Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Job Search / Networking

The 3-Letter Word That'll Make Everything You Say More Compelling

You know what you want: a new job, a promotion, an investment in your idea, or new networking contacts. And believe it or not: The difference between getting what you want and being passed over is often simply a matter of how you tell your story.

Too often, someone will tell stories from his or her personal point of view. Which makes sense—it’s your story, so why wouldn’t it be personal?

Well, the problem with that thinking is that you’re forgetting the person you want something from (be it a job, a raise, or a reference) will only be thinking of his story—how will what you’re saying help him?

I see you shrugging your shoulders and saying, “I don’t know how my raise will help him at all.”
Well, good news for you. Selling someone on your story is a pretty simple shift that involves one three-letter word: why.

Far too often, people answer questions with what, when, and how. Here’s how to start using why to get what you want.

1. When You’re Interviewing for a Job

The interviewer starts with, “Tell me about yourself.” So you say, “I’ve worked at Microsoft for the last two years.” Or maybe, “I graduated from Yale in 2010 with a major in Economics.”

These answers may be true, but they don’t answer what the hiring manager’s really saying—give me a reason to hire you for this position.

So, instead of focusing on the what, focus on why you made the decisions you made between all the lines on your resume. Why did you choose a less obvious product to work on? Why did you want to move from journalism to PR? The better answer would look like this:

“I went to Microsoft because I was interested in working on a large-scale software project, and Windows was one of the largest software teams in the world at the time. Now, I’m looking to join a small startup company, because I’d like to work on many different projects and grow my skill set.”

This answer doesn’t just tell the hiring manager who you are, it explains why you should get the job. Suddenly, you’re a much more interesting candidate.

2. When You Want to Change Fields

The first question most interviewers will ask in this situation is what interested you about Position A, when your whole career’s been focused on Position B. And most people make the mistake of answering this with the standard what refrain (“I want to make a change”). The why answer much explains your reasoning in a much more convincing way:

“As much as I’ve learned working in PR, part of me has always wanted to make a difference through politics. I spend all of my free time thinking (and reading, and tweeting) about the upcoming election, and that’s why I want to work on a presidential campaign.”

I know I’d be much more excited about hiring someone who could articulate why she wanted to make the change than someone who was looking into a new field apparently just for the heck of it.

3. When You Want a Promotion or Raise

Yes, you should come to your evaluation with a brag list. But avoid the temptation to sit in front of your manager and rattle off all of the things you’ve accomplished over the last quarter. (You—and your boss—know what that sounds like, so it probably won’t sway her decision either way.)

Instead, talk about why a promotion makes sense, not just for you, but for the team. In other words, rather than just stating that you’ve stepped up and successfully led numerous team projects, discuss the ways a management role would allow you to be an even more effective team leader.

It looks like this:

“As you’ve likely noticed, I’ve been working on several projects outside of my job description. I’ve really enjoyed it and I want to do more. However, I think my colleagues in other departments might take my input more seriously if my title reflected my changing role. Is that something we can discuss?”

Your boss will be more receptive to this framing than he would to a list of achievements.

4. When You Want Support for a Bold, New Idea

Let’s say you’re brainstorming with your team about fixing a stalled project, and you decide to reach out to a broader base of constituents. You could just blurt that out, but if you lead with the what, then you’ll have to convince them. If you start with the why, you can lead them to the answer by making it seem obvious. For example:

“I noticed that only a small portion of our target demo has actually engaged with our product so far, which would explain why we haven’t gotten enough data to make clear decisions about how to move forward. Let’s consider strategies for reaching out to new users.”

By presenting your argument this way, your plan seems not like an idea out of left field, but like something that only makes sense.

5. You Want to Connect With Someone New

Imagine your major life events occurring along a winding path up a mountain road. Don’t make the mistake of talking about the straight parts of the path, which is what you did during any particular stretch of time. Instead, talk about the switchbacks, the turns, and twists—because that’s a whole lot more interesting.

The story about why you went back to school, why you moved across the country, or why you worked on that specific project, or within a certain industry is lot more fascinating that the standard, “Here is my degree and job title.”

For example:

“I’m originally from the Midwest and never thought I’d be living in New York City. But I saw an opening at my dream company and thought I’ll just put my application out there and see what happens. Well, by the time I made it to the final rounds of the interview process, I was hooked, and now I can even navigate the subway system like a local.”

Expert tip: Here’s even better advice for striking up conversation with someone new: Ask him or her the winding road why questions. Nine times out of 10, “Why did you make the switch from nonprofit to for-profit?” will lead to a more interesting (and more memorable!) conversation than, “What do you do at your current job?”

Remember that while what, when, where, and how is important, why is interesting. And in career scenarios when you want to make a lasting impression, telling your story with why will do the trick.

Photo of three fingers courtesy of Shutterstock.