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Storytelling is all the rage right now. When you tell a story, it grabs people’s attention, drives the meaning deeper, makes the content relatable, and is easier to retain. These are all things that we strive for; and yet, why is telling a story so hard for some of us?

Okay, it’s not hard for me. Arguably, I tell too many stories and probably repeat them too…guilty as charged. As a recruiter, I’ve heard hundreds of stories and oftentimes I’m either yawning or cringing. My inner voice has often said, “No! Don’t say it. Stop! TMI!” I’ve heard stories of wrongdoing, lame excuses, descriptions of bad decisions, and many things that just aren’t going to send the message, “Hire me!”

It’s important to know when to tell a story, what to say (and not say) and how to craft it in a way that doesn’t bore or alienate the listener.

When I do career coaching, I ask my clients to think of stories and write them down. These stories should answer basic interview questions in a way that seems more concrete than a hypothetical answer. Behavioral interviewing is used by many organizations, and the goal is to discover how the interviewee acted in specific employment-related situations. The logic is that how you behaved in the past predicts future behavior and performance. Stories can be used in behavioral interviews and can be effectively woven into any interview.

Don’t feel confident in your storytelling skills? Here is the formula for telling a good story:

  1. Setting: Every good story needs a setting. Give a few details to paint the picture.
  2. Characters: Describe the other players in the story. Stay positive in how you portray them.
  3. Conflict – this is the UH-OH: What is the uh-oh? Think “then this happened and…”
  4. Conclusion: How did you save the day? How did you right the wrong? What did you learn?

For example, the interviewer asks, “Tell me about a time that you had a difficult customer. What did you do to turn the situation around?”

  1. Setting: I worked in a Coney Island restaurant in downtown Detroit that mostly served hot dogs, burgers, and chili fries. It was a great restaurant, but the menu was limited.
  2. Characters: This lady walked in with her five kids on a really busy Saturday, right before a Tigers game. She looked annoyed, was short with her kids, and had wrinkled and dirty clothes on.
  3. Uh-Oh: They sat down and then she asked what was available for a vegan. We didn’t get a lot of vegans in this restaurant, so this was new to me. I asked her what types of things she liked to eat and told her I’d be back with some options.
  4. Conclusion: I brought back options of Greek Salad without cheese, a gyro without lamb, and even found out we had other items that might work. She appreciated that I listened, had the mindset to help her and that I provided good service. The biggest surprise was that she left me a $50 tip! I treat all people with respect and aim to help them have a great experience.

If you are interviewing, prepare to tell the following stories:

  • Tell me about a mistake you made and what happened as a result of it.
  • Tell me about a time that you had to go above and beyond for the team.
  • How do you handle a difficult customer?
  • Tell me about an ethical dilemma that presented itself and how you handled it.
  • What’s an example of an innovation or process improvement that you spearheaded?
  • What’s an example of a time when you showed initiative?

Stories should be told in a positive way. You can say that you made a mistake and acknowledge what you learned from it. Avoid the blame game. Take ownership of your work, career, and choices. Don’t be negative regarding previous employment situations. Watch or listen for feedback from the interviewer. On a phone interview, keep it high-level and provide more details if asked. Listen carefully in case they want to move on. In an in-person interview, watch their body language to see if they are interested or ready to ask the next question. No need to provide too many details. Give just enough to make it interesting.

Practice your stories on a friend, family member, or your career coach. Even the best storytellers can benefit from feedback. Develop your stories and you are sure to make a memorable impression in your next interview. Need help crafting your stories? Reach out to me or another career coach for advice that is sure to help build your confidence.

Peggy Hogan
Peggy Hogan
Peggy is the Manager of Career Coaching Services at Purple Ink. Peggy enjoys connecting the right person to the right place, whether she’s career coaching, recruiting or working on-site with a client. She is motivated to help create positive workspaces by offering creative solutions to problems in the workplace, resulting in reduced turnover, higher employee engagement and increased productivity.

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