5 steps to building powerful job interview stories

John Steinbeck on Story telling... Creative Commons License photo credit: Jill Clardy

Building powerful interview stories is like following the plot of a great fiction book. Just make sure your stories aren't fiction!

There are five steps to building an interview story. Let's take a look.

Step One: The story must have importance to the business

Not to be obvious about all of this, but when employed, the work for the business comes first. Consequently, you must build stories around where the work you did changed the business in a positive way.

This means you need to go through your resume and/or status reports and come up with areas of your work that positively affected the business. This means looking at your goals and your success in achieving them. Or projects done that changed the business.

Let's be clear here: this is a hard step because too many people just work and don't think through how their work helps the business. Or, they look at the work of the business as not something that impacts the business in a positive way.

For example, you can't tell a story about how you do programming; you have to show how the programming affected the business. You have to directly show how the programming changed the business for the better.

"This programming module helped the business save time by streamlining the procedure for retrieving inventory." Thus, your work -- programming -- changed the business -- streamlining the procedure for retrieving inventory.

So unless you have a clear line of sight from the work you do to the impact the work has on the business, you will have a tough time with this step. Hiring managers want people who can work to help them meet their goals. The way you show impact is by showing the work you did changed something in the business.

If you can't show this "work to change business" impact, this is the first thing you need to develop for your stories.

Step Two: The best stories have conflict

With conflict, there is struggle. And with struggle, there are obstacles to overcome.

Conflict is good to show because the world is rarely a Kumbuya moment all the time. Business is a social environment and social environments have conflict. Acknowledging this conflict in an interview shows you are wise to the ways of the world and gives your candidacy depth that most will not share.

In addition, these conflicts result in obstacles to achieving the goals. Overcoming obstacles is a significant differentiator in candidates. Most candidates simply say "this was the project, I managed the entire project to a successful conclusion" and that's it. Yet, getting the project to a good conclusion also meant meeting one-on-one with people to make sure the work got done, resolving thorny prioritization issues that would have derailed the work and having discussions with people to get clarity about the work done.

Showing these conflicts and obstacles and how you moved the work forward is a great method of showing how you deal with the workplace.

Step Three: The story must have results backed by numbers

Besides having import to the business, the interview story must have results. But saying the result (improved productivity, for example) isn't near enough to really create the type of story-telling impact you want to create. In order to create a powerful impact, the results have to include numbers to credibly back them up.

Think about this for a minute. If someone tells you they "improved productivity," you blow them off. Everyone improves productivity. There is no credibility there. If you say you "improved productivity 20%," you get a little better. But, the first reaction I always have when someone tells me they improved something 20% is "prove it." When you "prove it," you then finally get to credibility.

"The productivity improved 20% because of the way we changed the process for retrieving inventory. We compared to how many items of inventory retrieved before the change and again afterwords and found the 20% improvement."

You'll see that those two sentences almost tell a story within a story. You have to state the number, but also tell how the number came into being.

Sometimes a number is small -- increasing the inventory items retrieved by, say, 1%. You need to incorporate how that 1% is significant in the environment you were working in at the time. Just because a number is small, in other words, doesn't mean it's not important.

Now, most people don't have numbers that show results from their work. But, you're a Cubicle Warrior and you've tracked the numbers associated with your SMART Goals and have them easily at hand, right? Well, if not, that is a work ethic that needs changing. You should have solid personal work measurements on your goals. Then it is easier to develop these results that include numbers in your stories.

Step Four: You must tell your story in under two minutes

When you are at a party, how long can your funny story about old times take before people lose interest? While an interview isn't a party, the truth of the matter is that long-winded stories will lose the interest of the hiring manager just as easily as not having a story in the first place.

Two minutes. Seriously. In an age of Twitter, it's not surprising any more how much is said in a small amount of time.

Step Five: You must practice your stories. Must.

When the comedian Chris Rock creates a show, he doesn't just show up on HBO with a special. No, instead, he goes to small clubs and works the material over and over and over again to get it just right. He practices.

Now, if you think that stand-up comedy isn't that scripted, Chris Rock did a special on HBO and they created it from his shows in three different cities on two different continents. The same show. Then they cut from one city to another during the show.

Now, they didn't just cut between cities between major sections of the show. No, they cut to the city in a middle of a sentence. Or at the end of the joke line. The stunning thing was the cuts showed Chris in the same position with the same facial expressions stating the same words with the same intonation. And getting the same response from the audience.

You think that didn't take practice?

Now, I'm tempted here to say that you don't need to practice your interview stories to level of Chris Rock, but I'm going to pass on that notion. You get two minutes to tell your story to a hiring manager on an interview question. Getting a position, especially one you want, is reason enough to practice your story to the level of Chris Rock.

And think about it: interview stories are not like other stories you tell. You have to have all this crap in them about importance to the company -- probably have to throw around Corporate Speak to show you know your stuff, too -- and incorporate conflict and numbers.

It's NOT a natural way to tell a story. So that means...you must practice.

Practice telling your story to a trusted coworker. Or to your partner. Or your spouse. Or your business friend. But practice by yourself until you can tell your story cold, then practice it with someone else, figure out how to improve it, then rinse, lather, and repeat.

Final thoughts on building powerful interview stories

Some of you might think that all of this is an incredible amount of work to do for an interview. But, the reality is that you really need three stories to tell; perhaps four. All interview questions only have three answers: you are capable of doing the work, why you love the work, and how you are capable of integrating into a team or management style.

What you do is build a story around each of those areas that you can use to answer interview questions.

In addition, don't misconstrue this to mean you answer all interview questions with a story. That's not the case. If you tried to do that, you'd drive the person doing the interview crazy. Instead, you should wait for the right moment to tell your story in a way that best fits the question being asked. And behavioral questions ("tell me about a time when...") are great opportunities to tell your story that best fits the interview question.

Finally, as you can see, interview stories are different from the typical story we tell people with stuff going on in our lives. It is important to note the difference because it is the reason people need to practice that much harder telling their interview story. It's hard because it isn't necessarily natural to tell.

And that's why most people won't go through the effort -- or think they have something down when they really don't. But you will go through the effort, won't you?

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