July 10, 2020 / Esther Choy

storytelling checklist for job interviews

At a time when every job opportunity matters, an easy-to-use storytelling checklist can be extremely useful.

The U.S. economy saw a “modest recovery” in the early weeks of June, as Shahar Ziv writes for Forbes. However, he notes that the recovery has been uneven. A disproportionate number of Black employees, in particular, are seeing their jobs disappear and are not able to find new work. While the overall U.S. unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, it is still 15.4 percent for Black Americans.

The June report also showed a sky-high number of “discouraged workers”: 681,000 people are currently employable but have given up looking for work. (In June 2019, by comparison, the number who had stopped job searching was much lower, at 427,000.)

These are difficult times—economically and in all other dimensions of our lives. When a job opportunity does come our way, we can maximize our chances of success by preparing to make meaningful, lasting connections with hiring managers. We can do that by answering interview questions with stories.

Time after time, my clients notice that when they tell stories, their audience literally leans their bodies forward towards them and listens. In today’s world of distractions, this alone is a high achievement. Gaining your audience’s attention can be the start of gaining employment!

Here’s a storytelling checklist with eight things you never, ever want to do during a job interview—and eight things you will absolutely want to do.

A Storytelling Checklist for Job Interviews

1. Don’t: Showcase your credentials only.

“Let’s hire that candidate with the 4.0 GPA, five years at the top consulting firm, and glowing references,” said no hiring manager ever. 

No, it’s usually, “remember the candidate who told us how she’d pushed herself to get over her stage fright? How she now gives presentations in front of 300+ people on a monthly basis?”

Most people forget about 40% of what they hear within 24 hours, and 90% of what they hear within a week. Decision-makers in any competitive process are especially desensitized to accomplishments. Focusing on your character, and telling stories that illustrate it, will make your information stick.

Do: Choose Stories About Your Character.

Relationships are at the heart of every business transaction, and mutual trust is at the heart of every relationship. So, whether the interviewer acknowledges it or not, the most important question isn’t “what have you accomplished,” but “when I hire you, who do I get?”

Showcase your character with stories that illustrate who you are.

2. Don’t: Tell stories that focus only on effort.

In technical fields especially, people want to “show their work,” just as they were taught in math class. But this very easily leads us to get lost in the details. How hard you worked is “irrelevant to most managers,” says a client of mine who provides career mentorship as an advisor to the Asian Network.

Do: Choose stories about your results.

Highlight the results. Then, if it’s truly helpful for your audience, tell them about the effort that got you there.

3. Don’t: Recount events.

“First I went to an ivy league school, then I got a consulting job, then I got my MBA while continuing my consulting job and raising two kids.” As impressive as all of this is, it’s not a story yet. Find the structure and extract the meaning, and then you’ll have a story.

Do: Make IRS your best storytelling friend. 

Use a simple three-act story structure. Here’s an example:

  • Intriguing beginning: “One of the most significant changes my team has made recently came from an idea my eight-year-old niece shared.”
  • Riveting middle: “She loves science, so she announced that she was keeping a journal with one thing she learned about science that day—complete with illustrations. My team started to close our meetings with one thing that we learned during the meeting.”
  • Satisfying ending: “It’s helped information stick, bonded our team, and energized us for our work. All thanks to an eight-year-old.”

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4. Don’t: Ramble.

You have three minutes max to tell your story. Anything longer feels tedious.

Do: Keep it brief.

Your three minute story can correspond to the three-act structure mentioned above. Within the first few sentences, plant a hook—as in the example above. The interviewee wonders, “what was this insight that you learned from an eight-year-old?”

5. Don’t: Leave your audience to make up their own minds.

This is a key difference between literary storytelling and business storytelling. A successful literary short story surprises the reader, leaves them wondering, and encourages them to go back and re-read the story for clues to the characters’ motivations, but a successful business story makes a specific ask. It leads the reader to the main point you want them to understand so that they can take action.

Do: State the takeaway.

Create an unforgettable ending for your story by considering the takeaway. What do you want an exhausted hiring manager to remember? How can you stand out from the dozen or more other candidates they may have seen that day? Even if everything else quickly falls out of their brain by dinner time, what’s the one thing you hope will stay there?

6. Don’t: Overshare.

Choose stories from the realm of “personal” but not “private.”

Do: Be vulnerable.

There is a right level of vulnerability: define it and know it. Sharing about a lack of experience is vulnerable, but demonstrating a lack of good character is awkward, not to mention problematic.

7. Don’t: Boast.

Being the hero who saves the day in every story can not only begin to sound like bragging, it can fail to illustrate the richness of your character. Interesting stories can just as easily arise from your role as witness to a discovery or a beautiful transformation—or simply your role as a friend.

Do: Back up your claims with stories.

Some advice I read a while ago has stuck with me: “write down the major claims you will make about yourself in a job interview” and pair each one with a story. If you claim that you are a mentor to younger colleagues, for instance, tell a story about a promotion you helped a young colleague secure.

8. Don’t: Replay the narrative.

It’s so tempting to tell yourself the story of the interview again and again, reading into every awkward pause, cough or smile.

But this is the wrong story. Humans are terrible at reading body language. So it’s important to stop rehashing the subtle clues we think we noticed during the interview.

Do: Tell yourself the right story afterward.

Tell yourself this story after your interview: “I did my best. Now I need to keep working.” Start that work by sending a heartfelt, personalized thank you note. Then, do something else productive while you wait. Sign up for a Masterclass. Practice a new language. Call a friend.


Related Articles

Are You Making These Common Job Interview Mistakes?

How Leadership Storytelling Can Win You A Job


This story 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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