When you nab a job interview, it’s a given that you’re going to be asked to talk about yourself—but the way you spin your past into a compelling narrative can make or break your chances of the hiring manager viewing you as a must-have addition to the team.
Even though you’ve probably already imagined the words “Tell me about a time when…” spilling from your interviewer’s mouth, it’s still challenging to craft a pithy parable that tells and shows them who you really are and why you’re the most qualified candidate for the job.
Carole Martin, expert interview coach and author of Boost Your Interview IQ, offers the following advice for how to tell a great story in response to these types of questions, which can mean the difference between getting a “yea” or “nay” from your future boss.
Employers consider past behavior an indicator of future success—or failure, Martin says. Rather than inquiring about hypothetical scenarios (“What would you do if…”), hiring managers want to hear about a time in the past when, for example, you were able to shine under pressure or turn a challenging situation into a win.
Keep in mind that when interviewers ask for an example of your behavior in a given situation, they’re asking for one specific instance. If you’re asked to recall a time you provided excellent customer service, don’t respond with something general like, “Oh, I work with customers all the time!” Martin says. Offer a concrete account that proves you possess the qualities they’re looking for in their employees.
Martin suggests having several stories in your arsenal to draw upon when those questions are fired at you fast and furiously. But which stories should you have on the tip of your tongue? When in doubt, go back to the job posting and scan the description for repeated key words.
“The job description is what I call the employer’s wish list,” Martin says. “I had a client who was applying for a senior administrative assistant position and the word ‘confidential’ kept popping up. So we made sure she had a story about a time when she had to handle confidential information and make a decision to either give out that information or risk losing a friend.”
Martin also recommends relying on old-fashioned common sense. “If it’s an HR position, they’re probably going to want to hear about a time when you had to handle a difficult employee. If you’re applying for a sales position, you’ll want a story that demonstrates your ability to influence others.”
Stories that illustrate planning, organizing, strong communication, and problem-solving abilities are also perfect to keep in your inventory, as those skills are highly valued across industries and professions.
Perfect Your Proportions and Don’t Be Shy
Just like any good tale, yours should have a beginning, middle, and end. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast, says Martin. “The biggest challenge when it comes to storytelling is proportion. Ideally, yours should be paced 20-60-20 or 10-80-10.” That means you should have a solid setup and resolution, of course, but the real meat of the story should be the action in the middle.
And, as the star, don’t be reluctant about using the word “I,” Martin insists. “It’s not bragging. It’s informing, which allows them get to know you as a person,” she says.
For example, if you say of your football team, “We won!” no one will know the specific part you played in the victory.
“Did you carry the ball into the end zone? Were you the quarterback who threw the winning pass? Were you the coach? Or, did you ride the bench?” she asks.
While we’re all familiar with the adage, “There’s no I in team,” Martin asserts that this view isn’t necessarily correct—at least, not in interviews. “The I is the role you played in the team. If you keep saying we, the interviewer won’t know who you are. An interviewer wants to hear about your accomplishments.”
Keep it Brief, But Interesting
Nothing will make your confidence plummet like watching your interviewer’s eyes glaze over as you launch into another marathon anecdote. So just how long should your average story be? Two to three minutes, advises Martin.
Talking about your feelings and the actions you took during the heart of the story can help keep your listener engaged.
“Add some technicolor. Don’t make it too black and white. You only have a certain amount of time to get someone’s attention, so use it wisely,” says Martin.
How do you do that? Martin recommends starting with, “What I did was…” followed by “I felt this …” and then, “The other person did this …”. Make sure to incorporate strong verbs (here are 185 of them) and adjectives, which will make your story compelling and your interviewer eager to hear what happened next. Stick to the meat of the story and keep it as action-packed as possible.
You can also add weight to your story by concluding with a third-party endorsement. Any positive feedback or kudos you received as a result of the way you handled a certain situation or project are worth mentioning, Martin notes.
Practice Makes Perfect
Just as you’d prepare for other parts of the interview—like the standard “Tell me about yourself” opening—rehearse your stories so you can perfect your pacing and inflection.
“You want to come across as natural and conversational,” says Martin, “as if you were relating the story to a friend.”
To discover how your stories sound to others, try recording yourself or rehearsing via Skype with a friend or interview coach. This will help you pinpoint areas for improvement and eliminate nervous tics or habits, which can be crucial to coming across as interesting and authentic.
While many view storytelling as an art, it’s one you can easily master if you give it careful thought and preparation. Preparing stories with a clear format, cutting out the fluff, and making time for a dress rehearsal will help you stay focused and provide the answers employers are seeking—which, ultimately, can lead to you successfully landing the job.
Photo of hero courtesy of Shutterstock.
When Elizabeth Alterman isn't searching for a full-time job, she's writing about it. You can read more about her adventures in unemployment at ballsofourasses.blogspot.com. The writer, editor, and mom of three also recently completed a memoir chronicling the period she and her husband lost their jobs simultaneously.More from this Author