Job Interview Tips

Why storytelling matters to your job search (and how to perfect it)

image of a vintage typewriter on a wooden table

In his book, The Truth About Stories, author Thomas King writes “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are.” And he’s absolutely right.

In the big picture, storytelling is an ancient practice that likely predates writing by thousands of years. It’s a defining aspect of being human that helped us to evolve and, “disseminate knowledge by broadcasting social norms to coordinate social behavior and promote cooperation.”

Storytelling remains a central component of our social organization. In order to successfully navigate any institution, one must possess storytelling skills, because it’s through sharing stories that we build relationships, learn about institutional processes, and sell our brand.

When you’re job hunting, you’re constantly telling stories about yourself. You are the master of your own narrative, and it is through this kind of storytelling that potential employers become compelled by you (or don’t!).

As an instructor for Masa Education Center, and as someone who has successfully navigated the job market in higher education, I’d like to offer you some straightforward, yet useful, advice about how to become a better storyteller. 

1. Identify what people in your industry value and what they’ll want to know about you

As a graduate student on the academic job market, I knew that there were 3 general areas of my professional experience that potential employers would want to know about: teaching, research, and service. I knew that I would need to have a 60-second elevator pitch explaining my work in each of these areas and that I should be prepared to do a deeper dive should I be asked any follow-up questions.

I also knew that the kinds of places I was applying to had a particular set of values. For example, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Every industry will be a bit different, and it’s up to you to listen to people in that industry to hear what is important to them. This is one of the most important aspects that will inform the stories you tell about yourself.

2. Develop a collection of stories about yourself

While I knew I would be expected to talk about my teaching, research, and institutional service, I usually didn’t know exactly how these questions would be framed—whether in job ads, Skype interviews, or in-person “campus visits,” as we call them. It might seem logical to assume that you already know how to speak to your own experience. After all, it’s your experience.

But making that assumption could be a grave mistake. Knowing your own experiences is much different than communicating specific aspects of those experiences in ways that are compelling and strategic.

Rather than winging it, you should strategically develop a collection of stories about your work experience. You should know these stories inside and out. You should be able to tell different versions of them—written and spoken—at different lengths of 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 3 minutes, and 5 minutes.

Doing this will give you immense flexibility when going into an interview. If you’ve done your homework (step 1) and prepared a large set of compelling stories (step 2), you will be able to adapt to any questions on the fly, respond to follow-up questions, and navigate unexpected (and expected) occurrences.

3. Ziplock your stories

The last step here is to practice. And the key is to practice in different settings as often as possible.

When I was preparing for Skype interview season, I made a giant list of questions that I thought I could be asked. I then printed out those questions, cut them out individually, and kept them in a plastic bag.

I set a goal that I would practice 5 questions per day, throughout the day. I would pick a question out of the bag and force myself to give a 3-minute response on the spot, as though I were actually being interviewed.

Let me tell you, it started out rough. I was rambling at times, hardly making sense. Other times, I would draw a blank. But over time, I was able to more easily draw from the collection of stories I had developed and deliver them smoothly.

Another key aspect of this exercise was that I would practice regularly in different contexts. You won’t get to decide when your interview will take place, and you can decide how you’ll be feeling at that particular time. You might be tired. You might be wired. You might be in your sweet spot. But you won’t know until it happens.

So sometimes I would force myself to answer a question or two immediately after waking up. Or a few minutes after lunch. In the shower. While driving. Alone in my room. I would practice telling my stories in as many different scenarios as I could imagine.

This approach paid off greatly for me, as most of my first interviews turned into offers for campus visits. Particularly as an introverted person who fears drawing a blank in the heat of the moment, this approach helped me perfect my stories and break into my profession. I hope it is helpful in similar ways for you.

About the Author:
Dr. Santos Ramos is an Assistant Professor of Integrative Studies. He is the Founder of Masa Education Center, an eLearning company offering online courses related to diversity, writing, and education.

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