Interviewing – The Power of Storytelling in Interviewing

If an employer only wanted raw facts about you, a resume would be enough. Employers invite you to interview so they can get to know you better. They want to verify your skills, get a sense of your personality and how you handle yourself, and start to understand what it would be like to work with you.

In short, they are seeking a more personal, though still professional, connection. Have you ever heard of the “airport test”? It’s the idea that you should only hire people with whom you would enjoy being stuck in an airport for hours on end if you were traveling for business and experienced a delay.

When employers talk about “fit” this is a big part of what they mean. You will spend more time with the people you work with than you will with almost anyone else in your life. Employers want to make sure you can “connect” with your colleagues and management. The challenge is how to demonstrate this in a 30-60 minute interview where you only get to speak about half the time. The answer is effective storytelling.

Great stories help people connect. They convey not just facts, but emotion. They use imagery and scene-setting to paint a more vivid picture of a situation…and all these things make great stories more memorable. Being the more memorable candidate (in a positive way!) is a good way to be on the receiving end of a lot of job offers.

Even better, from an interviewing perspective, a great story is likely to demonstrate at least two or three skills if you give enough detail. Almost all behavioral interview questions are prompting you to give a story with the intent of determining the presence of, or level of, a skill. In other words, if you can come up with four or five great stories that each showcase two or three core skills, you’ll likely have enough stories to tell (with slight variations) to answer almost any interview question that comes your way. Your preparation for interview questions becomes less about memorizing dozens of answers to expected questions and more about listening carefully to the question and deciding which of your stories best demonstrates the skill they are asking about.

That’s a lot easier; you know your stories. You lived them.

So, what makes a great story?

Start with the facts – who, what, when, where, why

Set the scene – give it some “color”, details about the people involved, environment, expectations (don’t be negative, but context is what makes it memorable). If appropriate, consider how using a metaphor might add additional memorability to your description/answer

Set up the challenge – good stories have tension, in an interview scenario the tension is a combination of the setting, the people involved, and the problem at hand.

Address your actions – what did you do? Did others help?

Talk about results – was the problem successfully resolved? was there a positive outcome/achievement? If not, what did you learn from it? what could you change next time to avoid the problem?

Relate – how does this situation and its resolution relate to the position you are interviewing for today?

 

So, what might that look like? How about a story to demonstrate problem solving?

Imagine you were interviewing to work in a fast-paced start-up company and they asked you to “tell them about a time when you solved a difficult problem under pressure”.

Depending on the situation (phone interview, in-person interview, etc.) you might need to answer in 30 seconds, or you might be able to take up to 3 minutes. Let’s look at how each might work.

Here’s how a 30-second answer could work following the framework above:

Start with the facts

I was working as an intern for a minor league baseball team in Connecticut. I was in charge of managing a group of 15 wait staff, kitchen staff, and runners that provided in-seat food service delivery to our corporate VIP box seats.”

 

Set the scene

It was a really busy night, and it was really humid which caused our order ticket printers to jam up.”

 

Set up the challenge

By the time we realized it was happening, we were already 30 orders behind

 

Address your actions

We rallied together as a team to quickly fill the backorders and temporarily re-located the printer so it wouldn’t jam anymore, giving us time to find a permanent solution the next day

 

Talk about results

Once we got caught up I apologized to the customers for the delay and made sure everyone was happy.”

 

Relate

We were able to find a short term fix that night and permanently correct the problem the next day and I think being able to analyze a problem and solve it in that fashion could be useful in a start-up environment like this.”

 

This isn’t a bad answer, but it is incomplete. It short changes the problems to the point where they might not seem like something that difficult to overcome, and therefore less impressive. It also doesn’t explain how you did all the things you say you did, and the skills you want the employer to know about are always in the “how”. If you are pressed for time (perhaps this is part of a quick phone screen interview that you know will only last 20 minutes) you might have to stick with this.

The dilemma with this short response is that this puts pressure on the interviewer to fill in the gaps in the story by making assumptions about your actions, or by asking great follow-up questions, which may not always happen.

However, if you are sitting for an in-person interview it is worthwhile to add the additional details that will help the story stick in the interviewer’s memory, and hopefully prompt some interesting follow-up questions that will really allow you to showcase your skillset in more depth.

 

Here’s what a three-minute (or less) answer might look like:

Start with the facts

“I was working as an intern for a minor league baseball team in Connecticut. I was in charge of managing a group of 15 wait staff, kitchen staff, and runners that provided in-seat food service delivery to our corporate VIP box seats.”

[No need for a change here]

Set the scene

“It was a really busy night. We had about 500 fans in our section and it was really hot and humid. One of those nights where you sweat just standing still, let alone running up and down the stadium steps like our servers and runners had to. We had just started using a new ordering system a few days before so the staff was just getting used to it. The servers took orders on little hand-held computers and stayed in the seating area at all times, and the order tickets would print in the kitchen where the cooks would prepare the order and a runner would deliver the food.”

[This provides some additional “color” helping the listener to understand the extreme nature of the environment the problem occurred in and some context for how the problem unfolded.]

Set up the challenge

“The kitchens were in open outdoor concession stands so, as you can imagine on a night that hot and humid, being inside the kitchen was unbearable. Kind of like the heat of a forest fire, with the humidity of a sauna. It turns out, the heat and humidity weren’t just hard on the staff, it was bad for the ticket printers. The servers started coming up to the kitchen complaining that no orders were coming out. Meanwhile, in the kitchen no orders were coming in and they just thought it was a slow start to the night, which sometimes happened. The server’s computer side was working fine and showed every order, but when I checked the printer the paper roll was stuck together from the humidity and that was causing the printer to jam. By the time we identified the problem, 30 orders were bunched up in the jammed printer and customers had already been waiting 15 minutes for their food.”

[The additional scene setting here about the environment helps the listener understand this was an exceptional case, not a routine problem. A complex situation where lots of things went wrong at once, none of which were predictable…a situation that might be especially relevant to the start-up company in our example.]

Address your actions

“So, we really had three problems. First, we had angry customers who were getting angrier by the second. Second, we had backorders to fill ASAP. Third, we had to hold future orders and fix the printer before we could resume taking new orders. First, I called my manager and let him know about the problem so he could prepare the staff in the other kitchens to help us catch up quickly when we got the orders printed and get his OK for some free food for the affected customers. Then, I called the manager for the regular in-seat vendors (the guys you see walking up and down the aisles with trays of hot dogs) and asked her to temporarily re-direct several of those staff, who didn’t normally service our area, to our section to provide a free hot dog and drink to anyone who wanted one while they waited for their original order. Lastly, I needed to deal with the bad printer. The printer wasn’t broken, but it wouldn’t operate properly with this kind of humidity, so I realized I had to relocate it somewhere. The only place in the building that had air conditioning and WIFI was the team administrative offices, but they were one floor down and on the opposite side of the stadium. So, I disconnected the printer, found a spot in the office to reconnect it, put in a new paper roll, and ran a test order…and it worked! We printed the 30 back orders and sent 10 tickets and two runners to each of the other three kitchens so they could help us catch up. Unfortunately, this now meant new orders were coming in nowhere near the kitchen and running orders one by one from the office to the kitchen wasn’t going to work. So, I took one of our runners and had him sit by the printer with a walkie talkie. As the orders came in, he relayed them to the kitchen and we got back on track and made it through the night. It felt like forever at the time, but we got the whole thing put back together in about 20 minutes.”

[This underscores the complexity of the issue and demonstrates by example a thoughtful, problem-solving mindset. You were facing time pressures, personnel issues, equipment issues–all with no clear solutions. Under that level of pressure, you methodically analyzed the individual components of the issue that needed fixing, prioritized them, and addressed them without panicking.]

Talk about results

“Once things settled down I was able to go down to the VIP section and speak with the guests. Most were season ticket holders who we saw quite often. I was able to apologize personally for the delay and most were very understanding. One season ticket holder was entertaining important clients that night and was pretty upset. I was able to speak to my manager and he got the client selected for one of our fan contests later in the game, so everyone left happy.

The next day we knew we had to find a way to keep the printer functional and still have it located in the kitchen. After some trial and error our team figured out how to mount the printer on the inside of spare soda refrigerator so the problem wouldn’t repeat itself.”

[The extra detail here helps to demonstrate the social/interpersonal skills needed to keep clients happy in both the short- and long-term, and the benefit of addressing the critical issues first to allow for a more thoughtful (and creative) solution to the long-term problem once the crisis had passed.]

Relate it to the job

“The biggest thing I took away from that experience was how important it is to not panic, to ask for help, and to understand the difference between a failure, a short-term solution and a long-term solution. Sometimes a problem doesn’t have just one solution. It would have been easy to simply cancel service that night due to “technical difficulties” and find a solution in the morning, but that wasn’t in keeping with the customer service philosophy of the company. The solution we found for the night was great, but it couldn’t work long term, nor could we keep giving away free food every time it got muggy. Finding a way to engage the whole team, temporarily fix an acute problem, and keep clients happy to buy time for a more thoughtful fix to the root cause is a skill I think could be valuable in a start-up environment like this.”

[Taking more time in this section to summarize the problems and your responses helps to contextualize the entire experience in broader terms and transferable skills that can apply in a different environment. It allows the listener to understand that instead of looking for the easy way out, you can apply strategic thinking to a complex problem even under pressure, all while adhering to the philosophy of the company.]

 

While this second answer probably seems long, you get a lot of extra value out of those two extra minutes!

We have a story that will be memorable and keep the interviewers attention throughout because it paints a picture of what it was like to be there. It succinctly demonstrates a complex problem and the solution. Most importantly, it showcases the skill they were seeking (problem solving under pressure) while also demonstrating creativity (both the short term and long term solution), a strong work ethic (working in tough conditions), grit (refusing to quit when things went wrong), interpersonal skills (working with the service team, as well as the VIP customers), teamwork (mobilizing the whole team, as well as informing the manager, to find a solution).

This story could be quickly adjusted to focus more on any one of those other skills, making it a great story for the toolkit! Because of the way it was told and the amount of detail provided, many interviewers would have plenty to work with here for follow-up questions on a number of topics, meaning you are helping to steer the direction of the conversation (their next questions are not off a set list anymore; now they are driven by your story which puts you in a better position to answer confidently).

 

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