Storytelling Your Way to Interview Success, with Amy Davies
In any job interview, you need to be memorable. You have a much better chance of getting a job offer if the hiring manager remembers you. Find Your Dream Job guest expert Amy Davies shares how effective storytelling can help you stand out. Sharing stories leads to a stronger connection with the interviewer; you just need to know which stories to tell. Amy shares which stories are worth sharing and how to prepare them before the interview.
About Our Guest:
Amy Davies is the founder of Reorg World, the author of “A Spark in the Dark,” and the CEO of First 30 Inc. Amy works with organizations through reorganizations so employees feel empowered and the company remains profitable. Amy also works with select individuals through transition, enabling them to achieve their ultimate professional goals.
Resources in This Episode:
- For help managing your career, get your copy of Amy’s new book, “A Spark in the Dark.”
Find Your Dream Job, Episode 219:
Storytelling Your Way to Interview Success, with Amy Davies
Airdate: November 27, 2019
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.
Every Wednesday, I interview a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.
Some candidates treat a job interview like a legal deposition. They walk into a room. They take an employer’s questions. And then they leave.
Our guest today says the most successful job seekers do more than answer questions. They tell stories.
Amy Davies is here to talk about why storytelling matters to hiring managers and how you can do it well.
She’s the author of the book, A Spark in the Dark: Illuminating Your Path to a Brilliant Career in a Reorg World.
Amy is also the founder of two companies, Reorg World and First 30, Inc.
She joins us today from Toronto, Canada.
Well, Amy, let’s get right into it. Why is it so important to tell stories in a job interview?
Well, it’s really important to tell stories because our brains love stories. They actually, when we have a good connection with someone and we’re telling them a story, we release…positive hormones are released in the brain and these are feel-good hormones. And what these do is they help us build a much stronger connection with the person. Obviously, we’ve been listening to stories our whole life, so it makes sense that this would be a great way to approach an interview.
You’re sitting across the table from that hiring manager, don’t they…doesn’t that manager just want you to answer their questions?
Sure, and often it’s the case that when we answer questions in this way we cover multiple questions they might ask us without them having to prompt us. They know what they’re looking for, what information they’re going to ask us about, and when we put that all into a story, we’ve given them what they’re looking for anyway.
How do…I think many listeners know it’s important to tell stories. When you work with clients, how do you find people typically approach storytelling in a job interview? Is there a good or a bad way to do it?
Well, I find that most people don’t approach it in this way, which is really interesting to me and one of the reasons it’s interesting is because when we meet people for the very first time, something’s happening called, “imprinting.” And we don’t talk a lot about imprinting and its impact on our professional success but what happens when we imprint is when we meet someone for the very first time or we have an extreme situation with them that’s very memorable, we will imprint and that’s like them taking a snapshot of us in that moment, that they capture in their brain and it’s hardwired to their brain.
If you think about it, when we get together with someone and we tell stories for the first time, that actually helps us imprint positively and when we imprint we build what is called a “belief system”, when someone imprints on us, and once a belief system is built, it can be very hard to change.
That sounds like a lot of pressure, Amy.
You have that first meeting and you want to make that good impression, so how do you do that? You’re a job seeker, you’re walking into a room or you’re standing in the lobby shaking somebody’s hand, not only do you make that good impression but how do you tell a story that…how can storytelling help?
Well, storytelling can help because it will help you with your confidence. It also has a ton of benefits. So, if you remember when you were in school, I know that I had a teacher that told me to study for a test effectively, I should sing a song. I should turn the content of that test into a song, and I did that and that’s one of the reasons that today, I can tell you that Vikings built a palisade around their villages. Which was a large wall…and I could go on and on but I won’t subject you to my singing voice. I still remember a lot of that content.
When we structure our responses to interview questions in a storytelling format, it’s going to help us recall what we wanted to speak about. It’s going to help us build rapport with that person and it’s going to help us make a positive impression.
Of course, as I’m sure you know and your audience knows, a lot more goes into that positive first impression than just storytelling. Like how you dress, how you carry yourself, et cetera but this will really help you come across well.
Okay, I want to talk about the structure of a good story but before we do that, let’s talk about timing. Because you’re in the interview, often these are very structured conversations and there are, particularly with larger, more formal organizations, there’s a set of questions you need to respond to. How do you recommend people use storytelling in response to those questions? And then later when they have an opportunity to talk, how should people use storytelling?
Well, sometimes we have to think about the fact that an interviewer isn’t just looking for the facts related to the questions they’re asking. They’re also looking to understand who you are as a professional and what you can contribute.
So when they ask a specific question, we need to give ourselves permission to answer more than the question they’ve asked, necessarily. So, we don’t have to consider the case that we’re stuck in what they’ve asked us. We can add to that answer and we may find the interview goes more quickly that way but it’s because we’ve answered all the questions, like I said, that they were going to ask.
A lot of it is about the preparation. So, I’ll talk to you a little bit about that, too.
So, the way to prepare for an interview and to take the storytelling approach is, a lot of us will sit down when we prepare for an interview and write out a lot of bullet points. And we’ll write out the bullet points about some accomplishments we’ve made over our career, maybe where we’ve worked. We’ll make bullet points about the company and then we’ll recite those bullet points when we’re asked a question.
So, something will set us off and, “Tell me about a time when you’ve run into problems at work and how you solved those problems.”
Well, think about structuring that as a story. But what I recommend people do is they actually sit down with a pen and paper, and they start at the very beginning of their career or even before that, their education, and write that down as a story. When they were in college or university or high school, what did they learn that has led them to this point?
And then every single job, write it out as though it’s a chapter of your story. And it’s a very long process, and some people think of it as a long and tedious process when you do it the very first time. But you only actually have to do it that one time and a lot of people like to use their laptop and write it out.
I don’t recommend that. I say, sit down with an old school pen and paper and write the story from the very beginning. And like I said, a chapter for each of your professional experiences. And then maybe you’ve had situations you know that certain questions are going to be asked, like the one that I just was speaking about, about what happened if you had a difficult experience, how did you overcome that, so write a story for that specific question.
Let’s pause there because I think most people, particularly having worked on a resume recently, are thinking about bullets. When you’ve worked with your clients to help them create these stories and go through this exercise, how does that story look different than a list of bullets? What elements does it have?
It’s in the way that they speak. So, a few things happen when we take this preparation approach to interviewing and what happens is we, of course, recall better and we also think about things that we might never have thought about for a long time, right? So, we never would’ve thought about those things had we not gone through this process. So, what I find is their answers are much richer.
So, when we do mock interviews, before and after, afterward they just have so much more to say, so many more details to add, and while that might seem tedious, it actually comes across very well in practice.
What’s the strategy, Amy, behind picking those details? Because we’ve all got, particularly those of us who have been in the workplace for some decades, lots of stories we can tell. How do you pick the right ones and how do you tell them effectively?
You pick what feels best for you and that’s the beauty of this exercise. Because what you’ll have done is you’ll have sat down, and you’ll have gone through so many stories and so many great memories will come up and you’ll be surprised at the quality of some of those experiences and memories. And you may think that you were going to tell a specific story but then when you go through this exercise you remember so many other great stories. You have better ones to choose from and so when you’re sitting with the interviewer, you might want to think about, what stories would be most relevant to them? Is there a story that’s more relevant to the industry? Is there a story that may be more relevant to them personally that they might be able to relate to as you speak to them?
You can pick and choose in the interview but, of course, you’ll have prepared it beforehand.
You need to invest time in creation but you also have to be selective and strategic in the stories you tell.
That’s right and you’re not always going to know exactly what you’re going to say when you’re sitting down for an interview. I personally feel very comfortable being spontaneous, not everyone feels that way so you may want to have two or three that are your top ones and those are the ones that you can choose from depending on the question.
What are your best tips, Amy, you mentioned earlier about the relevance of stories; how can a listener determine, before they walk into an interview, what memories might be relevant to the hiring manager they’re meeting?
The ones that move them the most. So, sometimes the ones that are…it’s like thinking about what any great story has, you know, a lot of excitement, and I mean, I know that our careers may not have been that exciting but we might have been in an interesting situation at work that would surprise the interviewer. Or we might have been in a really tense situation and we can build up the tension and then talk about how that’s been solved.
Think about the ones that you stand out for having achieved something great but also are really interesting and has some interesting details. That another person might feel that they’re really entertained by, so you can really draw in the interviewer.
Look for stories that highlight your accomplishments, that are entertaining. How important is it…you spoke about relevance, to come prepared with stories that address the immediate challenges of that company?
Well, it’s going to be hard to do that, of course, if you’ve worked in the consumer packaged goods industry for your whole career and you’re interviewing at that type of company, then, of course, you’re going to have relevant stories. But there’s so many stories that can translate well, irrespective of the industry that you’re interviewing for. And if you think about it, you know, when you’re watching stories or are listening to stories, there are certain key elements that get you engaged with that story. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your favorite subject, for instance.
Well, I want to take a break, Amy, and when we come back I want to dig into those elements that make for a successful story.
We’ll be back in a moment and please join us. We’ll continue our conversation with Amy Davies who will keep sharing her advice about how you can storytell your way to interview success.
As Amy said, employers want to hear stories in job interviews. Especially when you answer a behavioral interview question.
These kinds of questions start with phrases like, “Tell me about a time.” Or “Describe what you did…“
Do you know how to answer one of these questions?
I have a free guide that can help. It’s called 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.
Go to maclist.org/questions.
Hiring managers ask these questions to get examples of how you’ve solved problems in the past.
Your experience and the story you tell about it is more persuasive than your promises.
But you not only need a story to answer a behavioral interview question, you need a strategy.
Go to macslist.org/questions.
You’ll get a four-step process for expertly answering the most common behavioral interview questions.
To get your copy of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know, visit macslist.org/questions.
Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Amy Davies.
She’s the author of the book, A Spark in the Dark: Illuminating Your Path to a Brilliant Career in a Reorg World.
Now, Amy, before the break we were talking about why it’s so important to tell stories in a job interview and you were sharing some advice about how to prepare these stories and you mentioned elements in a story. The elements that make a story successful. Can you tell us more about that?
Sure, so, like I said, if you can engage someone emotionally with a story you’re telling, and I actually have written an article about this on my website, but in the article I share an example, and that example has to do with someone at work who was gossiping behind another person’s back and laughing at them. And the very first time, that they were laughing about them to the person who was being interviewed, that person laughed along with them, because it was an innocuous joke. It seemed innocent.
But the behavior started escalating to the point where when they were in the room with the other person, the person who was telling the story started feeling uncomfortable and they eventually addressed the situation with their colleague. Sat them down and said, “I’m not comfortable with the fact that you’re making fun of our colleague behind their back. It’s unprofessional and I would ask you not to do it anymore.”
That’s the type of story that can apply to any industry and it’s also one that engages the listener because, let’s face it, everyone loves a little gossip. But it’s also one of those stories that are very human and relatable, and so that’s a good type of story to share. And it also, we’re all flawed and everyone can relate to that. So it’s admitting that they were flawed, they made some mistakes, and they explain how they resolved the situation.
Can you provide some context of why that person told that story? It was in response to what kind of question?
The same question we were talking about before, where you have encountered a problem in the workplace and how you resolved that. Or that could be the answer to a question where you’ve actually made a mistake and how have you remedied that mistake? That’s a common question in a job interview, so that could be the type of answer you might give.
It shows a little vulnerability but it shows that you are able to resolve a situation like that and it gives them a good story and it will help them remember you. You know, our memories are fragile and that’s something that we don’t think about very often. When we look at consumers purchasing products, they often can’t remember the brand they bought the week before. So, we know that people don’t have great memories for details, but when we structure it in a story, that will actually make us far more memorable, and the details are more memorable for the interviewer.
Well, let’s talk more about how to tell stories effectively in an interview. I have to ask, are there stories an applicant should never share with an employer?
Well, I would avoid overly personal stories. So, I would stick to telling stories about your career and if you tell a story or you’re writing it down, and you’re starting to feel really uncomfortable with the content, that’s a good cue that it’s not a good story to tell to an interviewer. I would also say that if it’s the kind of cliffhanger where nothing was resolved, and you weren’t able to resolve the situation or it turned out to be an utter disaster and there’s no real resolution, that’s a story that I would personally avoid.
Is it okay, when telling stories from your career, to mention past employers or even managers by name?
Well, you’d have to be very careful with that and when I give the example in the article that I wrote, I don’t speak about anyone’s name. The person being interviewed doesn’t share the name of the person or even the company. And I think that’s important because you don’t want to seem like you’re…you want to seem like you’re telling a story that’s useful to the interview, but you don’t want to seem like you’re being a gossip or bad-mouthing anyone. That’s an awful way to come across in an interview.
When people go through the exercise you described in the first half of the show, they’re, as you say, they’re going to have a lot of stories and how do you recommend people choose among those stories? Is that something they can do before a particular interview or is it something that happens on the spot in conversation?
Well, it can be both. But what I recommend to people is you write out your whole life story and then what you do is, the night before your interview, you sit down with a pen and paper, again, and you think about the stories you might want to tell in the interview the next day.
Then, you write those three or four stories that you think you’re going to share so that it refreshes your memory and keeps those particular stories top of mind. Because remember, it could be a year or two years from the time we’ve written our original story that we go out for an interview. So, it’s a really good process to have the night before an interview. And I should say, the stories don’t necessarily have to be about you, they should be, of course, you should have that as well, but they should also be about the company. So, I love to tell people to take a look at the company they’re interviewing for and write down that company story.
When they were founded? What were their biggest marketing campaigns? What products have they launched? And it will help you think about some of the questions that you can ask the interviewer about that company and you’ll come across as so much more thoughtful because even if it’s only for yourself, you’ve told that company’s story.
In addition to writing out your own stories before an interview and becoming familiar and writing out the company’s story, how else do you recommend people practice their stories?
Well, they can mock interview. I love suggesting mock interviews to people. So, what a mock interview is, is if you’re preparing for an interview, get your friend or family member to sit across the table from you and act like the interviewer and ask you some of the questions you might expect from the interview and then practice your answers.
You can also, you know most of us have a smartphone, you can take out your smartphone and record some of your answers and play them back to yourself. You can also just use a good old-fashioned mirror and look at yourself and tell the stories so that you practice them, and it really does help to practice. Some of the things you say might surprise you and you’ll realize, “Maybe I should’ve said that.” Maybe, “I should say it this way.” Or, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”
You can work it out beforehand.
How much practice do you recommend? Telling the story two, three times and can you over practice, Amy?
You can, certainly, you can over practice but I do think telling the story two or three times, that’s probably a good rule of thumb. I never think that it’s too much to have different friends, though, mock interview you. If you’re going for a big interview or you really need the job, that’s a great way to practice and it will feel fresh every time, because you’re telling the stories to a different person, and they’re going to react differently when they hear it which is going to make you think of different things to talk about or different ways that you might get stuck.
What kind of benefits do your clients see when they do that kind of practice?
Well, they feel more natural in the interview, they’re more calm, they recall more details. It’s just, you know, sometimes we go for interviews and we can just get so nervous and this is a great way to temper those nerves.
Okay. You talked earlier about avoiding overly personal stories; what other mistakes should people try to avoid when telling a story during a job interview?
Any kind of negativity is never good, you know, true negativity. It’s okay that you’ve had ups and downs in your career. But you’ve left a situation and you feel very badly about it, I deal with a lot of people who have suffered job loss as a result of restructuring, so anything that you say that makes you sound like you’re angry with your previous employer, or that you were somehow persecuted, is never a good way to come across. So, generally speaking, not everything you say in your story is going to be upbeat but generally speaking, keeping an upbeat tone is going to help you.
Both in your practice and in the actual interviews themselves, Amy, how do you know a story is effective? I mean, not every interview is going to lead to a job offer, obviously, but how do you know that your storytelling is working?
Well, you can see it in the interviewer. You can usually tell when someone’s engaged with you, are they keeping eye contact with you? Are they smiling at the right moments? Are they asking good questions?
And like I said, if you practice with people in your everyday life, that’s going to help you beforehand. Because, you know, I like to think I have surrounded myself with people who will tell it to me like it is and I think that most of us should practice that. So, if you have friends and family that will be really honest with you and say, “You know, I just don’t think that story’s working.” Or, “Here’s how we can make it better.” That will really, really help you.
It’s been a terrific conversation. Tell us, what’s next for you, Amy?
Well, I just published a book in May, so that just came out. And then I am starting a business called First 30 Inc. That’s an outplacement program that’s entirely virtual. Very new approach. Same content to any other outplacement program but that will be happening on November 15th, so I’m really excited about that.
I know people can learn more about your new venture as well as your book and your services by visiting your website, reorgworld.com. And we’ll be sure to include that in the show notes and the website article about your interview.
Now, Amy, you’ve had a lot of great tips here about storytelling in a job interview. What’s the one thing you want our audience to remember about how to storytell your way to interview success?
Well, it’s really boring, but I would say preparation is key and don’t cut corners on your preparation. Actually do what we talked about. Which is sit down with a pen and paper and write it out long-form, and every night before you have an interview, write out your two, three, four top stories so that you refresh your memory.
I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Amy. Here’s one thing that stood out for me, it’s how stories can make you memorable, and after all, isn’t that what we all want when we leave the interview room? Don’t we want to be the person that the interviewer remembers?
Stories can help you do that, but to do it well you’ve got to prepare. Amy did a terrific job of laying out a process for how you can create your own stories and practice them before you walk into the interview room.
Here’s another way that you need to practice before you sit down with a hiring manager; you’ve got to be prepared for behavioral interview questions.
These are the questions that ask you about your past experience and employers want to know this because they want to see examples of how you’ve tackled similar challenges in the past that they face now.
Stories are a great way to do that but you’ve got to have a strategy for answering those questions too.
We’ve got a guide that can help.
Go to macslist.org/questions and you can download a copy of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.
Again, that’s macslist.org/questions.
Have you ever been unemployed?
I have. And the first time it happened to me, I was out for work for more than six months.
Because I didn’t know any better, I spent eight hours a day filling out job applications.
It was like I joined a new company. And my new full-time job was to apply for any position, anywhere.
Our guest next week is Paige Webster. And she says you make a big mistake when you do what I did and you treat your job search like a job. To learn why, join us next Wednesday.
Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.