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By Karen Eber
Job interviews tend to be high stake situations. In the span of 30 to 45 minutes, you are trying to build rapport with your interviewer, share past job experiences, and describe why you are right for the role. Storytelling can help make each of those tasks easier.
Stories aren’t just entertaining; they are the most impactful way to engage the brain, form trust, and influence decision-making. By telling stories, a candidate can lighten the cognitive lift for the interviewer, building a dynamic understanding of the candidate’s experience in the interviewer’s mind. A great story can be a differentiator for an interviewer to feel a connection to one candidate over another.
Benefits of storytelling at a job interview
Candidates can establish trust through storytelling. Research by Dr. Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has shown that as someone tells a story, the listener gains empathy and trust toward the storyteller. This creates the release of oxytocin, the feel-good chemical sometimes referred to as “the trust hormone.” Oxytocin signals to our brain whom we want to be around or avoid.
Through a story, you create an in-group feeling when the hiring manager views you as “just like them” from the similar experiences, preferences, or aspirations described. This feeling of familiarity reinforces you are a good fit. Your stories can also create an out-group feeling as you highlight the different knowledge and experience you bring. These help the hiring manager see where your diverse thinking and approaches would complement the team.
When you hear a candidate is “not a good culture fit,” it’s because the manager views them as a member of an out-group. The candidate failed to connect the dots for the manager to understand how their experience would complement and not compete with the team. Telling stories that intentionally create the experience of in and out-groups helps influence the understanding of how you would contribute to the role, team, and culture.
How to prepare a story
Follow these three steps to preparing a story for a job interview. Your goal is for your message to resonate with the hiring manager.
1. Consider what you know about the people you are interviewing with
- What do you know about the interviewer and company?
- What do you want the interviewer to know about you?
- What assumptions might the interviewer have about you?
- What do you uniquely bring to this role or organization (out-group)?
- Why are you the right one for the role (in-group)?
2. Define three words or phrases that describe what you want the interviewer to remember about you
Identify specific words or phrases that describe you best; avoid common terms like “conscientious.” For example, saying you are an “agitator of change who asks questions to get people outside of their comfort zone and elevate thinking” describes what you would contribute. That specificity is memorable and would resonate with companies seeking those skills.
Once you have come up with your words or phrases, work them into your stories and follow-up messages.
3. Build a tool kit of possible stories to share
Stories you come up with should answer “Tell me about a time…” behavioral questions. Identify different examples that are relevant to the role you seek. Here are a few examples of common behavioral interview questions:
- Tell me about a time you faced conflict with a coworker or team.
- Describe a time you made a mistake.
- Give an example of a time you demonstrated leadership skills.
- What is an example of when you had to reset expectations with a client?
- When did you have to think on your feet?
- Share a problem you have solved.
For each question, plan how you will incorporate the three words or phrases that describe you best. Think of examples that will create an in-group feeling through your related knowledge, skills, and values. Also, determine where to include out-group feelings through complementary knowledge, skills, and experiences you would bring to the role. Finally, identify stories that will illustrate both in and out-group examples for the interview.
Key elements to include in a story
Outline each of your stories and include a sentence or two covering the following:
- Challenge or conflict—What was the problem or conflict you are addressing? What was at stake? Why was this messy or hard? What would happen if nothing was done?
- Action—What action did you take?
- Result—What was the result of your actions?
- Learning—What did you learn?
Your goal is to tell a story that engages the interviewer’s brain, and not just list roles and responsibilities. Describing the conflict and what was at stake, what you set out to solve, and what would have happened if you didn’t take action gives a story tension. Sharing actions and results reinforces relevant in or out-group experiences. Telling what you learned helps finish the thought for the interviewer, giving them the takeaway for the story.
At the job interview—telling your story
It may be tempting to tell your interviewer a detailed story. However, what is interesting to you may not be to them. Provide enough information so they can understand your experience and the takeaway. Keep your stories under a minute and let the interviewer ask follow-up questions.
Think of your interview like a book. Chapter one is about your brand; each subsequent chapter includes stories about specific roles, projects, or experiences. Don’t give away the entire book in each response. Include metaphors and examples that can anchor what is familiar to the interviewer; avoid using acronyms.
Send a follow-up message after the interview, sharing what stood out to you about the role or the company. Reinforce why you are right for the role by connecting your three words or phrases to the opportunity.
Through storytelling, you will become a more memorable candidate
Try telling stories in your next job interview. It will help you to be more memorable to the interviewer, and help build an understanding of why you are the right person for the job.
Job interview FAQs
Below we have summarized important questions and answers on the dos and don’ts of job interviews:
How do I sell myself during an interview?
Figure out whom you are interviewing with and what assumptions they may have about you. Define three words or phrases that describe what you want the interviewer to remember about you and work them into your responses. Prepare stories about your experience that demonstrate your similarities and complementary experience.
What is one thing you should not do in an interview?
Don’t assume the interviewer understands your experience from your resume. Tell stories to help your interviewer recognize your complementary skills and experience.
What questions should I ask at the end of an interview?
Ask questions about specific moments to understand the true company culture. Ask questions like: “Tell me about someone you are proud of” or “Tell me about a time you helped someone learn from a mistake.”
About the Author
Post by: Karen Eber
Karen Eber is the CEO and chief storyteller at Eber Leadership Group, a leadership development advisory company. She is also an international consultant, keynote, and TED speaker. Karen is publishing The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence and Inspire with HarperCollins in 2023.
Company: Eber Leadership Group
Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn.