This Interview Technique Will Get You Hired

by Tara Struyk on 13 March 2014 3 comments

I've conducted a number of job interviews, and while I interviewed a lot of very nice, very smart and very qualified people, I have to say that there's a reason why job interviews make such great fodder for comedians. But unlike in the movies, the job candidates who aren't charming, articulate, and interesting aren't funny — rather, they are almost invisible. I met a lot of people who were so terrified of screwing up that they refused to break from their rehearsed script. As a result, they couldn't really answer my questions, I couldn't get to know them, and they didn't get the job. (See also: Things You Did Wrong at Your Last Interview)

That's why many employment experts recommend that job seekers answer questions — or at least some questions — in a narrative format. In other words, rather than spitting out job search cliches like "I'm a hard worker" or "I'm a team player," job seekers should let go of the script a bit and tell the interview a story about themselves.

I like a good story as much as the next person, but when it comes to telling one in a professional setting, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. So let's take a look at what a little storytelling can do for your job interview — and how to get it right.

Stories Are Memorable

When you're being interviewed for a job, it's a good idea to put yourself in the interviewer's shoes. Think about what they're looking for in a candidate, what qualities you have that you think might make you stand out from other candidates, and how you can get that information across. You should also consider the fact that the person who is interviewing you might be sitting in that office conducting job interviews all day long. Please people; don't bore them to death. (See also: Make a Good Impression at Your Next Interview)

Science (and possibly common sense) tells us that listening to a Powerpoint presentation or reading through bullet points activates the parts of our brain where we process language and decode meaning. The same probably goes for reading a resume...or having one repeated verbatim by a job candidate.

When we hear a story, however, our brains light right up. Sure, those language processing and decoding areas are active, but so are the parts of our brain that would be active if we were actually experiencing those events. So, if you can tell your interviewer a compelling story, you will essentially be getting a bigger, more attentive piece of that person's brain. It will also give your interviewer a deeper, richer sense of the qualifications, experiences, and qualities you can bring to the job. If you're interviewing in a competitive field, that can mean the difference between standing out and being forgotten.

Caveat: Your Stories Need to Be Relevant

You can tell just about any kind of story in a job interview, but before you start reeling off your summer adventures in South America, make sure that what you're saying is relevant to the job you're interviewing for. Maybe your trip helped you uncover some important skills or characteristics you believe will help you on the job. That's a story worth telling. Maybe it included a turning point that helped you figure out what you want to do with your life. That's a relevant story, too. But the hilarious story that starts with too many beers? Save that one for your friends. The key is to use stories to reveal the most important, most relevant information about you in a compelling and interesting way. If you're telling stories for their own sake, you've probably gone off course. (See also: How to Always Say Something Interesting)

Stories Help Interviewee and Interviewer Feel Compatible

Have you ever finished a book that starred a character who was completely unlike you, but with whom you could identify by the time you turned the last page? That's how stories work. They help us bring other people into our world, and vice versa. That's important at work, too. After all, a hiring manager is a lot more likely to hire someone they "get" than they are to choose a candidate they can't imagine seeing eye-to-eye with.

According to scientists at Princeton, when you tell a story, you not only implant information in your listener's brain, you also inject ideas and emotions. So, while you could mention a challenge you've overcome on the job, if you tell it as a story, your interviewer is much more likely to really understand and empathize with how big that challenge was and how difficult it was for you to overcome it. Plus, when someone empathizes with you, they are also more likely to like you as a person. And that, as much as any skill or credential, can be what lands you the job.

Caveat: Get the Right Information Into Your Stories

If you find you have something in common with an interviewer, such as a shared interest in sports or the arts, it's fine to chat about it briefly. But a job interview isn't a chat, and if you get too off topic for too long, it's unlikely to work in your favor. Before you go into your interview, make a list of the qualities and characteristics you want to portray about yourself, and think of some of the stories you could tell to help get those messages across. If you're really good at this, you'll be able to make your interviewer feel like they've had a nice conversation with you, while still coming away with all the information required to assess your fit for the job. (See also: 9 Interview Mistakes to Avoid)

Stories Are More Convincing Than the Truth

I would never recommend lying in a job interview, but there are definitely two kinds of truth: there's plain and simple, and then there's fancy. The latter is better because it usually requires a few figures of speech. And that's what makes it more effective.

So, for example, you could say that you were the top salesperson in your division last year. That might be a simple fact, and it's certainly one that a hiring manager would be interested in hearing. But what you really want your interviewer to understand is that you could sell sand in a desert ... or ham to a pig ... or ice to an Inuit. Well, you get the idea. What really hammers a point home is the use of similes and parables and other figures of speech. If the three I used caught your attention, it's because your brain is literally wired for them. Several studies have found that we actually process literal and metaphorical information in the same area of the brains. So, if you can use stories, metaphors and other devices that relate you and your skills with positive attributes — or even positive feelings — you can take a giant leap (metaphorically speaking) ahead of your competition.

Caveat: Keep Stories and Metaphors Simple

Metaphors are fun and interesting and engaging — to a point. If you get carried away, you're likely to sound like you're speaking in code. So keep literary devices to a minimum, and keep them simple (as pie!). This isn't a college-level comparative literature class. You don't want your interviewer to have to work too hard here. Or think you're crazy as a loon. (Also, now that I've tortured you with cliches, you're probably getting the idea that you should avoid those too. Some people like them, but many don't, so don't press your luck.)

A good story, like a good metaphor, should transport the listener to another place — one where you're kicking ass and taking names in the employment world. Just remember that not all stories are good, and the bad ones are likely to harm your job prospects more than they help. So be creative, but also be sure to be concise, relevant and, above all, professional. If you get it right, you'll have a new story to tell: how you landed your new job.

Have you used storytelling to land a job? Share your tale in comments!

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Guest's picture

I have always found that honesty is the best. Find a weak spot that you have, and spin it to be positive. "I am not as versed in that skill, but I have learned similar skills and I enjoyed the challenge"

As always, be on time, have a solid hand shake, and don't text your friends in the interview...

Tara Struyk's picture

Text friends?!! Oh dear. I hope you haven't seen that one.

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Alex

Great tips. I always try and add a little humour and friendliness to the meeting, even if I'm secretly panicking. My best weapon is to make people laugh. This is not say I pick up a microphone and start doing one-liners.
Eye contact and story telling are always good too.