Tell a Story That Will Get You Hired

Learning to tell a good story can help you ace a job interview—and even land a job.

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Tim Tyrell-Smith
Great stories draw us in. They help us become fully engaged in a topic. They include important context and background so we better appreciate what happens at the end. And best of all, a great story is often shared with others.

But many of us struggle telling stories, especially when the topic is our life and our career. Learning to do this well can positively affect the outcome of an important job interview.

So what supports a great story? And how do you deliver your story so people sit up and nod approvingly?

[See How to Rock Your Next Job Interview.]

Here are eight keys to a great story:

Structure. A story (like a good book or movie) needs an opening, a set of actions, and a resolution. For a business story, think SAR (Situation, Action, Result). If your story starts and continues without structure, you’ll likely lose your audience. Build your story in pieces first to create the structure, then learn to share the story so it’s soft on the ears.

Enthusiasm. A story should be used to engage and to convince. If you don’t seem excited to share the story, why should anyone else want to hear it? It’s not about uncharacteristic physical energy. It’s about voice inflection, planned pauses, and facial expressions that show your excitement.

Honesty. A story that’s made up, embellished, or even stretched will backfire. If you’re unable to answer questions with detail, your story will quickly unravel. And if your interesting story can’t be verified by one of your job references, that could cause a problem, too. In either case, your false tale tells a story of its own: one that leads your audience to not believe anything else you say.

Eye Contact. To engage people, you have to consistently maintain eye contact. If you know your stories, this shouldn’t be a problem. If your story is new or not well practiced, you’re more likely to shift your eyes away while searching your mind for the next key point. So practice telling your story, preferably with another person.

[See What to Say When the Interviewer Asks How Much You Make.]

Details. Stories are more believable, more hard-hitting, and more interesting when key details are shared. This applies especially in the middle of your story when you talk about how what you did affected the situation. A complex situation that ends in great results is suspect without rich details to hold it together.

Length. Your social networking or elevator pitch should be 30 to 60 seconds—perfect for quick interactions with new people. But a job interview is 30 to 60 minutes, which means your story can be longer, too. Be prepared to tell your story in three to five minutes.

Relevance. If you’ve asked questions in a prior job interview or earlier that the same day, you’ll know some of the company’s key issues or opportunities. Your stories need to reflect this knowledge. You need to illustrate your experiences, characteristics, and results, telling a story that reinforces key points from your marketing materials and reflects the known needs of the company or hiring manager.

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Teamwork. It's easy to create stories where you’re the hero, where, despite great odds, you saved the company from imminent disaster. But one person rarely saves the day. It’s usually a team, and hiring managers understand this. So be clear about your role. It’s not just about honesty, it’s about creating a true impression of your real skills. It also shows you’re able to work well with others.

What stories are you trying to tell? And where are you getting stuck?

Tim Tyrell-Smith is founder of Tim's Strategy, a site that helps professionals succeed in job search, career and life strategy. Follow Tim on Twitter, @TimsStrategy, and share his 30 Ideas Book with job-seeking friends.