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March 25, 2011
It's Story Time: Telling Tales Can Get You the Job
Most job interviewees walk into the door ready to talk about their past experience, comment on their education, puff up their strengths and, guardedly, mention one irrelevant weakness. It’s rare, however, for an interviewee to have three or four good stories to narrate his or her successes.
I’m often surprised by how many still scoff at telling tales. “It’s just touchy-feely stuff,” they suggest. Besides, we all know that business is about “the analytical, not the anecdotal.” The truth of the matter, however, is that facts alone rarely sell. That’s true in most business situations. They need to be encased in a good story.
My own storytelling experience, and tons of narrative research, challenge those conventional notions about tale telling. Indeed, I’d suggest a different response to the anecdotal: Beware the well-told story. It’ll suck you up. Why is this?
Studies regarding bias and decision-making, initiated by the 2002 Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, find that the “vividness bias” is one of the most persuasive tools in the communication toolkit. Indeed, studies find that “vividness” will sell what analytical tools won’t. And what is vividness? It’s colorful, animated, lively, exuberant information—the stuff found in a good story. Dull stuff may be equally or even more valuable, but it won’t get the hearing of a good story. In many situations the most logical, rational presentation fails miserably, while a good story succeeds.
Consider this: The most primitive form of language and communicating is storytelling. Ever notice how often a little kid wants that same story read or told over and over again? On numerous occasions when our daughters were small, the request at Sunday dinner was, “Dad, tell that story again.” No one ever gets tired of a good story. We never grow out of good stories whether from a book, a movie, a play, family interaction or even a historical episode. Stories connect with our underlying motives when nothing else will succeed.
In my own graduate research on mini-narratives, I found that the most successful personal and corporate stories were fundamentally comedic, not tragic or even fairy tale (as in John Wayne and the cavalry in rescue mode). Comic stories, in contrast, stress the wit, wisdom, strength, and eventual triumph of an individual. They aren’t just “funny, ha ha” stories.
A couple years ago, one of my clients was recruited for a superb management position with a salary most would die for. After being hired, he wisely made the rounds of the firm’s eight interviewers to check in and find out why he got the position. (It’s important to know that these were MIT and Harvard research types.) The responses were unanimous: He had a superb education, unusual depth of experience, and “great stories.” (I never checked to see whether they were comic, but ... )
I’ve found, however, that most don’t know how to tell stories. Here are some suggestions to begin honing the craft of storytelling:
Begin with a psychologically secure situation. Pick out a few simple nursery tales, find yourself a toddler audience of two or three, get down on the floor and start telling. Watch their responses to see what works best and what doesn’t. Pay attention to the action in the story, your own animation, the characters, the colorful language and the resolution. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with those easy stories, pay more attention to your ordinary experiences: a movie, TV, work and vacation activities, and even street action. Tell these ordinary experiences as a story to yourself. Then when you’re talking with friends, create an opportunity to tell the story. You may feel like a fool—or a monkey. But take that as a good sign. You never really learn anything new until you’re outside your comfort zone. A hint: good interview stories are no more than four to eight sentences long. Write them out, making certain your story says what you want it to say about you, and that it will also grab the attention of the interviewer.
So don’t forget that the secret of interviewing success is a few good stories of your own successes to knock ‘em dead. Good stories can make the difference between getting hired and getting a rejection note.   

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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