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Story-Powered Job Interviews

Posted by  Mark Schenk —November 5, 2020
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Corporate Storytelling

Recruitment processes are a source of anxiety for both applicant and interviewer. Applicants want to put their best foot forward and stand out from the crowd, and interviewers want to avoid making poor selection decisions. Both tasks are very challenging.

All too often, traditional approaches to recruitment have resulted in poor selection decisions, poor job performance, and all the associated problems and costs this brings. The person claiming to be a team player turned out to be a ‘ladder-climber’, and the ‘good communicator’ just barked orders at their team-mates. We ended up selecting people who excelled in writing applications and looking good in interviews, rather than those with ‘the right stuff’ for the job. The application and interview process didn’t reveal the candidate’s true character.

Most interviewers know that one of the hardest parts of the recruitment process is finding out what the applicant is really like. Story is a powerful tool to help applicants reveal their suitability for a role. It is also very effective in making the interviewer’s task easier—helping them feel confident that they have true insight into the applicant and their suitability for the role.

Story can be used in your resume, cover letter, interview, and post-interview follow-up. This post focuses on using story as part of the interview process. There are three types of stories needed by job applicants: connection stories, character stories, and criteria stories.

Connection stories

“The shortest distance between two people is a story”—Terrence Gargiulo.

An applicant’s first task in an interview is to establish rapport and connection with the interviewer(s). Once you’ve established a connection, the way the interviewer receives all subsequent information from you is altered. Without rapport, they will generally be sceptical about what you say. If you successfully establish rapport, they will be more receptive to your responses.

The best way to establish rapport is with a story—it always has to be something relevant and it will often be something quite recent.

When you arrive at the interview, you will be nervous… So, prepare in advance. One of the things I ask myself before any interaction, including interviews, is, “What story will I use to establish a connection with the person?”

Find out a little about the interviewers if you know their names—LinkedIn is a very useful tool for this. There will often be something that you connect to—a previous organisation, where they went to school, what they studied, etc.

At its essence, a connection story is about something that you have experienced that reveals something about your character and which shows the interviewer that you are like them in some way. It doesn’t need to be anything amazing—even the smallest things can have a big impact.

For example, if ‘growth potential’ was one of the desirable attributes for a position I had applied for, I could start with an example like this, which I could deliver during the ‘small talk’ at the start of the interview.

I was talking to my son on the way here and told him that one of the attributes you are looking for is growth potential. He reminded me that when he was 17, he wanted to get a golf scholarship to go to university in the United States. He looked at the application process. It was really onerous. He was going to give away his dream because there was lots of work involved and a low probability of getting a scholarship. But he did the work, and I still remember the morning, a few months later, when he rang me and said, “I’ve got my first offer.”

He ended up getting numerous offers and got to live his dream. So, this morning he said to me, “Just remember what you told me, Dad. If you want to realise your potential, you need to be prepared to do the work.”

Your connection story doesn’t need to be this elaborate. Something interesting that happened on the way to the interview can be just as effective.

Character stories

This is the main ‘pot’ of stories for any interview. Interviewers will want to know if you are the sort of person that will fit into the role, the team, and the organisation. You will generally encounter two types of questions about your character.

1. Broad questions

The sorts of broad questions you might be asked include:

  • Tell me a little about yourself.
  • What are your values?
  • What are your key strengths as a leader?
  • What do you look for in a workplace?
  • What are your weaknesses?

In preparing for an interview, it’s a good plan to find an example that can be used in response to each of these questions. That might sound like a lot of work, but the beauty is that this work is reusable for every subsequent interview in your life, and many other purposes.

Let me give you an example. If I was applying for a role related to the people aspects of a business—HR, L&D, OD, comms, etc., and I was asked to tell the interviewers a little about myself, I might respond with something like this.

I joined the Air Force straight out of high school. They put me through university, and their priority was to get more computer science degrees.

I made it through the first year and finally received my results letter for the first set of 2nd-year subjects. My result for COBOL programming was ‘TP’. I didn’t know what that meant, so the lecturer explained, “You’ve worked hard enough to get a pass in the subject, but you are crap at programming. We’ve given you a terminal passyou get a pass mark for the subject but you can’t do any more programming.”

I walked out of his office and did a big fist pumpI just wasn’t suited for programming and this was the best result possible. I went on to do HR and organisational psychology and loved it. It was a big turning point for meit allowed me to find my passion.

2. Specific questions

You will also be asked specific questions that focus on the attributes considered necessary to perform the role effectively. The exact questions will depend on the attributes required, but will be similar to the following:

  • Adaptability. Describe a situation in which you were assigned new tasks. How did you adapt? Think back to a time when you were asked to do something you had never done before. How did you react? What did you learn? How did you feel during the process?
  • Collaboration. Describe the best partner or supervisor with whom you’ve worked. What part of their management style appealed to you? What is your favourite experience of working with a team? What happened? What was your contribution? What was achieved?
  • Leadership. When have you learned an important lesson about leadership? What happened?

For each of the key attributes of the position, it pays to have an example that brings that characteristic to life.

Criteria stories

Most jobs you’ll apply for will have a set of requirements that are expressed in terms of your knowledge, skills, and experience.

The sorts of examples (stories) to use here include:

  • Experience. The normal way of explaining your experience is to make a statement to that effect; for example, I have eight years’ experience as a C++ programmer. The story method is to say something like the following.

I walked into Acme Programming for the first time in January 2012 as a graduate. I was feeling very nervous because they had many programmers with great reputations there. I thought I would be seen as an annoyance. But the opposite was true. The other programmers took me under their wings and taught me new things every day. They even quizzed me about the latest ideas I’d learned at university. I have had eight years working with a great bunch of programmers. For a lot of that time, I was one of the ones taking new starters under my wing.

  • Specific skills. To illustrate specific skills, find a success story that illustrates how you applied your skills to overcome a specific problem/challenge or to take advantage of an opportunity.
  • Specific knowledge. You are likely to be asked about specific areas of knowledge required for the role. For these questions, find an example of a time when you learned an important lesson about your specialisation.

Story can be used in many parts of the interview process. You are unlikely to have a story for every point listed in this post. But, even if you just tell one story in your interview, you will stand out from the other applicants. What’s more, the interviewer will have more confidence that they understand you and your suitability for the position, and they will be more likely to recommend you as a result.

This blog post builds on a section of our definitive guide to corporate storytelling, Corporate Storytelling—The Essential Guide. You can find it here (and download a convenient PDF). 

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

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