Friday, May 28, 2010

Your reader/writer advantage in job interviews

While preparing (for over 30 hours) for this job interview I just had, I was able to experiment with using stories for job interviews, and it was a unique challenge.

The idea is that if you can come up with maybe 10 stories to tell, you'll be more impressive, interesting, and memorable in your interview.  Each story should cover multiple areas they might ask about in an interview, so they can be adapted on the fly.  You can even use the same story to answer more than one question, and you won't have to spend time on the background/setup, so even the way you answer the questions shows organization and efficiency. 

All four of those interviews went very well, from what my friend at the company was able to find out, so I decided to write a little bit about the process in case it can be of any use to you as writers and readers of stories.

  1. Research questions asked at interviews.  Read books.  Especially helpful are books that provide examples of answers that show what information the interviewer is really looking for when asking certain questions.  I was shocked when one of my interviewers asked me a really off-the-wall question and then said, "What we want to learn from your answer is how you use skill X."  I want to work for that interviewer; he is way better than any book.  Anyway, the more questions you can see, the more ideas you can get for good answers. 
  2. Take lots of notes.  The more notes you take about good ways to answer well, the more you will have learned those phrasings for good answers.  Mark questions that you really don't want to answer, ones you read and immediately pray, "Dear God, please don't let them ask me this," or ones that you think you'll likely be asked because of the kind of job you're interviewing for.  Basically, you're leaving a trail in your notes of questions you'll want to revisit and be sure to be ready for.
  3. Start thinking about the stories for questions you least want to answer but know they will ask.  (Ex. "Tell me about a weakness" or "What is one thing you need to improve" or "Tell me about a time you made a mistake and how you handled the situation" or "Tell me about a time you were working for someone you really couldn't get along with")  The books are not kidding when they tell you that kind of question will come up more than once in every interview.  Some strategies for dealing with these questions are as follows:
    • talk about a weakness that has nothing to do with the job,
    • talk about an aspect of your personality that is both a strength and a weakness,
    • talk about a weakness you had and how you overcame it or compensated for it so that it is a strength now,
    • talk about a problem briefly and spend a lot of time emphasizing what you learned from it and how you prevented it from happening again.
      The latter two strategies make you seem smarter to the interviewer. 
  4. Brainstorm story ideas.  Focus on ones that star you (alone and part of a group), have happy endings, or taught you valuable lessons.
  5. Draft stories.  Using a format like SAR (situation/action/result) can help you keep things focused and concise, but there are so many structures you can use.  Check out Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career for great lists.  Anyway, keep it under 350 words.
  6. Talk through these stories out loud.  Some phrases that look spiffy on paper just don't work aloud.
  7. Title your stories.  You don't get extra points for cleverness here.  Just use 1-3 words that instantly identify the story in your brain.  You may have to remember the whole story based just on these three words, so don't make it hard on your brain.
  8. List kinds of strengths/traits/topics each answer shows. (Ex. organizational or interpresonal skills, problem-solving, logic, patience, respect of colleagues, project management, handling failure, flexibility, task-orientation, etc.)
  9. Have someone who can be objective read the stories and give you feedback about where you may be saying something you don't intend or when a particularly evil follow up question could arise. 
  10. Revise your stories until you're satisfied with them.
  11. Cut your stories down to key words and phrases for notes.
  12. Talk through the stories using only those notes. 
  13. Repeat.  This part is hard if you are not a good public speaker, so the more time you leave for practicing here, the more natural you will be able to sound when you're in an interview.  You are not memorizing a script; it's more like you're programming your brain with keywords and then speaking extemporaneously.  Since you don't have it memorized, it doesn't sound memorized.
  14. If you can cut your notes down further here, do it.  You never know if they will even let you have notes, so if you can get everything typed onto one piece of paper, do so.  Half a sheet would be even better because then you could actually attach it to the notebook you brought along to take notes and be able to use it really unobtrusively.
  15. Practice with someone.  Use only your notes.  Yes, it is way harder to answer a question someone just threw at you, and you need to practice accessing the info you've stored on your notes and in your head and adapting it to fit questions you're unprepared for.  You will probably be terrible at first, so you should do this a lot.
  16. Make sure you are up early enough that you can talk through each of your stories clearly and intelligently with very little use of the notes before you even leave for the interview.  You can keep doing this on the way to the interview (unless you are on public transportation because people will look at you funny).  Read through some of those questions you marked in your notes all the way back at step 2, and practice connecting your stories to them.
  17. Be sure to get there so early that you will be able to be calm and rational.  Review your strategies, questions you have for the interviewers, and interview etiquette.
  18. Pray.

I can't say it worked for me since I probably won't get the job due to lack of experience, but it does feel good to have given the best interview I could give.  Don't let the interview be the thing that disqualifies you.  Use your natural affinity for stories to your advantage!

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