Looking for interview advice that can help separate you from the pack of other job seekers? Two experienced professionals offer the following tip: use personal stories to your advantage.
Of course, a resume and qualifications are still essential, but once one gets to the interview process, a potential employer has probably already decided you likely have the job skills necessary. But two experts say that a bullet list of skills is not enough to show you are right for the job. Using communications skills to offer a detailed story may set you apart from your competition and may be the difference between getting the position and continuing your job search.
The career skills experts
To help with this article we talked to Allison Lowe, founder of the Lowe Brounstein Group, and Dr. David Reamer, associate professor at University of Tampa, to offer advice to people currently on the job market.
Allison Lowe has been working in corporate recruiting for nearly three decades and is the founder of Lowe Brounstein Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting company. Rather than focusing exclusively on direct recruiting for corporations, Lowe Brounstein focuses on consulting with recruiters to improve their processes for finding strong candidates.
“Over the course of my career, I have recruited hundreds of people and I have consulted with dozens and dozens of recruiters and hiring managers at corporations throughout Los Angeles and beyond. I have also coached countless job candidates,” Lowe said. “While there are many tips I could offer, I always encourage job candidates to avoid the generic. If you have made it to the interview, chances are the organization believes you are qualified. Now, how will you stand out from all the other qualified candidates? Personal, relevant and concise stories can be the perfect strategy.”
David Reamer, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Tampa. Reamer specializes in technical writing, writing for the web, editing and publishing and teaches a wide variety of rhetoric and writing courses. Over the last decade, Reamer has served on several hiring committees for full-time faculty, part-time faculty and staff at the university level. Prior to entering academia, he worked in accounting, manufacturing and publishing.
“I have been through the interview process several times in my life for a variety of jobs. I have also been on several hiring committees. Whether in education or in business, stories are what make a candidate’s qualifications come alive,” Reamer said.
“When I was being interviewed for my current position,” Reamer continued. “I used the story of a semester-length project I once had my students do at the University of Arizona. We collaborated with another class and we had students conduct local research and propose a solution to a local problem. The semester culminated in a mock town hall debate. By telling that story, I was trying to illustrate my creativity, my organizational skills and my ability to collaborate with a colleague and his entire class. I listed these qualities on my CV (curriculum vitae) but the details in the story are what brought those qualities to life.”
The interview tips
Based upon the advice that both Lowe and Reamer share about the importance of stories in the interview process, the following list emerged:
1. Humanize yourself: Tie in your personal interests
Reamer says, “A bulleted list is not a person. People doing the hiring want to make sure you are a person who can fit in with the organization. Stories can help you reveal who you are and show why you are a great fit.” If an interviewer asks why you would be a good fit for the position, they have already read your resume. They want something more than a list of adjectives.
“By revealing personal interests and hobbies and making them relevant to the job, you can show you are a well-rounded interesting person who may get along with the other personalities in the office. Detailed stories can reveal your personality,” Reamer said.
2. Demonstrate your mastery of the required skills
You should be able to set yourself apart. Everyone being interviewed likely knows Excel, PowerPoint, or Prezi, for instance. Can you tell a story about a time you innovated or used a program to solve a specific problem or present ideas in a compelling way?
3. Establish rapport with the interviewer
“Don’t forget, you are being interviewed by a person,” Lowe said. “Most people value a well-told and relevant story. You can connect on a personal level with the people doing the interview and make yourself stand out.”
4. Touch on the soft skills you have
Dedication, ability to collaborate, a willingness to share ideas, creative thinking, multitasking and other qualities may appear generic on the page, but are essential to many professions. According to Reamer, stories can “illustrate the list of qualifications in specific detail. The bullets need to be enlivened with examples that reveal your skills. For instance, offer an example that shows you are collaborative. Or, tell a story that reveals you are committed to success.”
5. Rehearse the basics before the interview
When telling a story, you can use emotional queues, intonation, logical organization and incisive word choice to make your point. This can be a demonstration of your thoughtfulness and intelligence. But not everyone is a born storyteller.
Lowe emphasizes the importance of rehearsing your story and having multiple options to choose from. “Very few people are born with the skill to improvise a story. I always tell the people I coach before an interview: ‘have several stories in mind and rehearse them. You may not use all of the stories but having multiple options will prepare you for the questions the interviewer poses.’ “
6. Use traditional story structure elements: Challenge, personal initiative, overcoming adversity
“Describe a challenge you once faced and how you overcame it,” is a very common interview prompt, Lowe said. “Stories typically have a conflict that must be addressed and overcome, and how you overcame or learned from conflict or adversity can reveal a lot about how you will fit in at the organization rather than saying, ‘I worked hard.’ That is generic. In contrast, a story can be interesting and powerful.”
She also mentions many examples in which storytelling made a more significant impact than mere qualifications or work experience. “When two candidates are equal for the same job, the one who most effectively uses stories may get the position. And, in some cases, the candidate with superior skills or experience may get beaten out by the person with the stronger story.”
The deciding factors
Lowe relates a story involving a large corporation she was consulting with as they recruited an industrial plant manager. Though there were many highly qualified candidates, “we selected an Ivy League graduate who had many other opportunities. She was extremely impressive in many ways and we thought she may not be committed to this position for the long-term. But her resume was strong so we interviewed her along with other qualified candidates. The story she told us about watching her father work in a similar plant when she was a child demonstrated her deep commitment to the position. This set her apart in ways her resume could not.”
Both Lowe and Reamer come to a similar conclusion: don’t underestimate the power of storytelling.
If you’re interested in learning more about using communication skills to be a better salesperson for your qualifications, be sure to check out the related course listings below.
Interview with Allison Lowe, founder, Lowe Brounstein Group. Conducted by Nick White, December 2014
Interview with Dr. David Reamer, assistant professor, University of Tampa. Conducted by Nick White, December 2014