During an afternoon of ‘Speed Interviewing’ with some students last week, I realized that the majority was going to prepare for their upcoming interviews by preparing answers to a range of competency-based questions given to them by the Careers Service.
While I know from experience that this exercise can be helpful, it fundamentally dismisses one of the most important truths of interviewing.
Interviewers aren’t looking for answers; they’re looking for stories.
It’s easy to think of interviews as tests, especially when you’re a student or a fresh grad, but in reality an interview should be seen as a conversation. The goal is to convey the most rounded, authentic and impressive version of “You” to the other(s) in the room. Yes, you want them to learn more about your career experience, your skills and knowledge, but you also need to impart other equally important details: your personality, values, personal interests, concerns and aspirations.
This is roughly what we look for when interviewing candidates for Burns Sheehan.*
Why do interviewers want the whole pie?
I’ve done my fair share of interviewing - some where I’ve come out buzzing with excitement about the person I’ve just met and others which were quite frankly agonizing.
You might be surprised that the agonizing interviews weren't ones where the interviewee was obnoxious, intoxicated or had no idea who we are (although these things do happen). It’s when the candidate gives pre-formulated answers that completely shield their personality from me.
If someone is themselves but not right for us, I’ll be able to give them constructive and honest feedback and know that it’s likely that both of us sensed that the match wasn’t right. But when I leave the interview and only know 20-35% (the experience, knowledge and skills) of that candidate? That’s just painful. If I don't think they'd be a good culture fit with our business I can’t invite them back to the next stage... but what if they had an awesome personality and bags of potential and I just didn’t get to see it?
Even if you’re naturally introverted and despise interviews, this golden rule will help you make that great first or second impression which could land you your next job: interviewers aren’t looking for answers; they’re looking for stories.
What Makes A Good Story for an Interview?
A good story will be memorable, original, clearly structured, and relevant to the listener.
You want the story to have a clear beginning, middle and end. Generally, you want to begin by offering the interviewer some context so they can visualise the situation you were in and end the interview with a ‘punchline’ – a result or outcome that answers their questions.
Make sure it answers the question!
It is crucial that you listen carefully to the interviewer’s questions so you know what they are asking and what story would be most relevant. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot by diving into an epic story from your uni days when the interviewer just asked you if you’d like a glass of water.
Make it original.
Interviewers love to hear about creative and clever ways you achieved something, especially if the story begins with a major obstacle you had to overcome. However, it’s equally important that the way you tell your story is original. Include those funny details you would have shared with your friends and let your personality shine through. Nobody wants a dry, formal rendition. Make sure your story stands out amongst the others by telling it with the animation and details needed to grab their attention.
Tell it at the right time.
Of course, there will be some questions that just require a simple 1-2 sentence answer. If they ask you what your salary expectations are, you don’t need to tell them a story about a fight you recently had with your flatmate about the water bill. Instead, wait for the interview to ask a question that invites a story such as “Can you tell me about a time when…?” or “Give me an example of when….”.
How Do You Prepare Interview-Worthy Stories?
You will probably find it helpful to think about the stories you’d want a potential employer to hear. The easiest way to find inspiration is to read through your CV and reflect on the career/work experiences, personal achievements and academic milestones that have shaped your skills set and personality.
Now, think about which stories would answer a competency-based question that might come up. Here are a few questions that an interviewer will most likely ask:
1. Tell me about yourself
This is probably the most obvious, the most predictable, and the hardest. This is almost like an embellished version of the ‘Summary’ section of your CV and LinkedIn profile. You want to include details about where you’re from (what you’ve studied, where you have worked), who you are (your personal interests and how people would describe you), where you’re going (what role and organisation you’re looking for) and how you can add value to them.
2. How will you add value?
Ultimately, an employer wants to know how you can make or save them money, so you’ll want to think about a story which will show your ability to bring in revenue (ie. a time when you had to earn money, sell to customers, etc.) or when you’ve found a creative way to save money (ie. budgeting your personal finances, finding a creative way to cut costs for your part-time employer, etc.). If you’re struggling to think of a story for this one, think about your biggest achievements to date.
3. How do you work in a team?
These days, the ability to work in a team is crucial. Prepare a story about how you worked with a team to achieve an awesome goal, or when you planned a group trip. Don’t be too shy to include an hiccups you experienced along the way, so long as you show they were interesting challenges and valuable learning lessons.
4. Are you prepared to go the extra mile?
Every boss wants a hard worker on their team who they can depend on when the going gets tough. Assuming this is you, prepare a story of how you went the extra mile for your company, sports team, club or client.
5. Have you overcome a challenge?
Remember that time when you faced an enormous challenge which took you some time to overcome? Tell you interviewer how your ingenuity and strength of character got you through with new skills that would transfer nicely to the job you’re interviewing for.
6. Are you in this for the long run?
With technology encouraging us to have short attention spans, your interviewer will want to know that you intend to stay in this role for the foreseeable future. If you have a story about when you made the decision to stick something out (perhaps when others gave up), this is the time to share it.
7. How do you manage stress?
Stress and conflict management are useful skills to have, no matter how lovely the office environment seems. It’s very likely that you’ll be asked about how you’ve resolved a conflict, coped with high pressure, or overcame rejection. Keep these stories short and sweet so you don’t get bogged down in the negative and make sure you end the story on a positive note.
If interviews are just about story swapping, why do we have them?
The questions, answers and stories that bounce across the table should gauge how well you click with the person on the other side of the table. Sure, you will need to demonstrate your knowledge or technical expertise so you can perform the tasks required of you, but ultimately you and the interviewer should be thinking of the same things throughout the interview:
1. Can I see myself working with this person?
2. Will this person help me (or the business) grow?
3. Do they accept and admire me for who I am?
4. Do I respect and admire her/him?
If the interviewer thinks you tick all the boxes they will want to invite you back, but they can only do this if you show them the well-rounded, awesome version of you.
Don't just give the interviewer a measly 35% of 'you', we want the whole pie!
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