an interviewer saying, “So tell me about yourself.” Rather than launch into a chronological timeline of your education and experience, pick a story or two that expresses your priorities and values. It doesn’t have to be strictly related to work, but if you can use it to shore up one of the big skills (leadership, problem solving, commitment, etc.), all the better.
Talk about: You’re training for a marathon. You speak three languages and are working on a fourth. On weekends, you volunteer at a farm for rescued mongooses.
DON’T talk about: Inappropriate personal stories. Health issues. Political activities.
How to Frame Your Stories
Good interview stories do two things:
1. They tell the interviewer something about you that goes beyond your resume bullet points.
2. They engage the interviewer.
It’s the same as any story you tell, whether you’re hanging out at a café with friends or in a job interview: you want to tell it in the best, most entertaining way. This does not mean you need to adopt a Catskills comedian persona (“take my boss…please!”), but it’s worth the effort to put a little sparkle on your stories, even if they’re just meant to flesh out the bullet points on your resume.
Make the listener care about what you’re saying.
Try to tie things back to the job at hand. If you’re talking about leadership skills, talk about how your past leadership makes you a great fit for this job managing three employees. Show the value of these stories to the company that might hire you.
Stick to the important points.
These stories should be short (maybe only a few sentences). You want to make sure you zero in on the most important details: who, what, when, where, and how it applies to this new job.
People respond to tone, and if you try to keep the story light and professional, it helps maintain that tone for the overall interview.
Make sure there’s a clear ending.
You don’t want to trail off, or wrap up with a weak, “So…yeah.” End on a strong note about your goals or what you hope to achieve in this new job.
Keep it as short as possible.
Here, the sweet spot is somewhere between one-or-two word answers and a ten-minute monologue. Try out some standard answers to interview questions as part of your pre-interview prep. Time yourself…if you feel like you’ve been talking for a while without coming up for air, you probably have. If you find that your story is going more than a minute or two, start thinking of spots where you can cut it down.
What Not to Do
When thinking about the stories you want to tell in an interview, the things not to do are just as important as the story itself.
Don’t use a timeline.
This happened, and then this happened, and then this other thing happened.” I’m already asleep, can you repeat that last event? Instead, try a pattern of “this happened, and this was the result. What I learned from this was…”
Don’t use jargon.
Try to keep terms as universal as possible. If you’re talking to someone whom you know is familiar with them, or they’re culturally appropriate to your industry, it’s okay to use specific words, but don’t take for granted that everyone will know what a GMU report is if they haven’t mentioned it before.
Don’t make stuff up.
The truth is always the best in a job interview scenario. Even if it would make for a better story if you accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at the end, it’s not worth the embarrassment of getting caught in a fib.
Don’t leave the professional zone.
Even if you’re asked to talk about hobbies or personal interests, don’t use that as an excuse to list all of your pet topics. Pick one or two that you can talk about, and for goodness’s sake, make sure they’re work appropriate. (Any story where your friend had to bail you out—not great.)
Moral of the Story
At the end of the interview, you want to feel like you’ve achieved a good balance between the you-on-paper (your resume) and your presentation. Using stories and anecdotes to show (not tell) how those bullet points and skill actually shape your career is a great skill to have, and just takes a little practice.
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