For job hunters—finding and telling better stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 13, 2009
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

More people will be looking for jobs this year. Sadly unemployment is rising. Getting a job interview will be tough so it will be doubly important to make the best possible impression as the interviewer pokes and probes to get an idea of who you are and whether you’ll fit in.

Job interviewers these days know the importance of stories. They know that stories give a good insight into your capabilities and experience. They call it behavioural interview technique, which is just a fancy title for collecting stories from you. So you’d better have some stories to tell that reveal your character, skills and attitude to life.

Many people talk about stories but I’m continuously surprised how many of these people can’t differentiate between a story and an opinion. This is important because you need to know what a story is so you know what you are looking for.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb for identifying stories: if what you are saying starts with a time marker such as, “In 2003 …” or “Three months ago …,” then there is a good chance you’re telling a story. If after that time marker you recount a series of events, one connected to the next, then you are telling a story.

The previous 4 paragraphs do not contain a single story. Here is an example of a story (personal experience, an anecdote):

I ran my first anecdote circle in 2000 while working for IBM. I was helping Land and Water Australia develop their knowledge strategy and my first session was with a group of CSIRO scientists. Before the session I remembered the advice given to me by my colleague, Sharon Darwent. She said: “Just be comfortable with any silences and when someone provides an opinion ask for an example.” So I started the session and ask my first question. Everyone just looked at each other in complete silence. I held my nerve for what seemed liked an eternity and eventually one of the scientists spoke up with a sigh, “OK, I’ll go first …” After that the stories flowed. They went for a couple of hours non-stop.

You can see the video version of me telling this story on YouTube.

Finding our own stories

There are two ways we remember our experiences: attached to emotions or attached to imagery. Therefore we need to use both to recount what we know.

Start by drawing a timeline of your career. Plot the significant events (work and personal) and jot down next to the events how you remember feeling: excited, angry, pumped, disappointed.

When an event springs to mind recount it out loud to yourself, or even better, tell it to someone. Avoid writing these recollections down verbatim. Just right some rough notes. Otherwise the temptation is to recount the experience they way you’ve written it which will sound unnatural.

You should have 4 or 5 stories now. Let’s switch to visual queues to remember some more. Head over to flickr or iStockphoto and select 30 images at random. Look at each one and see if any experiences spring to mind. Again recount them and jot down some rough notes.

One of the best ways to remember your own stories is to hear others. Find a couple of colleagues, friends and just get reminiscing about the good old days. Make notes about any anecdote that springs to mind about your own experiences at work focusing on the ones that set you apart. In fact you should always carry a story notebook to jot them down because they often creep up on you by surprise and I will guarantee you will forget it instantly if you don’t either write it down of have the opportunity to tell the story a couple of times.

Practising and improving your stories

Your first retellings will tend to be rambling and, quite frankly, boring. The rambling nature of the story, however, is often reduced by telling the story to people and watching their response. Getting feedback in the form of their response to your story (facial expressions, comments – nothing formal) will tell you what to keep and what to jettison. But you can do more.

You can increase the impact of any story in three ways:

  1. be specific and avoid generalisations. Instead of saying, “I once worked for company that sold database software.” Say, “While the pre-sales manager at Oracle Systems …”
  2. the story has to about a specific individual trying to achieve something, ideally with some obstacle that they eventually overcame. Avoid stories about companies, departments and even teams. Tell stories about people who have names. Instead of saying, “In 2004 the risk assessment team was facing a problem …,” say “Charles Kleiner in risk assessment was facing a problem.” And of course you were instrumental in helping Charles overcome this obstacle.
  3. help people visualise what’s happening. The best stories are ones that the listener can picture vividly in their mind’s eye. Instead of of saying, “We drove up to the vineyard …,” say “We drove up to an adobe-style vineyard with acres of vines all around us …”

Every story we tell gives people an insight into who we are. They are quite revealing. So before you tell them to an interviewer it’s a good idea to tell your stories to a friend and ask them about the qualities they inferred about you based on the story. Is it resilience, courage, persistence, creativity etc.? You will surprised to find that a story which you thought, for example, was about persistence, comes across to the listener as arrogance. You will want to avoid those ones.

Speaking of things to avoid, no one want to hear your life story. They can read that in your resume. They want to hear about the specific moments in your life where you made a difference. Use your stories.

Now you should have a dozen good stories to tell at the interview. Practise them whenever you can. In casual conversations, when the time is right, say something like, “Yes, that reminds me of …” By practising your stories in natural, conversational settings you will be in a better position to repeat your story in this natural way at the interview which will convey tremendous confidence.

Good luck with the job hunt and let me know whether your storytelling efforts made a difference.

I would like to thank Michael Specht from our Jelly coworking group who pointed out to me the increase need for job hunters to be able to better find and tell their stories.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. john caddell says:

    There’s another reason storytelling may help your job search–the interviewer may be looking for it. Years ago at EDS they taught us behavioral interviewing, which focused on asking about specific events instead of general questions. In the BI mode, when people don’t answer a story-eliciting question with a story, it’s bad for the candidate!

  2. Durgaprasad says:

    I have been following your blog for a while now and find your posts very interesting. As a user experience professional I find the use of stories to communicate quite pervasive.
    A key aspect in my line of work is soliciting stories from end users as a means to capture the key aspects of their work. When it works it provides extremely rich data but the main problem is getting users to tell their stories. Quite often they tell a abridged bare bones version that seems to be missing details.
    Would be interested in knowing about your experiences getting people to tell their stories?

  3. Hi Durgaprasad, my experience is that some organisational culture are more used to telling stories than others. One of our clients is a pharma company and they will tell stories at every opportunity while a banking client of ours in more reluctant. It thing this has to do with the dominant communication approach in the company.
    So here are some of the things I do to help them tell stories.
    First I give them an example of what I’m after. Many people don’t really know what you mean when you say you after stories.
    Second, I use the timeline approach described above.
    Third, when they only give a high level example I ask for detail with questions like, “that’s really interesting, can you paint the picture of what really happened there for me?”
    Forth, you need to genuinely be interested in their stories and for them not to feel rushed.
    Fith, make it safe by ensuring them their stories will not be linked to them, that the recording will be destroyed and you will only use an anonymized version of the transcript.
    I hope these suggestions help.

  4. Hi John, you are absolutely right. I was chatting to some HR professionals that do behavioural interviewing and they were bemoaning how many people didn’t give them stories and as a result they marked them down.
    When the interviewer says, “Tell me about a time when …” you must be able to tell a story.

  5. Dave Simmons says:

    Great post. It spurs me on to add my $.02. When I interview, I think of stories as illustrations of my points. Also, have in hand a sample story of a tough decision or action (a challenge, result, benefit, personal learning arc), and stories of how you worked with folks on a project (helps illustrate that you are a team player).
    Lastly, when you practice, practice both the full story and the Reader’s Digest version (in case the interviewer’s eyes and mind start to wander mid-story). If they look bored, mention it’s a longer story, that you could go into detail later, and sum it up quickly. They are usually more interested in what was accomplished and how it saved the world rather than a longterm detailed description of the process.

  6. Matt Moore says:

    Nice article! The retelling of stories bit is important. It reminds of me of rehearsing a scene in theatre – you’ll often say the same words with different vocal tones, implied meanings, all sorts of things. Not that you necessarily want to do that in an interview.
    The only danger is with the overly polished anecdote. A careless interviewer will tick a box (“question answered”) and move on. A more attentive interviewer will probe to find out a little bit more about the story.

  7. I think its very dependant on the situation but i do agree with what you say, i think that it does help in building a good rapport during the interview though.

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