April 25, 2019 / Esther Choy


Last time you had a job interview, what lengths did you go to in order to prepare? Bonus points if your job interview prep included buying new clothes or hiring a coach! When we want to land a new job we’re excited about, we try to plan the details. But do those details include preparing to demonstrate our character? The thing is, credentials aren’t enough to make us stand out when the pressure is on. They too easily blend in with what the interviewer has just heard everybody else say. If you focus your job interview prep on emphasizing your character, you can give the interviewer an idea of what it would be like to work with you.

Therefore, it is absolutely vital to highlight our character when we need to convince someone to choose us over the competition.

  • Bad news: Most people don’t do this well.
  • Good news: There are two easy ways to improve.

Improvement tip 1: Get Ready to Tell about Your Character.

Do this before the interview. Take out a piece of paper and write down your top five strongest character traits. Maybe you are known for your empathy, grit, fairness, optimism or curiosity. List these, and then plan to repeat them at strategic points during the interview.

In other words, tell the interviewer exactly what your strongest traits are. Don’t just drop hints. Don’t just tell a story and leave the interviewers to form their own conclusions. Tell them who you are. Now… if you’ve had a chance to absorb some storytelling lessons so far in your career, right now you might be thinking, “what about ‘show don’t tell’? Shouldn’t I be showing the listeners my character instead of just telling them?” I’d say the adage should really be “tell AND show,” instead of “show don’t tell,” because both are important and work together. Tell the interviewer what your top strengths are. But don’t stop there.

Improvement tip 2: Get Ready to Show Your Character.

When it comes to illustrating your character, evocative descriptions, dialogue and brief stories are all excellent tools to deploy. Here are examples of each category.

Evocative description: “I love to read so much that I read even while blow-drying my hair.”

    • This isn’t a story, per se, but it sure tells us a lot about this person! When one of my clients shared this detail, all of a sudden, I could see what being an avid reader really meant to her.

Dialogue: “It’s always been important for me to be authentic on the job. Recently a student in my executive education program said to me, ‘I appreciate what you do. But more importantly to me, I think one day you’re going to be an awesome grandmother! Look at that mischievous smile.’ That student’s comment made me realize that I was bringing my full self to work, mischievous smile and all.”

    • This isn’t a fully developed story, either, but when a student of mine mentioned my mischievous smile, I knew she had shown me something about my character. And if I chose to relay what the student said, it would be engaging because the dialogue shows an exchange between two characters: student and teacher.

Brief story: What do you do when you see a horse galloping down a main street with lots of pedestrians? That’s exactly what most people who witnessed this happening one spring day were asking themselves: “what do we do??” The cars were stopped, people were looking at each other—no one knew what to do. Then the horse ran around a corner where one of my clients was standing. She was afraid, but felt like she needed to do something despite her fear, so she stepped into the middle of the street and grabbed the horse’s bridle.

    • When my client shared this story in a job interview, it was in response to the question, “can you really execute an idea?” She told this story to show that when no one else was taking action, she did what needed to be done–despite her fear. The story showed that she could be the one to put an idea into practice and take action. She got the job.

Go back to the five character traits you jotted down. For each, come up with two or three ways to show your character: perhaps an evocative description, a snippet of dialogue, or a brief story. But be aware… the most earnest job interview preparation can easily backfire. When you’ve spent so much time preparing, the temptation is always to get your message out at all costs! Instead, be sure to slow down and listen to what your interviewers are really asking you, and answer in an authentic, informed way.

When I used to spend days doing back-to-back, marathon interviews, I could tell the interviewees had prepared every last detail. That’s what made being an interviewer so draining. Many of the candidates were so well rehearsed they sounded robotic. (And yes, I could tell which ones had hired consultants to coach them!) Thankfully, there are tools for connecting authentically with your interviewer and going beyond simply rehashing your job interview prep. More on that next time….

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Working on your job interview prep? Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a working session with us today! Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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