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Why storytelling is the key to interview success

By Michael Healy 11 Apr 2019
Professional interviewee shakes hands with interviewer.


In a job interview, you’re being assessed to determine your capability (skills and knowledge), motivation (reason for wanting the role), and fit (alignment with the values of the team and organisation) for the role that you’re applying for. Any question you’re asked in an interview will relate to one of these three criteria. The biggest interview challenge (and most common mistake) is trying to predict exactly which questions the interviewer will use.

Prepare stories, not answers

When prepping for an interview, many people Google things like ‘top 10 interview questions’ and then try to memorise a bank of answers. In my opinion, this is wasted time. The chances of those specific questions actually being asked in your interview are slim, and the more the questions posed to you vary from those you’ve practiced for, the more flustered you’re going to feel.

Practiced responses can also make you seem cold or robotic, whereas you want to use your interview to build rapport and have a conversation. Rather than deliver rehearsed responses, focus on preparing well-developed career stories that you can adapt to multiple different questions.

What is a ‘career story’?

Career stories are the experiences, projects or milestones that stand out in your work history as examples of your skills and positive attributes. They’re the opportunities you took, the challenges you overcame or the big achievements you were a part of in an organisation. Career stories are effective in an interview setting because they can demonstrate all three of the components you’re being assessed on (capability, motivation, and fit).

For example, has there ever been a time at work where you’ve had to drop everything to fix a mistake made within your team, or to respond to a crisis? The story of that one experience could easily be adapted to answer any of these questions:

  • Tell us about a time you went above and beyond.
  • Tell us about a time you worked well under pressure.
  • Describe a time you resolved a conflict.
  • What is your greatest strength?
  • How have you demonstrated the value of excellence?

That’s not to say you should only have one story prepared. To use just one example in every single response you give would be a mistake. But by having a few well-developed career stories up your sleeve, you’ll easily be able to draw upon and modify the most relevant story for each question you’re asked.

The secret to good storytelling

One of the biggest mistakes people make in an interview is giving long, rambling responses. Like any good tale, your career stories need a beginning, middle and end. Or in other words, structure. Avoid rambling, pointless stories by calling upon my good friend CARL.

Context – What was the situation, project or task? Try not to get too caught up on this part. People tend to waste a lot of time giving irrelevant details about the organisation or project and the interviewer has tuned out long before you get to the good bits of your story. Give two to three sentences of background, just enough to set the scene, then move on.

Action – This is the most important part of your response because how you react or participate in a situation can give an interviewer great insight into your motivation and potential fit for their organisation.  Explain what you did (or didn’t do), why, how you worked with others, how you communicated your decisions or actions etc. The panel want to see that you’re rational, logical, and accountable and get a feel for how you react when faced with opportunities or challenges. The action part of your response is where you should focus your attention.

A word of advice though … Because you’ll often work in teams or in collaboration with others, it’s easy to start dropping ‘we’ into your career stories. ‘We saw a need to … We decided to use … We achieved … ‘. The issue with ‘we’ is that it doesn’t help the interviewer to get a picture of how employable you are. That’s not to say you should ever take credit for the work of others; but be sure to be explicit about exactly what you contributed to the situation.

Result – What was the outcome? Ideally, you want the results of the situation to be positive and demonstrate your ability to generate successful outcomes. If, however, the outcome wasn’t positive or further challenges were encountered, it’s still possible to use this story to demonstrate your own positive attributes. The key to this is finishing your story with learnings.

Learnings – People know that things don’t always go to plan and that challenges exist in the workplace. Show that you’re capable of reflecting on your work, that you understand your own strengths and weaknesses and can learn from your successes and mistakes. Recognising areas of improvement shows emotional intelligence, maturity and a dedication to continuous improvement.

Some final advice …

Don’t tell fairy tales. People can detect lies and if you’re embellishing or overinflating your achievements, you’ll lose any rapport you’ve built with the interview panel. Don’t risk it. Instead, take the time to apply CARL and prepare well-developed, genuine career stories that give a true reflection of your abilities.

Nothing makes an interview more stressful than trying to predict the future and what questions you’ll be asked. Drawing upon your career experiences and presenting that information in engaging, relevant stories is the best way to prepare for an impressive interview. For support in your interview preparation or advice on any stage of the job application process, contact the Careers and Employability Team at USQ.

Enjoyed Michael’s blog? You’ll love his USQ Beyond the Books Online Series webinar ‘Intensive interview skills workshop’ which you can watch online right now!

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