Ace Your Interview: Tell a Great Story

campfire story shutterstock_211091626If I had to pick just one thing you can do to improve your chances of getting an offer, I would say tell a great story in the interview; share a relevant example from your experience. 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.
  • 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 and the company was able to meet its revenue goals. In fact, I received formal recognition from the COO for my work.”

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 “My analytic skills” and stop there. Instead, she said:

My analytic skills. 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.

So I took the initiative to analyze the data. I looked at x, y, and z, across 50 different customer segments over two years, using SAS and Excel. I saw 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 I was seeing. Through the data and these conversations, it became clear that the people leaving were all related to one product where we had recently changed the service terms!

So I presented my findings to management, and suggested they modify the service terms for those five segments. They adopted my recommendation and over the next six months our retention problem reversed itself. We were able to meet our revenue goals, and I was formally recognized for this work by the COO. I think this kind of 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.