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4 types of stories you need to tell at your next job interview

Most people in job interviews spend way too much time on logic. Their preparation and technique relies on stating all the facts: “I’m the right person for the job because I’ve worked in a similar role … Have 20-plus years’ experience … Just love sales!” Know what the end result is? You come across as boring and bland and, when it comes to the crunch, you just don’t seem to have the “right fit” for the organisation you’re interviewing for.

So how can you build trust and foster an emotional connection with your future employer to land your dream job?

Tell a story, of course.

Storytelling is not a new concept. Ever since humans have been able to communicate they have done so through stories. But it is only recently that the business world has really embraced the power of stories. Storytelling in business is now not only accepted as a key leadership competency and communication skill, but is encouraged and highly sought after.

Four stories to nail a job interview

In a job interview, your main aim is to persuade and influence the interviewer and decision-makers that you are the right person for the job. To do that, you not only need to have logical reasons why you are the right person, but you also need to build personal credibility and an emotional connection so they trust you and feel a connection with you.

The trickiest part is that you need to do that better than everyone else and relatively fast, considering interviews generally only go for about an hour, sometimes less. Let’s look at the four story types you need to have on hand for any job interview:

  • Literal story: This is a professional or work-related story that shows a specific capability you have (more on capabilities later). If you’re applying for a similar job in a similar industry, then the majority of your stories will be literal.
  • Learn story: Usually a work-related story, though sometimes it can be a personal one, this shows what you learned from a particular experience. The purpose of a learn story is to demonstrate one of your values (more on values later).
  • Lateral story: This is a personal story that you can use to demonstrate a specific value you have. This story will show how you align with the organisation’s values and how you will fit in with its culture.
  • Like story: This is usually a personal story which shows how capable you are at something, though sometimes it can be a work-related story from a different job role to the one you’re interviewing for. You may be just starting your career, changing careers or industries or returning to work from a long absence such as parental leave or a career break.

You may find your experiences could be made into several story types. As you hone your skills and gain confidence in the storytelling process, you’ll be able to mix and match your stories according to the job role you’re going for.

Literal stories

Literal stories show you have specific capabilities and experience in the exact situation that the interviewer is looking for. When applying for a similar role in a similar industry, you will likely have a lot of literal stories you can draw on to demonstrate you have the right skills and experience for the role.

If you’re asked, “Tell us about a time when you had to lead a global change”, you talk about a time you led a global change in a similar job role and/or similar industry. If you’re asked: “Tell us how you dealt with a particularly challenging customer”, you tell them about a time you dealt with an angry customer during your time as a sales assistant at a record store, a role that’s similar to the one you’re interviewing for now, just at a different sales-based company.

If you’ve ever been for a job interview then it’s likely you’ve already had some experience sharing literal stories – perhaps you just didn’t know you were doing it.

If you don’t have literal stories because the role you are applying for is different from anything you’ve done in the past, it is important that you have ready-made like stories you can provide instead.

Learn stories

Learn stories demonstrate a lesson that you have learned, either by something going right or going wrong. Their power comes from showing your interviewer that you are self-aware and that you learn from your mistakes.

These are very attractive qualities for a potential employer, especially because you’re willing to be vulnerable and to admit that you have made mistakes (which we all do as humans). Being able to voice what you learned from that mistake shows maturity, no matter what your age is.

Brené Brown is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, was a New York Times bestseller. Her 2010 TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability”, is one of the most-viewed TED talks in the world.

Brown’s research busts the myth that vulnerability is a weakness. Instead, she reveals that it is courageous, daring and the ultimate sign of strength and confidence. They are some very powerful personality traits to demonstrate in a job interview.

However, job interviews are not about letting it all hang out and potentially over-sharing, but rather using appropriate stories and examples that humanise you and build rapport with your interviewer.

Lateral stories

Lateral stories demonstrate your cultural fit within the organisation. If literal stories are there to assure them that you are capable of the job (by directly relating a relevant experience), lateral stories are designed to show you have the right attributes and attitude to work well with others.

The best lateral stories are personal ones as these show a side of your personality that could set you apart from other candidates. For example, you might have found out during (or before if you’re very diligent!) the interview that many in the team love animals. You can then relate a story that shows you have an interest in the topic when they ask about your interests. Perhaps you once volunteered to help at an animal shelter.

A good lateral story could be your secret weapon for landing the job when all other applicants might have the same skills, knowledge and experience. What you’ve done in your past; what experiences you’ve had; what you love to do on a daily basis; these instantly distinguish you from anyone else.

Like stories

Like stories are great for demonstrating transferrable skills. If you are new in your career, are coming back after a long break or you’ve decided to enter a new industry, you might not be able to tell lots of literal stories. That’s where like stories come in. They demonstrate that you have the capability that they need even if the scenario is not exactly the same.

The interviewer might ask you to tell them about a time when you successfully managed the distribution of collateral to various locations. Now, you might not have ever done that in a previous role, but maybe you’ve organised something similar for your local community, sporting team or even just a major family event. The skills required are the same, even if the scenario isn’t.

You don’t need an identical number of stories for each type. You may find you’ll be heavy in one story type and light in another. For example, if you’re applying for a similar job, you may have a lot of literal stories and perhaps only one or two like stories. Perhaps you’re returning to work after an extended time, or this is your first job, which means you will have a lot of like stories and minimal literal stories, if any at all.

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