How to Tell Your Story in a Job Interview, with Dan Hahn

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Every employer says, “Tell me about yourself.” If you don’t prepare your answer before the interview, you miss an opportunity to share how your story connects with the position you’re applying for. Find Your Dream Job guest Dan Hahn suggests diving deep into the role and what it requires, and then wording your personal story to line up with the needs of the company. Share personal anecdotes that show how your mission relates to the mission of the employer, and how that mission has inspired your career journey. 

About Our Guest:

Dan Hahn is the owner of A Portland Career. Dan helps his clients get unstuck and find new careers and better jobs.

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 340:

How To Tell Your Story in a Job Interview, with Dan Hahn

Airdate: March 23, 2022

Mac Prichard:

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 talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

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When you go to a job interview, you need to do more than answer an employer’s questions. 

You also need to tell your own career story. 

What’s the best way to do this? 

Dan Hahn is here to talk about how to tell your story in a job interview.

He’s the owner of A Portland Career. Dan helps his clients get unstuck and find new careers and better jobs. 

He joins us from Portland, Oregon. 

Well, let’s jump right into it, Dan. Why is it important to tell your own career story in a job interview? Aren’t you just there to answer the employer’s questions? 

Dan Hahn:

You’re there to do both, and this is a great question. Brain scans- we have so much great science that jumps into people’s brains- and they show us that our brains light up, and our imaginations get activated whenever someone is engaged in telling a story. So, in that way, this act of telling your own story engages your interviewer’s brain and allows them to experience what you’ve experienced.

It’s also this important pathway in that way to shared experience and empathy, and it’s almost a way to unlock your interviewer’s heart and mind. Because ultimately, they’re using both of those tools to make a judgment and make a decision about you as a candidate. So, it’s such a powerful tool to be using well in the interviewing process.  

Mac Prichard:

So, I love your point, Dan, about brain scans and the research showing that high level of engagement, both when someone is telling a story and hearing it. I’m curious, what do the brain scans show when you’re answering an employer’s question? Is there the same amount of engagement? 

Dan Hahn:

Honestly, Mac, I do know that those brain scans are active. They’re firing when in the process of explaining what you’re experiencing. But in terms of answering a, let’s say, behavioral interview question, you can infer that it’s a similar type of activation that’s happening.

Everyone has an experience simulator in their brains, and so when you are relaying what types of problems or challenges that you’ve faced, what you did in those situations, and what those results looked like, those same neurons in your interviewer’s brain should be firing off in a similar type of way.

Now, if you’re not responding in a story-based format- we talk a lot about STAR or CAR are ways to be thinking about telling stories- we don’t know for sure what those brain maps are gonna look like. But we do know, when the story is connected, that that pathway for empathy and shared experience, and also just liking, are all opened even wider. So, it’s a very important place to establish your candidacy by being able to shape and tell your story well.  

Mac Prichard:

In your experience, Dan, do most candidates tell their career stories in job interviews? 

Dan Hahn:

Not well. So, the candidates that I’ve worked with so far, I mean, it is rare. I’ve worked with hundreds of job explorers, and there is a rare percentage of, and I’m thinking of a few, and their faces are flashing in front of me, who do swimmingly well, and explain where they are where they’ve been, and establishing rapport well, and those have all been salespeople. They have just got a natural talent and gift for connection, talking about stories, and setting people at ease. 

For the rest of us, it’s more of a challenge that does take some practice, and it’s not easy to do, and there are many challenges that people face there. People feeling like they’re all of a sudden on stage and the spotlight’s on them and everyone in the audience, instead of them maybe being naked, so that they’re at ease, they’re the naked one up on stage, and the spotlight’s on them instead. And they just haven’t taken the time that they need to connect their strengths to their experiences well. That’s more of the case of types of people that I’ve been working with. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s, Dan, talk about how to tell your story. I know that the first step you recommend when you’re working with your client is to know the job inside and out. Why is this important when you’re getting ready to tell your career story in a job interview? 

Dan Hahn:

It’s so important because the need is for you, first, to be able to set yourself aside and your own story aside before you tell it. So that you can understand, what are the needs in this role? And how then, are you going to be able to insert yourself into this role? 

And there’s many different people who could be good at this type of role. You’re not the only one interviewing for this position. So, it’s critically important to carefully, carefully read through the job description, the job posting, and connect with, if you can, a recruiter who’s internal to that organization, to learn even more about it. 

That, as a first step, and it’s easy to get lost in some of the job descriptions as well because these are human beings that are writing the job descriptions. So, there’s a variety. There’s varying levels of clarity that you have to work with based on the job descriptions. 

Some make it really easy for you, and there’s a general structure that we see very typically. It’s just the kind of a two-paragraph approach. The first paragraph is all dedicated to the background, the culture of the organization, what that organization’s about. And then, we get like a second or third paragraph that’s about specific to the position. 

But leading into that statement, into that second type of paragraph that’s about the position, are clues about what’s important, what those competencies are, what’s really needed in this role, and the strongest organizations are gonna be defining and scoring their applicants based on a competency model.

So, what that is a structure of ranking of the most important skills and experiences for every single candidate in every single role. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before you start thinking about yourself. It’s all – first up is thinking about the role. 

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so you’re thinking about the role, you’re digging into that job description, you’re looking for those roles and responsibilities and required skills. You mentioned earlier clues that you should look for. Are there other clues in the job posting, Dan, that you recommend to your clients that they keep an eye out for? 

Dan Hahn:

Yes, there are clues that, as I mentioned, they are all through the job posting, and even the first paragraph around the organization and the culture. It’s important to think through, how is this organization referring to itself in that first paragraph? Is this an easy-breezy, there are dogs in the office, and, you know? Or is this more of a buttoned-up policy purpose-driven organization? 

Making notes even about those pieces first. And then, in that first position paragraph that describes what this position’s about, think about what nuggets of information or insights are you getting out of that paragraph? 

I’ve got an example here that’s just super dense. So, you can see how difficult it can be to pull out what’s in here. For example, this is for a clinical services specialist. 

“This person increases equitable access to quality of life supports and resources for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities by facilitating eligibility determinations and redeterminations. These entryway services emphasize awareness, access, choice, community inclusion for individuals seeking case management services. These services provided by specialists are self-directed, community and family-inclusive, culturally and linguistically responsive, and support clients to make informed decisions based on their goals.” 

Okay, after just even like reading that first, you gotta step back and say, wow, there’s a lot of stuff in there. Right? Your role at this point is to pencil out, okay, what is important? And then, try to make a miniature outline, even out of that first paragraph, and that takes work, and these are the types of steps that I see are so overlooked, and that I work with clients on, through the process of distilling out what are the important competencies, and you’ll get those additional validating clues later on in the job description, in that third section around what you usually wind up doing. What you do in this job, types of bullets if they’re laid out well. 

Mac Prichard:

Alright, well, let’s pause there, Dan. I want to take a break, and when we come back, I want to talk about any additional research you recommend doing, and then how do you, the research that you’ve done and begin to apply it to the story that you’re gonna tell in the job interview.

So, stay with us. When we come back, Dan Hahn will continue to share his advice on how to tell your story in a job interview. 

You need to tell your career story not only in the interview but in your resume, too.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Dan Hahn.

He’s the owner of A Portland Career. Dan helps his clients get unstuck and find new careers and better jobs. 

He joins us from Portland, Oregon. 

Now, Dan, before the break, we were talking about how to tell your career story in a job interview, and you took us through the research that you coach your clients to follow, and looking at that job description, talking to the recruiter, looking for clues in the posting itself.

Now, let’s talk about the second step that you recommend, which is when you’re getting ready to tell your story in an interview, and that’s to connect to the needs of the job. What difference does this make to an employer when you do that? 

Dan Hahn:

It’s a huge difference, and, Mac, if I were to ask you just the question- if you’ve ever thought of what percentage of interviewers might be even fully engaged, attentive, and able to accurately assess how well one of their candidates – any of their candidates is gonna be able to line up well against the needs of the position? What might you say there? 

Mac Prichard:

Oh, I’m an optimist, so, I would say more than half. 

Dan Hahn:

We don’t know. But that’s the point is that these are people on the other end of this. So, it’s crucial for you to assume that it’s not gonna be a hundred percent, and hopefully, it’s more than fifty percent, and for that reason, it’s so important for you to take this opportunity to line up your story to the needs of the job so that you’re making it easy for the interviewer. Because you don’t know what state of mind that they’re in, and other research shows us that people need to be shown, at least three times, the same point over and over and over again, for it to actually sink in well. 

Mac Prichard:

How do you do that, Dan? You’ve got your story. You understand the needs of the employers. How do you make that connection? 

Dan Hahn:

If you understand the needs of your employer – so if, for example, let’s say in this other role that I just mentioned before, that there are specific needs around communication and promotion, technical consultation, and listening well, and administrative or organizational kind of like tracking competencies. Those three, it’s so important for you to have at least two stories dedicated to each one of those.

So, now that’s gonna be your tactic, to have a problem related to each of those areas. Specific examples of what you did and what those results were, and that you can line those types of experiences up in response to even that initial question about who you are and what your background’s about. It’s that you can first introduce those competencies to who you are in the beginning, and then you’re gonna be coming back to them over and over again throughout the interview. 

Mac Prichard:

So how do you construct that story? You know the skills and competencies that matter to the employer. You look at your experiences. What does the structure of that story look like? Is there a beginning and middle and an end? And what is gonna be most persuasive to an employer who hears your story? What elements? 

Dan Hahn:

Right, so there’s a difference in tactics that I do recommend for people who are applying for roles that are needed with a lot of advocacy or connection or inspiration versus a technical type of role. If it’s a role with a lot of purpose or maybe a nonprofit, it can be important to begin your story with what I refer to as a moment. Like a triggering moment for you. What inspired you? What got you started? 

For example, seven years ago, I went to vote with my mother, who was disabled, and this is not my story. It’s someone else’s story. But due to some infrastructure which was inadequate, she couldn’t. That’s a moment that connects your feeling, her feeling, to something that everyone shares. And so, it’s a moment of impact and the genesis for why you’re now here in this moment.

And that you are then able to move from that initial event coupled to your strengths and that those strengths are tied to more examples that are bookended with experiences in different venues. So, that’s the general type of format that I like to coach people through. To be thinking through, where did this begin for you? And then, connect that initial story, that can just be a sentence long, to a wide range of experiences that take advantage of your strengths that you just listed that are connected to the competencies in the role. 

Mac Prichard:

And why is that persuasive to an employer? What is it about that structure and the elements that you just outlined that’s gonna make you stand out from a candidate who might not tell their career story or might not follow that same structure when doing so? 

Dan Hahn:

It can be particularly compelling, and you have an opportunity to connect and have that employer see that you have a strong mission and purpose that’s also aligned with the organization’s mission and purpose. And that you’re likely to perform exceedingly well because the role is part of who you are, and you are able to connect those dots together for your employer. It can be very compelling. In some other technical roles, there’s other formats that can work well.  

Mac Prichard:

Probably the most common prompt for telling your career story is a question that usually pops up at the start of the interview – tell me about yourself. Now, how do you, in your work with your clients, Dan, recommend a candidate prepare an answer to the “tell me about yourself” question that’s going allow them to tell their career story effectively? 

Dan Hahn:

That was the question that I was actually just referring to is that beginning question. Of that, tell me about yourself question. It is to start with your purpose and how that began for you, and how that’s related, again, to your strengths, the competencies that are tied to the role, and that you have examples that you can provide of those competencies.

So, as an example of how that may look, ever since I saw a relative of mine struggle to get access to resources that they deserved to have, but they just didn’t know about, and then they suffered to whatever the consequences, I have been inspired to use my skills of communication and community organizing to reach people well, listen to their needs, and track the progress I’m making so that no one else needs to live the life that that person lived. And some of my experiences have ranged from working from X organization to Y committee to my most recent position, and this is why I am here right now- because I want this role that you are offering, and this is why I’m looking forward to it. 

So you’re packing a lot of information about how well-motivated and aligned you are to the needs of this role based on where you’ve been. 

Mac Prichard:

So, break down that structure for us, Dan, because it’s impressive; that was a very succinct answer, and as you say, it packs in a lot of information. What are the parts of that answer? It sounds like it starts with the inspiration but take us through the structure.  

Dan Hahn:

Yeah, so it’s that inspiring moment. That’s a lot of insight work here. Just thinking about, why are you applying for this role? What are you interested in about it, and then moving backward to, in general, what is this? Why are you on this career path? What started you down this path? And telling that moment or explaining that very succinctly as possible. 

So, that one beginning- this is where I’ve begun, this is my purpose and mission because of my experience with X or Y, and now I’m moving into, this is my equipment that now I’m using down this journey. It’s kind of a hero’s journey type of. 

I have, as my skills- another example- I’ve got my skills in collaborating well with other people internally and externally. I’m really skilled at data analysis and managing projects. Here are a few of those different types of examples. So, you’re providing bookends of those examples tied to your competencies, and then you’re following through with the present and future of I am right here in this room right now because I am most excited to use these tools, these competencies in this role, for these reasons. That may be cultural, organizational, mission, but it’s all coming back to those competencies and how you’re gonna be using them in the role and how often you’ve used them in your career history. 

The main stumbling block people come in with is just this idea that they have to then relate a backward chronological “here’s where I was most recently, before that I was here, then I went to school here, and I grew up here, and I like snowboarding.” We’ve gotta, you know, throw that idea in the garbage and just reframe this into a new way to talk about yourself that is gonna be most impactful. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Dan. Now, tell us what’s next for you? 

Dan Hahn:

Yeah, thanks, Mac. I just want to take this moment to salute you and all the listeners out there that are searching for what’s next in their careers and how to do that better, and I just really appreciate what you’ve done. You’ve been such an inspiration to me. 

And what my recent activities have been more filled with are really altering our service from just job search, we have a lot of job search services or networking, self-presentation, resume, cover letters. But it’s not just job search. My main activity now is working on a model of career support, and that model requires a lot of insight work to be done. To help people explore what’s best for them in their career and how to be targeting career pivots. 

And also providing therapeutic guidance for people who are grappling with anxiety and depression, especially over these past couple of years. Reframing their purpose in their current roles and focusing on aspects of work which are reenergizing for people. 

And then the other thing, lastly, is connecting with more recruiters and expanding beyond Portland in our brand. We have so many more clients that are coming in nationally and globally that there’s just- more attention that needs to be paid to welcome everyone to connect with us. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know listeners can learn more about you and the services you offer by visiting your website-, and that you also invite people to connect with you on LinkedIn, and as with all of our guests, I hope that they’ll mention that they heard you on the show, so you know where they came from. 

Now, Dan, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to tell your career story in a job interview. 

Dan Hahn:

Set yourself aside first, study the job, and then bring yourself back into it. 

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Dr. Ciera Graham. 

She works as a higher education administrator, writes regularly about career issues, and runs a coaching business for women and millennials. 

You’ve just graduated from college. Congratulations! 

As you look for work, one of the first lessons you’ll learn is that credentials alone, including a college degree, can’t get you a job. 

You need to market yourself, too.

Join us next Wednesday when Dr. Ciera Graham and I talk about how to market yourself as a new graduate to employers.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List. 

Susan Thornton-Hough schedules our guests and writes our newsletter. Lisa Kislingbury Anderson manages our social media.

Our sound engineer is Jeni Wren Stottrup. Ryan Morrison at Podfly Productions edits the show. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.