At the heart of every successful interview lies a compelling story; the challenge is how to craft yours, and how to best tell it. Condensing the story of your professional life into a clear, thoughtful, and polished narrative may not be easy – in fact it is one of the most common stumbling blocks I encounter with senior job candidates – but doing it well is both rare and distinguishing.
Interview questions are more than fact-finding missions for your potential employer, they are invitations for you to tell your story. Each one provides an opportunity for you to illustrate how your career and strengths align with your potential employer’s criteria. When you do this well, you put your most attractive features on display: confidence and self-awareness, a sense of preparation, and attention to detail. Falling short on this front, however, can be quite damaging to your overall success.
The Opening Move
Consider every interview’s most predictable leading question, one that comes at the very beginning of the interview when nerves are usually at their highest : “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?” Like the first chapter of a book or the opening act of a play, this is where you either captivate or bore, and it’s certainly where you set the tone for the rest of the interview. It’s a small first test – one that, unfortunately, a majority of candidates fail because of how easy it is to overlook. To know how to answer it – and to do so with poise and grace – requires you to anticipate, understand and answer a host of other questions:
- How specifically should I begin?
- How do I tie the strands of my career together and what is the common thread?
- What details, skills and competencies do I really want to highlight up front?
- Am I telling my story in a way that aligns my strengths with their needs?
- How long should I speak (have I found the right balance between detail and brevity) and how should I end the career summary?
If this approach sounds rigorous or over-thought, that’s because it is. It is far better to have these questions answered ahead of time than to try and do so in the middle of an interview, which means that the time you put into sharpening and honing the message you want to convey – and I do this with every candidate I work with – is time well spent.
Single Out Moments of Significance
Your story alone might feel unique, but it is worth remembering that every other candidate has his or her own similar variation: assorted academic credentials, a career littered with different titles, promotions, and responsibilities. Knowing this is both humbling and instructive, as it allows you to focus on the number of ways you can distinguish yours.
One way to do this is to single out moments of significance from your career – this could be key achievements or challenges you have faced – and describe the circumstances that led to them or the lessons they have taught you. The achievements or challenges are wonderful evidence on their own and your best energy is spent describing their significance to you and the impact they had.
Russian Novelist Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” The same is true here: let your CV present the factual data; you tell the story that makes sense of it all.
Make it Relatable
Stories may be entertaining on their own, but in an interview setting, an entertaining story alone does not suffice. Your story is most compelling when it is supported with concrete examples of performance or behaviour, when it is authentic and when it suggests a thorough understanding of:
- What the role actually is.
- The ways in which your past experience has you poised for success.
- The immediate priorities and challenges you would face in the new role.
Weaving your story to theirs – shaping it in a way that meshes their greatest needs with your greatest assets – is a skill that takes time to master. But it is worth it, because in a competitive landscape, one of the most powerful and distinguishing ways to stand out is having a well-crafted authentic story. In fact, it is the best marketing tool you have.