I remember being in a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, Canada, where my four brothers, my mother, my father, and I were waiting for our food to come. My father was telling us a story about our favorite topic – how our parents met – and even though the food was late, we didn't care. Dad had our complete attention.
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In a way, my dad's storytelling in the Chinese restaurant in Vancouver was similar to what job candidates must do at an interview – they must tell a compelling story. You'll need to use your stories to answer behavioral interview questions, which are like directives. They tend to take the following form: "Tell me about a time when you [demonstrated a particular skill]."
A successful story-based response to an interview question always has the following six characteristics:
1. It Has Meaning
What meaning does your story have? Whatever the exact answer is, it must be applicable to the job for which you're applying. If you're asked how your strong written communication skills made a difference at a specific moment, but you respond by talking about a time you demonstrated strong verbal communication skills, then your story does not have meaning.
Say you're applying for a marketing communications position. When asked about your written communication skills, you'll want to talk about how you wrote numerous customer success stories, including one from IBM; provided content on a weekly basis for your company's website; and placed numerous articles in trade magazines, including Electronics World.
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2. It Has Structure
In a complete interview process workshop I lead, my participants construct a story using the STAR (situation, task, action, result) formula. The situation and task take up approximately 20 percent of the story; the actions taken to meet the situation take up 60 percent of the story; and the result of the action taken accounts for the remaining 20 percent.
Some of my workshop attendees have difficulty keeping the situation brief. They feel the need to provide background information, which in effect distracts the listener from what's most important – the actions taken to meet the situation. The result is also important, whether it's a positive or negative resolution. Twenty-sixty-twenty is a good proportion to keep in mind when constructing your interview stories.
3. It Makes The Listener Ask for More
When a candidate successfully answers an interview question with a good story, a couple of things can happen. First, the interviewer may smile and indicate approval by saying something like, "Thank you. That was a great answer." This likely means that your story addressed the meaning behind the question and adhered to proper form.
On the other hand, the employer may come back with follow-up questions, such as, "So you saved the company $50,000 by taking over the webmaster role, but what did you learn from this experience?" Bingo. If an interviewer asks follow-up questions, you've gained their interest – much in the same way my father's story always had us asking for more details.
4. It Delivers More Than What Was Asked For
Your stories delivered during the interview should reveal more skills than what the interviewer asks for. A question about how you improved communications between two departments at war with each other should show not only your communication skills, but also your interpersonal, leadership, problem-solving, and coordinating skills.
When your stories deliver more than what is required, one story can answer multiple questions with just a little adjustment. More importantly, your stories will give the interviewer more insight into your behavior and personality than speculative or theoretical answers would.
5. It Shows Enthusiasm
In your story, you talk about organizing a fundraising that attracts $80,000 more in donations than last year's event did. That's a big deal, yet your voice is monotone. There's something missing, isn't there?
When you tell your stories, make the interviewer care about your accomplishments as much as you do. When Dad told his story about how he and Mom met, there was always a twinkle in his eyes and excitement in his voice. This made us excited, even after hearing it for the twentieth time.
6. It Was Prepared and Practice in Advance
There is only one way to prepare for telling your interview stories: You must completely understand what's required of you if you land the position. Know what competencies the employer is looking for. Based on this knowledge, you can construct stories in anticipation of the questions you may be asked regarding the identified competencies.
Keep in mind that not all questions will require a positive result. Sometimes, the interviewer may ask you for a negative outcome. Also remember that a single story can cover multiple skills or competencies. For example, if you've identified five required skills, three stories may be enough to cover all five.
Because of all the practice Dad had telling his story about how he and my mother met, his story got better and better with each telling. That was a great time in the Chinese restaurant in Vancouver. Not because the food was great – I don't remember what we ate – but because the story was what we all wanted to hear.
Bob McIntosh, CPRW, is a career trainer who leads more than 15 job search workshops at an urban career center.