How to use stories in interviews

The challenge for an interviewee is to make the most of the opportunities presented to them. Each question in an interview should be seen as an invitation to the candidate to reveal something valuable - a strength, a depth of experience, an insight, an attitude, character.

Revealing something is not the same as saying something. Anyone can assert that they have a certain experience, skill or quality. An interviewer might find this easy to believe or not. But letting the interviewer see it for themselves is another thing altogether: it’s more believable, and makes a deeper impression that lasts longer.

In an interview situation, one of the most effective ways a candidate can show what the interviewer is hoping to see is to use a question as the starting-point for a story; a narrative that has a start, an end and meaning.

A story

Let’s say that you’re asked: Can you describe an example of being part of a positive change at work?

A strong answer might be:

In a previous role, I noticed that tools were being left out in the workshop at the end of each day.

It was really a problem for us because it meant that things were getting lost and damaged, and the next day the technicians would waste time finding necessary items.

I realised that it was happening because the team had to work on their jobs right until the end of the day, and then rush off in order not to miss the bus to get home.

I suggested to the team leader that work on jobs should end 15 minutes before the end of the day, and the final 15 minutes should be designated “workshop preparation time”.

As a result, we saved much more than the 15 minutes of time working on jobs. What really surprised me though was that other team members became more interested in workshop maintenance, and wanted to think and talk about ways we could improve the way we work.

Why is this a strong answer?

Firstly, it genuinely has the form of a narrative. It’s not merely a series of events strung together; it’s a short story in five paragraphs. It contains and expresses meaning.

A candidate could spend several minutes earnestly asserting their qualities of team-work, initiative and so on, and the interviewer would still have no way to make a judgement about it. A story like this on the other hand shows far more than can be said.

This story works well also because it turns makes the interviewee a protagonist in it, an agent. It shows:

  • what the candidate observed (I noticed)

  • what they thought about the situation (I realised that)

  • what they valued or cared about (it was a problem)

  • what they did about it (I suggested)

  • what happened

  • how the candidate reflected on the episode (what surprised me)

And it shows how these the candidate relates these things to each other (because, as a result).

All of the above are valuable elements in a story, which is not to say that every story need contain them all, or in that order.

This is not a formula for telling a story. Still, if you’re less familiar with interviews and what works in them, these elements helps provide a useful frame. It’s an effective way to think and talk about your skills and qualities and what you’ve done.

What are your stories?

It’s quite noticeable in interviews that candidates with less experience of interviewing are not just less good at being interviewed, but they are also often unaware of what their most valuable strengths and qualities are. They will anxiously strive to convey unimportant experiences, and neglect ones that are at the heart of the matter.

Stories help avoid this, because by their nature, they work to draw out what’s really important. Language alone can help to perform this function. Consider how you might complete or use some of these phrases when thinking about an episode from your past:

  • I noticed…, I discovered… (observation)

  • I realised…, I calculated…, I judged… (thinking)

  • I felt…, I was bothered by…, I wanted… (value)

  • I decided…, I asked…, I changed… (action)

  • as a result…, in consequence… (result)

  • I learned… (reflection)

  • because, if, although, unfortunately, however, despite (words that join thoughts together)

This is not a complete or exhaustive list. It’s not a set of pieces for putting a story together from. Stories are more interesting that that. But, you can use them as triggers to help you think about yourself and your abilities in ways that also make it easier for others to appreciate them.

Rehearse your stories

To practise telling your stories might seem an odd suggestion, but the fact is that people who are good at being interviewed are good because they have become good at telling their stories. They are practised. Consciously or not, they have refined their story-telling. They have learned what works.

You need to do the same. I suggest to take the trouble to write them some of them down, and to rehearse them, in your head and in conversation. Get used to making yourself the protagonist of your stories, and claiming responsibility for your actions.

Learn what doesn’t need to be said

I’ve encountered interviewees who could drop me into a context with just a handful of words. And I’ve also encountered those who needed to go back as far the dinosaurs to start their story.

Learning how to tell a story well is not about remembering all the things that need to be included, but about learning how much you don’t need to say at all.

Find ways to make your stories shorter. Learn what you can leave out. You need them to function like sketches that contain a truth in a few simple lines.

Learn how to set a scene with the fewest possible words. A story is diminished by a lengthy preamble. And learn how to end them, leaving them open to allow the audience to understand it for themselves - there’s no need to follow each thread mercilessly to its end.

(In the example of the story of the workshop above, not every detail is spelled out. For example, it doesn’t say what the team leader did with the suggestion. It’s left up to the reader to fill in the gaps.)

You have to assume that your interviewer is not completely witless, and is able to draw their own inferences to make sense of a story.

Know what your stories mean

The workshop story is a good example of positive change. It could equally well stand in as an example of:

  • taking initiative

  • seeing a bigger picture

  • improving team performance

  • identifying and solving a problem

  • a learning experience

No doubt you could think of several others too.

When an interviewer asks a question like Can you give me an example of taking initiative? it’s not so that they can tick off a box marked “Has taken initiative”. It’s a prompt, for you to reveal qualities (including initiative), vividly and in depth and context.

Think of all the episodes that have meant something in your working life. When you set them out as stories, what do they mean - what can they say about you?

When to use a story

The short answer is: often.

In fact, you’ll be often invited explicitly to tell a story, for example: Tell me about a time when….

That’s simple enough. Recognise the invitation and accept it.

But even when the invitation is not explicit, the interviewer usually wants more than a literal-minded answer to a question. You might face questions like:

  • What do you think are the most important things to get right in…?

  • How do you deal with…?

You must recognise (and most people do) that the question is not just asking you to list what things you consider most important, or to say how you deal with such-and-such, it also wants you to say why you think or do that.

Say what you need to say. But having done that, consider whether you should show something too, by telling a story about it to bring it alive, and the easiest way to slip into that is with the immortal words “for example”.

… and when not to

Use your judgement.

It would be a bit odd if an interviewee insisted on weaving a story into every single answer. It would be exhausting for you.

The value of a narrative

Narrative can save an interviewee from the dangerous urge to leave nothing out.

Narrative is one of the most powerful cognitive skills at the disposal of a human being. Narrative is a kind of sequential logic, that binds up other reasoning (cause and effect, justification, etc) into itself and makes them come alive.

Escape from the tyranny of the list

Lists are useful things, and they fit well in the patterns of modern working environments. We’re encouraged to use them, not least by the software we use to manage information and processes. And nearly every job description is written in the form of a list.

The result is a tendency to think, write and speak in lists.

This is unfortunate. A common and disappointing experience for an interviewer is to ask a question and have it answered with a list - a long list, in which the candidate left nothing out, because they feared leaving out the one crucial item that might make all the difference (this happens most starkly in written interviews).

It’s very hard to find meaning or identify importance in a list. Everything appears to have the same value. Nothing stands out. In the anxiety to present a complete picture, the candidate obscures the real picture.

Narrative is an effective way out of this trap. Narrative creates natural bounds, and positively invites the narrator to find them. No-one is good at remembering lists, but stories are memorable and interesting. As a candidate, a narrative allows you to present multiple topics in a compact, joined-up way.

Narratives come to an end

The interviewee who has not enough to say is an astonishingly rare creature. The one who doesn’t know when to stop is not. Most interviewees talk too much, because it’s difficult to know when to stop, and difficult actually to stop talking.

A story, on the other hand, comes to an end all by itself. Telling a story makes it easier to stop talking, safe in the knowledge that something complete and meaningful has been said.

Narrative as initiative

An interviewer doesn’t want passive responses (lists are very passive - they’re framed by the question and only exist in response to it). Telling a story allows the candidate to take ownership of the topic, and take the initiative in the interview.

Narrative thinking is a key skill

Narrative thinking is part of intelligence itself. It’s how we understand how events unfold, and relate to one another. It’s how we are able to make sense of logical sequences, and express their significance to others. It shows up in being able to tell a story, but it’s the same cognitive power that we need to understand the flow of logic in a program or human interface, or to describe them in documentation.

The inability to construct a meaningful narrative out of a series of events is a bad sign in a a candidate for a job that deals in logical sequences.

Similarly, narrative skill demonstrates the ability to grasp what’s important and relevant in a a particular case, and what is not and may be safely left aside.

A skilfully-told story demonstrates not only that the candidate understands what’s important and should be included, but what’s not, and can be left aside.