How to Use Storytelling to Get a Job

Believe it or not, storytelling is one of the most important components of the job interview process. Think about your favorite movie. Your resume is like the trailer (it gets you in the door), but the story is what you really fall in love with.

Learning to tell engaging and well-developed stories about your experiences and professional values is probably the single best way to stand out during the job search process. Stories allow you to demonstrate competency and passion in a way that a resume never could. They also provide you with an opportunity to show the employer what you're like as a person, which will give them an idea of what they can expect from you as an employee.

Remember, employers hire people -- not resumes. And a great story is an incredible way to make yourself look like the best person for the job.

To help you learn how to tell your story effectively, we asked five college career counselors the following question:

The interview process isn't just about answering questions -- it's also about telling stories. In a world where a lot of our communication happens through texts and tweets, students are almost conditioned to value brevity; something that doesn't necessarily help when it comes time to convince someone that they're perfect for a job. What is one thing that people can do to identify their story or learn to tell it effectively?

The answers to the question are below. As always, we hope that you find their perspectives helpful, actionable, and inspiring.

Russ Coughenour

- Director, Career Services, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

russ coughenour

When I work with students on this issue I describe for them the difference between “hard qualifications” and “soft skills”. I mention how hard qualifications are measurable and easily comparable across candidates for a particular job. Hard qualifications are what typically get you an interview but it’s the candidate’s ability to tell short stories in response to behavioral questions that typically differentiate them from their competition. Interestingly, soft skill questions are somewhat easy to predict. Most employers recruiting at UT will ask questions concerning:

  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Problem Solving
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Policy adherence
  • Dealing with a difficult person
  • Working across generations or cultures

It is my experience developed through thousands of mock interviews that today’s students struggle with telling a brief but impactful story about their experiences. I do believe that at least some of this shortcoming can be blamed on the proliferation of social media.

I help students with answering behavioral questions by urging them to “predict” the soft skills that will be necessary for success on the job they are interviewing for and then come up with their best example of each skill. For instance, using the above mentioned skills, I encourage students to practice their best example of “leadership” or “overcoming a difficult situation”.

Students, through repetition and the addition of details, can typically start to understand the art of describing a situation, adding what the tasks were necessary and the actions they took in order to reach some kind of favorable result. In addition, I like to ask what they learned from the experience. The major issue with student’s inability to tell quality stories about their experiences is that it takes time and individual attention to get them comfortable with telling stories. Unfortunately, it’s hard in small groups and practically impossible in large groups.

Valarie Jacobsen

- Career Services Center, Xavier University

valarie jacobsen

Most employers ask their candidates a number of behavioral-based interview questions. These questions ask the candidate to provide an example and tell a story, like “Tell me about your most outstanding leadership experience” or “Give me an example of a time in which you set a goal for yourself and the steps you took toward reaching that goal.”

These questions provide the employer real insight into the experience you would bring to their organization, the skills you have developed, and how you would handle certain situations that might come up if hired for the position.

The thing that tends to intimidate individuals the most about these behavioral-based interview questions is that they don’t know what examples they should be prepared to share. Unfortunately, employers don’t share their list of questions prior to an interview, but there are many clues to the questions you may be asked found in the job/internship position description.

When preparing for an interview, I often suggest that students print out the position description and highlight everything the employer is looking for in a candidate that they have experience with – whether something general like organizational skills or something more specific like being bilingual.

A great way to prepare for your interview is to review these highlighted items and to consider an example you might share for each. Next, practice how you would share this example. A great strategy is the STAR model – the Situation, Tasks, Actions, and Results for that particular example. This helps the candidate to offer detail when telling the story, but to present it in an organized manner that has a natural conclusion.

To really be prepared, practice sharing your examples out loud – they will come more naturally in the interview if you are comfortable talking about them.

While this may seem like a lot of preparation for an interview, it will pay off. You never know what questions the interviewer is going to ask you, but if you have a variety of examples you are prepared to speak about that connect to the position description, the examples will connect to some question the interviewer asks you, allowing you to share a detailed example you are comfortable discussing.

Matt Ishler

- Assistant Director, Career Counseling, Penn State University

matt ishler

When working with students on interview preparation, I prefer to begin in a broad manner, asking, “What do you most want the employer to know or understand about you at the conclusion of the interview?” My hope is that this question will frame the interview for the candidate in a way that gives the candidate a choice, and a responsibility, to prepare to share information with the employer. Students will typically respond with some variation of the following themes:

I want the employer to know that I am:

  1. Interested in working in this position in this organization
  2. Able to apply my education, skills, and experiences to this position
  3. Motivated and care about this opportunity to commit to performing my best work, and being a positive contributor to the workplace

With this broad outline, I invite the student (candidate) to discuss what evidence that the student can share to support these statements. Questions that make these statements more concrete include:

  1. How did you choose to apply for this position and what most interests you about it?
  2. What type of educational experiences (classes completed, projects completed, teamwork, presentations, etc) have prepared you to be successful in this role?
  3. What types of out of class experiences (internships, summer jobs, part-time jobs, student organization involvement, volunteer, and community involvement) also contributed to the development of the skills and interests that you will apply in this position and organization?
  4. Can you provide an example of how you contributed to the success or development of a team of people?

As students select and share the experiences that have been influential in their own development, I try to help them organize their stories. There are several methods of organizing interview responses. I was taught and continue to teach students to use the STAR technique:

S - What was the SITUATION? – Share details about the circumstances of your experience.

T – What were your TASKS? - What did you notice that needed to be completed, or what was required for the specific situation?

A - What were your ACTIONS? - Once you identified the tasks, what actions did you take to complete those tasks…. What did you do?

R - What were the RESULTS? – Was there a measurable impact of your work and effort? Did you achieve what was intended? If so or if not, what did you learn through the experience that you will apply to this future opportunity that you are seeking.

This STAR technique is helpful in organizing and framing stories. However, the final element I describe is equally useful: Practice.

I believe that candidates can significantly enhance their ability to identify and tell a story about their career goals or prior experience by practicing and receiving feedback. Whether through a formal mock interview at a Career Center, or informally with a classmate or roommate or family member, responding to interview questions that someone asks you will help you to gauge how prepared you are to tell stories about your background, goals, and experiences.

The best interview stories demonstrate your skills, interests, and motivations in action. You will want your prospective employer to see you at your best in your interviews, so take the time prior to your interviews to practice verbally sharing your stories.

Nicole Younker

- Alumni Career Services, The University of Georgia

nicole younker

Practice, practice, practice!

True storytellers have told their best stories over and over. We have all seen students who think about how they might answer an interview question. Some students go one step further and write down their answers ahead of time. Nothing beats telling the story so that you are practiced at verbally delivering information about you and your skills in a logical format. If you feel unsure about where to begin, practice helps you develop your story, too.

Consider this: comedians practice storytelling to get the best laugh at a joke. Even improvisational comedians practice material to effectively perform in the moment. Practice does not mean rehearsing the exact words you might say. Instead, it means having the experience of talking about your skills and strengths in a way that increases others’ understanding. The more you do it, the more rehearsed you will be at conveying your marketable qualities.

Without everyday opportunities to tell your story, mock interviews become a very helpful resource to practice your interview technique.

Burt Nadler

- Director, Career and Internship Center, University of Rochester

burt nadler

We encourage our students to STAR during an interview. The should be prepared share the Situation, Tasks, Actions and Results for three anecdotes that illustrate position specific qualifications. This acronym driven approach insures that those interviewing become "story tellers" and not just Q&A respondents.

Those interviewing identify and share three anecdotes using the STAR acronym. And they should be able to share "tweet like" 50-100 word 350-700 character goals statements that reveal field, function and firm goals. In advance of their "conversations with a targeted purpose," not interrogations or examinations, they should have written down their goal statements, focusing all discussions on the "bull's eye" of their job search, not the well rounded bull bleep most are to quick to share.

Good candidates focus on the job and, in fact, preface answers with the statement "thinking about the job." And, they also start their STAR anecdotes with "as you can see on my resume." They focus on anecdote proven past experience to predict behavioral future success.

Can you be a STAR candidate? Can you focus on your goal statement bull's eye, not over generalized bull bleep? If yes, you are ready to excel and yield an offer!

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