Stand out in crowded applicant field by showcasing your talents in a lively tale
Max Jackson, a Los Angeles-based Flash designer who works on short-term assignments, sensed something was amiss during a recent job interview. “Usually I have no problem connecting with an interviewer and landing the job, even when other people are in the running. This time I realized that my usual selling points weren’t winning the employer over the way they usually do.”
He began to doubt that he was the right person for the job, so before the interview ended, he asked the interviewer candidly if he were a good match for the position, expecting to receive some constructive feedback that might be helpful on other interviews. But the answer he got surprised him.
“It wasn’t that I was a bad fit or under-qualified — it’s that everyone in line for the job was so similar that the employer was having a hard time choosing who to hire. He [the interviewer] even apologized,” Max explains.
In today’s employment market, the ratio of equally-qualified candidates to each available position presents a big challenge to both employers and job seekers. Employers need to minimize the costly risk of hiring the wrong person, and job seekers need to find consistently better ways to differentiate themselves during the interview process from among a sea of applicants.
For job seekers, that’s where the art of storytelling comes in. While it’s always a good idea to prepare for standard interview questions, dress professionally, and employ confident body language, you can give yourself an edge over other applicants by learning how to tell effective stories that showcase your talents and fit a potential employer’s needs perfectly.
There is a power in telling stories about overcoming work challenges that lets your personal brand of skills and experience shine. Not only do potential employers get an idea of how you would perform in their organization in similar situations, but well-told stories also help you become more memorable to an interviewer, which positions you as a more eligible choice over other equally talented candidates. Interview preparedness isn’t about reciting a memorized list of your best assets and minor faults — it’s about bringing the interviewer into a personal work journey to show them how you are the best person to hire.
What the Audience Wants
Job postings can state what a company seeks, but interviews reveal far more in-depth information that can help you get hired. Because the interviewer plays a central role in deciding whether to hire you, that person is the audience you must impress. Therefore, your first goal is to determine what the interviewer wants specifically in a candidate as quickly as possible to be able to tailor the stories you share.
Pay attention to the keywords you hear within the first few minutes of the interview because they can tell you a lot about what your interviewer seeks. Words and phrases like “detail-oriented,” “able to multi-task,” “follows direction well,” “feels comfortable taking the lead/giving direction,” “can operate under pressure,” and “works well with others” reflect needs your stories must address. With this knowledge, you can deliver a story that communicates that you possess those qualities in abundance.
Melissa Miller, an administrative assistant, used this tactic recently during an interview, with great success. “I honestly went in to the interview thinking the company was looking for someone to handle administrative overflow, so I was set to emphasize how dependable and flexible I am. Then I heard words like ‘advancement’ and ‘taking a more active role in the organization.’ I realized that what she [the interviewer] was really looking for was someone who felt comfortable taking charge, so I emphasized my leadership qualities and ability work well with others instead — and I got the job.”
Once Upon a Time
When the interviewer finishes describing the position, the focus will turn to you exclusively. You’ll summarize your career and work experience in a sentence or two, and then answer the interviewer’s hard-hitting questions. It’s best to follow the lead of the interviewer’s questions instead of steering the conversation where you would like it to go. Therefore, answer the interviewer’s questions directly, but then follow up with an illustrative story introduced by “Let me give you an example,” or “One time, I found myself in a situation in which…” Your stories should serve as illustrative examples of your more direct and succinct answers.
Present the Problem
The most engaging interview stories begin with a description of the problem to be solved and an explanation of how that problem affected you, your coworkers, and the company’s business. Be sure to choose a story that satisfies the interviewer’s already-identified needs. Was there an ongoing issue in the department where you worked that finally needed to be addressed (and required your innovation and drive)? Was there an unforeseeable crisis (that required your quick-thinking skills and grace under pressure)? Was there a time in which you went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure the department ran smoothly (which required your sacrifice and dedication)? A clear description of the problem sets up an engaging story. And, because the hero in any story never goes it alone, there is always room to speak about the positive guiding hand of wise mentor or coworker sidekick who highlights your role as a “team player.”
Tension Builds Drama
A good story start will engage the interviewer, but nothing devalues a good story setup like an instant solution. A too-rapid resolution detracts from the perception of work required to solve the problem, diminishing your expertise and involvement. The most memorable interview stories are those that add complication to the original problem.
Added complication is another way of saying, “And if the original problem wasn’t bad enough, then this new problem or issue occurred.” For instance, “It’s not enough that the office’s computer systems kept crashing, causing work backlogs and frustrated customer calls. Upper management made a surprise inspection visit.” Or, “We were already short-staffed in the ER, and then a multi-car collision came in.”
Complications raise the stakes in your story for a more satisfying resolution, and pique the continued interest of your rapt audience of one: your interviewer; the person largely responsible for hiring you.
How You Saved the Day
After successfully adding a complication to your story, you are now ready to become the hero, the one who saves the day. To close your interview story, explain how you, with or without the help of others (if teamwork is an attribute to be accentuated), resolved the problem satisfactorily. In your story’s ending, be sure to recap your unique attributes and how they were employed, as well as add any lessons learned. Remember that even stories lacking a happy ending can yield a positive lesson learned that will meet your interviewer’s needs.
The best job interviews are those that result in a job offer. Armed with a few well-practiced stories that showcase your talents, you will be well-positioned for the happiest ending of all: receiving the call, email, or letter that tells you that you’ve been hired.
Chrissy Coleman Miles is an L.A.-based writer and editor, and character-driven storyline thrill-seeker, plotter and schemer.
Visit her blog at chrissycolemannmiles.com