Imagine you ask your friend about her recent vacation. She says “We spent a lot of time on the beach.” Sounds fun. Now imagine instead she says, “We were out on this beautiful powder-white sand beach watching dolphins out in the surf. We jumped in the clear blue water and floated in the gentle waves, then came back to the beach where we sipped tropical cocktails and watched the sunset.” Which is a better answer? Detailed, specific, memorable stories paint a picture, engage the listener and make a lasting impression. In job interviews, you want to do just that: paint a picture of your skills and successes, engage your interviewer and make yourself memorable.
There are two key times to share stories during interviews: When you’re asked, and when you aren’t.
The Direct Ask
Interviewers often make it easy for you to share stories by asking “Can you think of a time,” or “Give me an example of when,” or “Have you ever had a situation where…” They are inviting you to share stories. In fact, if you don’t have a specific story in your answer, it looks like you have not actually tackled the situation you’re being asked about. For example:
Question: “Can you think of a time where you had a big problem right before an important product launch?”
Typical answer: “Sure, I’ve had lots of situations like that. Somehow I always find a way to pull it off!”
Stronger answer: “It’s not uncommon to run into obstacles before a launch. I find a calm, constructive approach is best. Once I had a key vendor notify me just 48 hours before launch that they could not come through with a critical piece. After investigating, I figured out they could give us 30% of the deliverable which was just enough to get the first part of the launch out. We did the rest of the release in pieces as the vendor caught up.”
Be prepared so that when you are specifically asked for a story, you are ready to share.
Don’t Ask, DO Tell
More often, you are not asked for stories. But you should still tell them. The interviewer may simply ask about your experience in a given area or with a specific type of work. You can turn these questions into opportunities to tell stories. For example:
Question: “What do you like most about working with customers?”
Typical answer: “I like solving problems and making people happy. It’s satisfying knowing I’ve helped someone out and made them feel good.”
Stronger answer: “It’s really satisfying to help customers solve problems. For example, I had a customer who was really frustrated because the product kept crashing on her. She’d tried everything and wanted a refund. I walked through her entire system and a check list of fixes, staying calm and upbeat throughout. It turns out there was one thing she hadn’t tried yet and it worked! She was so happy to have the product working. She was just leaving to go see her baby granddaughter for the first time and was thrilled the product would be working for the trip. It made me feel great to help her and also make the company and the product look good.”
How Many Stories?
You don’t need to weave a story into the answer to every question. In fact, that might come off as a little strange. But you do want to sprinkle them throughout the interview. There are some questions where story telling can really enhance your answer:
Any question that asks how you deal with a given situation or how you respond to challenges is a good chance to tell a story that demonstrates your abilities and how you use them.
Since you don’t know in advance what questions you’ll be asked, you need to have a wide variety of stories ready to tell. Take time to think back over your past, write down interesting stories and prepare to use them in interviews. Avoid having to say “I just can’t think of an example right now.” Instead, be well-prepared with examples and great stories that paint a picture. Your stories will make you stand out and memorable.