The Best Job Candidates Are the Best Storytellers
Before the pandemic, and I do mean way before, I bought a beautiful suit — deep charcoal gray with a soft silk lining. It was my interview suit.
I’d just graduated from my Master of Fine Arts program and believed that first impressions were all about how we presented ourselves. This, to a degree, is true. But in the interview room, that presentation tends to stay on the surface. Of course, you need to speak intelligently and concisely, and you need the skills and experience to qualify for the roles you’re applying for. Still, as I stared at myself in my nice suit in the mirror, I naively forgot that first impressions extend far deeper.
First impressions are meant to impress. The word “impress” has more than one meaning; the most common is to gain admiration or interest. But to impress also means to imprint, or to apply so much pressure or intent upon something that you leave a permanent mark behind.
If you think about it, the pandemic applied that pressure, imprinting us with the desire to reexamine what’s important in our lives — especially our work lives. Some of us were left with more than just a need to switch jobs, but also a radical wish for more flexibility, money, and happiness in our careers.
If you’re one of the people seeking a new work opportunity, then you’re probably prepping for a job interview (or a few).
Here’s what not to do:
- Spend all your time memorizing facts about the company and role: Learning as much as you can about the company you’re interviewing with is smart, but everyone does this. The interviewer knows what their company already has, and they’re looking for what you can add.
- Stay up late considering how you might respond to expected questions: Are you Googling “tips for a successful job interview” and reading the top articles? Rehearsing “your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” Yawn. Instantaneous boredom.
- Only share the facts of your résumé: Without the context of how you show up when it counts, you won’t impress the interviewer. Your impression will stay at the surface level, leaving the interviewer with no emotional reaction to compel them to take a deeper look at you.
A successful interview hinges on a great story.
We’re all familiar with the most popular interview questions:
- “Can you tell me about yourself?”
- “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”
- “Can you explain a challenge you overcame?”
Every situational question your interviewer asks you can benefit from a great story. And understanding how to tell an authentic story about yourself in a way that leaves a permanent mark — in a way that allows your prospective employer to really see you — is the key to standing out. We all have a story to tell. Whether we’ve overcome an obstacle or learned through a mistake, our work forces us to reach within and surface our inner heroes.
But how do you paint that picture for your interviewers? As a book-writing coach who specializes in the business storytelling realm, my job is to help other people share their authentic stories (and I’ve gone through a fair number of job interviews myself).
What have I learned? A great story takes the audience on a journey. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. The “before” version of you was met with a challenge that forced you to learn, grow, and ultimately do something differently (the beginning). You made a decision you never would have made before (the middle). Sometimes you succeeded. Other times you failed. Either way, you walked away with a lesson. You survived a challenge and emerged as a more powerful version of yourself (the end).
The Beginning: Choose a story that left a lasting imprint on you.
Every one of us has faced challenges at work. Your task is to unpack some of those moments — something few of us have taken the time to do — and practice relaying them in a compelling and authentic way.
Maybe you saved the day by speaking up when you saw something unjust. Maybe you salvaged a client account with a fantastic idea. Maybe you supported your coworker through a difficult day. Or maybe from time to time you’ve failed, walked away recognizing your mistakes, and are a stronger and more strategic performer as a result.
Remember that we’re all human, and sometimes we don’t always slay the monster — that doesn’t mean we aren’t heroes. Telling our interviewers stories of both successes and failures helps us stand out as emotionally intelligent and self-aware candidates. We each have ways, big and small, in which we’ve grown through difficult times.
To begin telling your story, start by outlining one of these instances, and do your best to choose a moment that connects to the question at hand.
For example, put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes. Pretend you have just asked me the question: Can you talk about a time when you had to overcome a challenge? Let’s say I’ve done my research and I know that “resilience” and “emotional intelligence” are qualities that your company values. To answer your question in a compelling way, I would choose a story that displays those skills and begin by explaining the obstacle I had to overcome:
During my first summer as a journalist at a local newspaper, I was assigned to photograph a festival. You should probably know now that I’m not a very good photographer, nor have I taken many photographs in my career. But I was a good field journalist, and I had proven to my editor that I could get a story from a crowded event.
The festival was guaranteed to be front-page news for the paper — which meant we needed high-quality photos and coverage. That was my job.
Talking to strangers about all the fun they were having? Piece of cake. Handling a professional-grade camera with a long, heavy lens that was such a big deal it had its own dust cloth and carrying case? That was my worst nightmare.
The Middle: Bring the interviewer into the memory with details.
As the saying goes, “God is in the details.” When you share your story during an interview, you’re trusting your interviewer with a handful of unique details about your life and identity. That extension of trust is far more likely to be met with trust in return than a series of rehearsed responses.
For instance, don’t just state that you won an award or accomplished a difficult task. Share those achievements through the context of a story, engaging the interviewer with rich details. Aim to ask and answer for yourself: “What did you sacrifice to achieve that award? How did you feel when faced with those challenges? Who stood right by you and supported you? Or did you have to go at it alone?”
It’s not a line on a résumé, but an entire memory. Interviewers can then see you as a full person, analyze how you problem-solve, and witness your determination, risk-taking, or ability to self-reflect.
Sticking with our initial example, I would focus on pulling the interviewer deeper into my story by explaining the disappointment I felt when my worst nightmare came true:
I’d like to say my photography experience was a triumph, that I was so proud of myself for overcoming the challenge. But when I got back home and plugged the camera into my computer, all the photos were missing. My heart dropped. I hadn’t captured a single one.
After driving around the city for hours, going from fancy camera shops to techy holes-in-the-wall, I wasn’t able to fix the memory card. I realized that I would have to go back to my boss and admit that I had let her down. I was deeply ashamed, but I also knew it was my responsibility to face my fear and own my mistake — no matter the outcome.
The end: Don’t just be a hero — be vulnerable.
Your goal in sharing your story during an interview is not to portray yourself as amazing all the time. The last thing you want to do is come off as a one-dimensional, cartoon hero. (That’s likely what every other job candidate is doing.)
If you want to distinguish yourself and make a real impression, you need to display the fullness of your character. As in our original example, you can do this by choosing to balance your stories of success with a story or two of failure. Share an experience where your best intentions still resulted in an undesirable outcome. When you own up to your mistakes, when you admit you did something unlike yourself, and when you allow your weaknesses to show, you stand out to your interviewer in a surprising way.
To wrap up my story, I would ask, “What did I learn about myself that I did not know before and how can I connect it back to what the hiring manager is looking for?” I would end by sharing a vulnerable moment, how I overcame it, and the lessons I took with me, highlighting the skills I know they want to see: “resilience” and “emotional intelligence.”
When I approached my editor and explained what had happened, I was terrified, but surprisingly, she wasn’t mad. She told me it was alright, that it is human to err, and that if she wanted everything perfect she would have hired a robot.
I realize this isn’t the traditional narrative you might expect about overcoming a challenge, but it took a lot for me to speak up that day, and I learned more from that experience than I have from some of my biggest accomplishments.
The grace my editor extended to me showed me that kindness triumphs over consequences, and that heroes aren’t always heroic — as humans, we will always make mistakes. I learned that when faced with a challenge, the true sword of triumph is vulnerability. We can make mistakes, but we can rectify those mistakes when we show up to the situation with our masks removed. When we humble ourselves enough to take out our insecurities or our weaknesses and share them with others, we can actually learn something new.
This experience still impacts how I work today. I bring honesty and bravery to every ordeal I face, and I extend that grace to my colleagues and team members. I find that this makes everyone more resilient, more open, and more adaptable to challenges in the future.
Vulnerable authenticity tells your interviewer that you won’t show up to work every day pretending everything is always awesome (a false reality and untruthful in the long run). And that means that anybody who works with you won’t have to show up as one-dimensional, either. Suddenly, your interviewer can relax because they are talking to a human being and not the caricature of one. A successful interview is a memorable one. Vulnerability is memorable.
Now, let me be vulnerable again.
That interviewing suit I mentioned before? It never got me a job. I showed up to interviews in it, but I didn’t truly show up. I was too afraid to reveal my authentic self to the stranger on the other side.
With practice, however, I grew more comfortable. I learned that it’s just as important to reveal who you are as it is to see how the interviewer reacts to your vulnerability. If you both walk away liking yourselves more after the interaction, you’ve got a decent chance of receiving a job offer you’d be overjoyed to accept.
If a hiring manager doesn’t respond in kind — if they remain on the surface and refuse to take a deeper look — you can leave that opportunity knowing that their workplace was simply not a sandbox you were meant to play in. Instead of getting the job and spending months or years trying to turn a bad fit into a good one, you can redirect your energy toward a more ideal fit.