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July 19, 2011
The Secret Sauce of Job Interviewing
 
Periodically Gen Yers and Xers corner me for job interviewing suggestions. By the time they get around to talking, they've sent off their resume and are being invited to interview. So naturally, they're a bit tense. Knowing that a great deal of my consulting business is about interviewing for gigs and selling my services, they want to know whether these skills transfer to job interviewing. The answer to that question is a big YES.

Sure, I comment, you want to have a lot of knowledge about the company and the job for which you're interviewing. You want to have some smart questions to ask; questions that show you've done your homework on the job — and the organization. You also want to be able to talk about your strengths and vulnerabilities in very constructive ways. Most of all, you want to create an identity in the recruiting manager's mind that says that you're the best person to resolve his or her needs. 

So, they ask, what's the best way, the best format for creating that identity, for explaining and selling yourself? The answer is easy. Be able to tell some fascinating, intriguing tales about yourself and your value. 

Quite a few years ago, I was interviewing for a consulting gig with the Executive Vice-President of Marketing at Ralston Purina. After about 20 minutes, filled with getting-to-know-you small talk, he put the issue on the table. "Tell me some stories about your consulting experiences," he said. I was surprised and amused that a sophisticated power player would put his request in plain language. I got the job — a gig that lasted more than six years, working with vice-presidents and directors at the firm.

Like most business people, Stephen Denning, a former exec at the World Bank, scoffed at such touch-feely stuff as stories, believing that analytical was good, and anecdotal was bad. Failing in his use of PowerPoint and analysis to gain the support for his efforts, he created a number of tales to envision the future of the organization. It worked, and he reports on it in an HBR article on the power of Telling Tales.

Stories are the most primitive and consistently the most highly successful means for communicating. Analysis and statistics drive business thinking. They cut through myth, gossip, and speculation and excite the mind. Their strength is their objectivity, but that's also their weakness. They never offer a path to the heart. And that's where you need to go to motivate a recruiter or a manager to hire you. Stories are the most attention-grabbing and best-remembered communication tool. They are the secret sauce of communicating and the one and only most powerful tool for job interviewing. 

A few years ago one of my daughters got a superb management job at a hot new pharmaceutical firm in Massachusetts. After being hired, she made the rounds of the firm's eight interviewers, mostly Harvard and MIT scientists, to check in and find out why she got the position. The responses were unanimous: she had a "superb education, unusual depth of experience," and "great stories." That's a not-too-shabby recommendation for the persuasive power of telling tales.

What To Remember

Make sure your story matches the situation. When you're interviewing for a job, the stories should help the recruiter to understand who you are, what you've done, and what you bring to the job. Ideally, he'll not only end up liking you, but respecting and needing you. Stories for this purpose are usually based on personal work events that show what you did and what you took from those experiences. You also ought to have one or two stories in your toolkit that highlight some vulnerability and details how you corrected it.

For an interview, you should be able to encapsulate a story in six to eight sentences. It should describe one or two of your important characteristics, explain the context, detail the action including the problem and its resolution. If you can depict the problem as a conflicted process or relationship, all the better. A few colorful, descriptive words go a long way with recruiters. Pay close attention to the recipient as you talk and emphasize the important words or ideas.

Although the story form that I've identified is just a start, I hope it'll inspire you to add stories to your interviewing toolkit. The ability to tell the right story for your interview is the secret sauce of successful interviewing.


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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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