It’s not because I slept poorly the previous night, or that I’m distracted by more urgent matters. The fact is, this happens when the person I’m talking to simply isn’t presenting themself in a way that holds my attention. And it doesn’t bode well for their chances of being hired.
The knack for keeping conversations engaging and interest alive is quite valuable to the job seeker. Many factors can contribute, including eye contact, and demeanor, some of which are easier to learn than others. But there’s another skill that anyone can pick up that offers a big conversational advantage: good storytelling.
Do you notice how you perk up when someone you’re talking to digs into a good story, tapping into your emotions to make their point? Give me a great storyteller, and perhaps a cup of coffee or a bottle of wine depending on the circumstances, and I will stay engaged for hours! And when it comes to the job hunt, with today’s emphasis on behavioral interviewing, this skill is one of the most valuable utensils in your career toolbox.
The perfect place for a good story
The premise of an informational interview is that the way you’ve managed previous situations predicts your future job performance. So, to decide whether you’re the right fit for the position, your interviewers will ask very specific questions about your past experience. As a human resources friend explained it to me, “It’s not my intent to ask our candidates yes or no questions, or even easy questions that allow for a lot of wiggle room. I want to know exactly what occurred—what the situation was and how they handled it—and by that response we’ll learn more about how they would likely manage a similar situation when it occurs here.” In other words, these types of interviews are the perfect time to use well-chosen, effective stories to make your case.
As you might imagine, it can come as quite a shock when, after getting in the rhythm of answering technical questions, you’re thrown a curve-ball asking you to describe a challenging personal experience—in detail. And there are two directions you could go with your answer.
For one, you can give them the “Just the facts, ma’am” response, explaining what happened without much emotion or reflection. This may seem like the safest bet, but you risk putting your interviewer to sleep.
The other—much better—option is to respond with a well-considered and relevant story. The idea isn’t to launch into an epic 30-minute-long tale. It’s basically repackaging the same information you would have included in the previous response into a concise, compelling anecdote by removing needless details and including elements that will engage the interviewer’s emotions and keep him or her listening.
The elements of a good story
I have an older family member who has had a wonderful life, full of interesting travel and splendid acquaintances. And yet, every time she tells a story, she concerns herself with so much detail that she loses everyone in the first few minutes. “Did I ever tell you about the time I met Jack Kennedy?” she’ll say, offering a promising lead. But then she starts to lose momentum as she gets distracted by the minutiae instead of focusing on the broader story arc. “I was with my girlfriend Alice, or perhaps it was Janet,” she’ll continue. “And it was a rainy Tuesday morning in Cleveland. No, I think it was Friday, actually . . .”
Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, focus on being succinct and removing meaningless detail. There’s not an interview answer in the world that need consume more than 2 or 3 minutes, tops. And, in drawing up a set of stories that will aid your job search, ensure that those few minutes are filled with elements that will hook your questioner and ensure she stays with you through the outcome.
The first question that you might get in a job interview—and one that even comes up in your networking contacts and informational interviews—is that old nugget, “Tell me how you decided to get into science in the first place.” You’ll have to answer this question at just about every job interview, and it’s a great opportunity to hook your interviewer’s interest if you can tell them a good story.
But imagine how tedious your story about your passion for science becomes if you start with a line like, “It all began when I was six years old, when my parents were impressed by how curious I was with the world around me.” That’s likely to set the stage for a real snooze-fest.
Instead, as you’re shaping your stories for interview deployment, keep the following three ideas in mind to help them reach the right level of impact.
Expose your feelings. When asked to describe a situation in which you had a conflict with another lab member, for example, don’t simply lay out the facts of the time that you disagreed with a colleague about the best way to approach the next experiment; tell the interviewers how you felt while you were in that situation. They have emotions too. They’ll relate, and appreciate that you are being candid. You might say something like, “When it became apparent that my colleague disagreed with my approach, it wasn’t that I was angry. It was more a feeling of lack of respect. I had put in many hours of effort in the lab on this particular problem, and he had just given it a cursory overview. It took me a minute to get over the immediate impact of his suggestion, but then I realized that we hadn’t really discussed it. I had just assumed that he’d see it my way.”
And, in any story for an interview, you need to come around to a positive outcome. “We sat down with a whiteboard, and I did what I should have done from the beginning,” you might continue. “It only took a few minutes to show him what my approach was and why, and we ended up publishing it later as a shared paper, with good feelings all around.”
Make them care. Humanize your stories to bring your listener in emotionally in any way you can—as long as it’s not syrupy and obvious. Going back to that question about why you got into science, for example, give them enough information to help them visualize the family farm that you grew up on and to feel the stress on this family of eight kids as your mom and dad tried to get everyone into school and off to a good start. Let them feel your pride as you were the first in many generations to attend college, let alone to earn a doctorate. Emotions play a critical role in decision-making, so use your stories to engage the emotions of your interviewers; don’t just offer a straight recitation of the facts.
Use dialog. When telling a story in response to an interview question, try using actual dialog. If you are describing how you felt when you were accepted into a Ph.D. program with a prestigious professor, for instance, you could say, “I shook Dr. Smith’s hand and said ‘Thank you for the opportunity, I won’t let you down.’ But inside, I was really thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have no idea how I’m going to pull this off. I’m going to get booted out on my first day!” Just the fact that you are using dialog allows the visualization process to take root in the listener’s mind. They’re actually seeing the film of the event as you describe it, which makes it much more intriguing.
I’ve been thinking about storytelling lately because I recently read Sell with a Story by Paul Smith. It’s aimed at business people who are selling their services, but a lot of the ideas and lessons are also applicable to job interviews. Smith perfectly describes why storytelling is important for building rapport, and even though he directs his advice to salespeople, it makes sense for scientists as well. “Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made,” he writes. “Cognitive science tells us that humans often make subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational decisions in one place in the brain, and then justify those decisions rationally and logically in another place.” It’s up to you to harness this tendency for a successful job search, by sharing the stories of your life.
David G. Jensen
Dave Jensen, President of CTI Executive search, is an executive recruiter with 30 years of experience in biopharma recruitment, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. See his website at www.careertrax.com for hundreds of open positions across the industry.