Ace Your Interview: Tell a Great Story

campfire story shutterstock_211091626Telling a great story in the interview, is the single best thing you can do to improve your odds of landing another interview or offer. Powerfully share a relevant example from your experience that illustrates how you can help them. Go beyond just saying that you are good at what you do. Go beyond telling them “I did this which resulted in that.” Help them to picture your value by painting that picture with words; share the full, interesting story in detail.

Hiring managers who know how to interview will ask you for these examples and have lots of followup questions. Those who are less experienced at interviewing candidates will be grateful for your initiative in sharing this relevant story with them. Either way, you’ll differentiate yourself from your competitors through the examples you share, and you will make your presentation more memorable.

Aim high with your examples—share them in a powerful way that will resonate with the hiring manager. Organize your thoughts and presentation using a story-telling format. My favorite story-telling format is Problem-Action-Result, or PAR.

  • Problem: Describe the situation or problem your department faced (any good story has an obstacle that needs to be overcome). Make sure the interviewer understands the importance of the problem you were trying to solve (any good story has drama). For example, don’t just say “customers were leaving,” say “Customers were inexplicably leaving, after 5 years of steady growth. This new trend was threatening our revenue goals and market share.” As in this example, try to focus on the bottom line for that organization (e.g. revenue, market share).
  • Action: What did you do to address the problem? Be careful here; you’ve got to give enough detail to show your value, but not too much so that you would bore the listener. Also, I see many clients talk too much about “we” as in “then we did this, and after that we did that.” While it’s important to show that you are a good team player, the interviewer needs to understand what YOU did, as in “I led me team in identifying…” or “I partnered with Legal in developing…”
  • Result: Conclude with the result of your actions. Again, make it important, powerful, tie it to the bottom line. Don’t just say “So I was able to fix the problem.” Instead say “The result was that the decline in customers began reversing itself immediately, the company was able to meet its revenue goals, and we were able to attract the buyers that led to a successful sale.

Don’t give too much detail, or too little. Rather, focus on making your example interesting. Use specifics, imagery, and even drama. Your example will resonate far more with the interviewer when you do. I tell clients to pretend they are telling the story to a five year old; you have to hold their attention, so let go of the boring detail and excess jargon!

Here’s a client example from a successful interview. The interviewer asked “What is your greatest strength?” (which isn’t the greatest interview question, by the way, but that’s for another post). This client didn’t just say “Seeing the big picture” and stop there. Instead, she said:

Seeing the big picture. Why don’t I share an example with you so you can see what I mean and how I can help? <the interviewer said great, go ahead>

Two years ago we were seeing a retention problem with our accounts—people were leaving in droves. No one was sure why or what to do about it, and it was threatening our revenue goals and ability to attract prospective buyers for a company sale.

So I led my team in analyzing the data. I had them look at x, y, and z, across 50 different customer segments over two years. It became clear to me that the problem was concentrated in just five of the segments, beginning all at the same time. I then reached out to business partners who could shed light on what events coincided with this decline. Through the data and these conversations, I realized that customers that were leaving were all related to one product where we had recently changed the service terms!

So I had my team work with the their colleagues in Legal, Operations and Finance on modifying the service terms for those five segments. The result was that the decline in customers began reversing itself immediately, the company was able to meet its revenue goals, and we were able to attract the buyers that led to a successful sale. I think this kind of big picture thinking and analysis could potentially be useful for your situation…”

Notice how at the end of the story she turned it back to them. She wanted to ensure that the story was relevant to them (“How can you help me?” is their number one question). When you tell your story, be prepared for lots of follow-up questions. Good interviewers will want to know things like what obstacles you faced in getting the data, why you chose this method for conducting the analysis, how you got cooperation from the other departments in its evaluation, what you enjoyed most/did best, and so forth.

Have two or three such stories ready to share in an interview, examples that are highly relevant to your potential employer’s needs or situation. You don’t need 15 different examples, just two or three. That way you can really practice sharing them and talk about them in great detail. And you can use one story to answer multiple questions. For instance the story above might also be used in answer to the interview question “Give me an example of a situation where you had to collaborate with others in developing your insights.”

Look for opportunities to tell these stories throughout the interview process, that is, with every question you are asked. In fact, your mission should be to get at least one of your stories heard in the interview.