Lily Zhang | The Daily Muse |05.15.14
One of the hardest things about interviewing is balancing the need to get across your stellar qualifications with building rapport with your interviewer. The good news? The best way to achieve that balance is to do something you’ve been doing most of your life: Tell a story.
Stories, it turns out, are more powerful than you may know. Jennifer Aaker, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, explains that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone. Our brains are just more active when we’re listening to a story. In fact, if you can tell a good story, you can actually synchronize your listener’s brain with your own. You can literally share the experience with someone else. Talk about making a connection!
You can tell stories when asked specifically—e.g., “Tell me about a time you worked with a difficult person,” but you can also do it when you're not. It’s worth noting that many interviewers don’t conduct interviews for a living, so not all of them will be great at asking you questions that that let you show off your skills. In other words, if your interviewer asks you, “How do you handle stress?” rather than “Tell me about a recent challenge you overcame,” you can still find a way to transition into a story. Try starting by answering the question quickly, then segueing into a story that backs up the statement you just made.
So, how do you do it? Follow these pointers to tell a good—and totally compelling—story in your next interview.
1. Tell the Punch Line Early
You’re definitely trying to charm your interviewer, but ultimately you are not telling a joke. You should certainly pay attention to pacing the same way you would with a joke, but don’t save the main takeaway for the end (or you risk having him or her think that you misunderstood the question).
For example, if you’re asked about a time you had to deal with failure and you launch into a story about how you won a prestigious local competition after weeks of hard work before explaining the eventually crushing loss at nationals—your interviewer is going to be very, very confused for a good bit while you get through the first half of your spiel.
I’d say the biggest personal failure in recent memory is when I completely botched the marketing for a professional development seminar our HR department was hosting.
2. Give Some Context
That said, immediately after giving your interviewer a sense of what to expect, fill in the blanks and give some context in order to create the appropriate atmosphere for the story. Was the situation celebratory or tense? Who were the stakeholders? What did you have to lose? Taking a second to add these details will make the upcoming conflict or challenge that much more interesting.
Some common setups for stories in interviews are:
- Everything was going as planned until…
- Everything was going wrong, and then something even worse happened…
- The team was working hard for weeks, and then…
I was fairly new to my role as an HR coordinator, and I was eager to make a good impression. When I found out one of my favorite writers on leadership was going to be in town, I reached out to him on Twitter to see if he would be interested in speaking at our company. I really wasn’t expecting a response, but then he said yes!
3. Introduce the Situation or Challenge
Again, the challenge shouldn’t come as something unexpected to your interviewer. It also shouldn’t be something you dwell on too much during your response, so keep it short. The important thing to focus on is what you did to resolve the situation.
Because the conflict or challenge in your story is going to be the part of your answer that makes it relevant to your interviewer’s question (for example, “Tell me about a time you had to deal with failure, a slacking teammate, or an unexpected problem in your work”), it’s important to make sure you present this part as directly connected to what the interviewer wants to know. (In fact, if it makes sense, use the words your interviewer uses in the question to describe your challenge.)
He was only in town for a few days, so I needed to get this event together very, very quickly. I had to handle everything from finding a room that would accommodate a huge event to arranging for his hotel accommodations—all within a few hours—in order for him to confirm.
4. Describe Your Specific Actions
With the problem set up to solve, go into more detail about what you did to solve it. This is the part where you get to talk about yourself, your skills, and your qualifications, using your actions to illustrate what you’ve done—and what you can do. This should be the bulk of your story—it should definitely take longer to go through this than it does to set up the situation or challenge.
Another important thing to remember as you’re explaining how you overcame the challenge is to avoid too many uses of the word “we.” Certainly give credit to teammates if your story involves others, but remember that the interviewer is most interested in learning about your personal contributions.
So, I did exactly that. Because it was my sole initiative to bring this speaker, I managed the entire process of handling speaker fees and other accommodations as well as reserving space in our office and ordering food for the event. I spoke about the event to everyone I saw and posted about it on the company intranet boards.
5. Share the Results
Finally, don’t forget to tell your interviewer what happens in the end! Talk about the impact your actions made, and give your story some closure if for no other reason than having a nice way to end your answer.
If your story has a less than successful outcome, you should still share the results, but wrap up with some lessons learned from the experience. Ideally, you’ll also be able to tie your experience back to the role you’re interviewing for and how your skills are transferable.
Unfortunately, the turnout for the event was—abysmal. I hadn’t realized that in my previous company—of over 1000+ staff, I might add—the only way to get people to come to HR events was to speak to the heads of departments and have them strongly encourage their staff to attend. It was pretty embarrassing for me, but a great master class on the importance of understanding company culture. And, at least within the HR department, I became known as very social media savvy, so that was a nice bonus.
Now that you have a good sense of how to structure your stories in your interviews, try to quickly run through what you’re going to say before you say it: Here’s the situation, this is what the problem was, I did this to help, and here are the results. This will help with pacing and making sure you don’t spend too much time on any particular part of the answer. Practice following this structure for a few key stories from your work history a few times aloud before your interview, and you’ll be prepared for any question you get. Good luck!