Telling Stories

One of the things they teach in HR school is a special kind of interviewing. (It may not be that special anymore; I think the word has spread.) It’s called STAR, or something akin to that, representing Situation, Task, Action, and Result. In this form of behavioral interviewing, the interviewer is looking for specific examples of what you have done in your past that are likely to reveal what you would do under certain–similar–circumstances. Presumably, the circumstances are a lot like those you might face on the job you want, or think you want.

For example, suppose you want to be a Human Resources professional, and you are interviewing for an employee relations job. Now, employee relations is usually the section of the HR department where they write and administer the handbooks, policy, and problem solving procedure. Employee Relations folks are likely to need patience, the ability to defuse tension, an eye for detail, and tolerance for what others might regard as mind numbing discussions of who did what to whom and why. They care about justice and are generally good at relationships.

If you want such a job, you would also want to be prepared to be asked questions like:

Was there ever a time when you were confronted by an angry person  who demanded your immediate attention on a matter of great detail and who publicly threatened you? (Situation) If so, tell me what you saw that needed to be done and why (Task) and what you did (Action). What was the Result?

The point is that if the interviewer asked, “How do you handle the anger of others?” you would be likely to say something like, “I’m the kind of guy/woman who doesn’t back down.” At which point you and the interviewer would begin a time honored ritual of trying to understand each other. Frankly, no one but you knows what you mean when you say you won’t back down. Is that like Tom Petty won’t back down or like Katie Couric won’t back down? As you can see, it’s not illustrative.

A story is what is required here, a story about a definitive moment in your life or career when your special skills were called upon and you either successfully or unsuccessfully pulled them out and put them to use. Good storytelling skills can help you–not in redrafting the stories of your life, but in relating them with adequate brevity, focus, organization, and color. Storytelling for career development is a critical skill and a competitive advantage.

There are other reasons to learn to tell good stories–mentors find that illustrative stories are softer learning tools that are less direct and more personal. Leaders often use inspiring stories to make a point and set a culture. Recruiters tell motivating stories to make you want to go to work for a company or executive. You need to tell a good story to show who you are and why you should go to the next step for the job you want.

There are lots of good books about storytelling, written by storytelling professionals; you should get to know something about the topic in general. But here is my advice about responding to STAR interview questions with an effective story.

1. Do your homework. What do you think the job requires? Do you have it? When did you last use it? What did that look like?

2. You are the hero of this story, whether you are comfortable with that or not. This is not a time to downplay your role. You are describing yourself–by telling both what you did, and revealing what you did not do. Remember this: one of the more effective aspects of behavioral interviewing is that it allows the interviewer to observe what you did not do–you can’t hide what is not there.

3. Be brief. The color of your shoes and the name of the street you were on probably are not relevant, so you can leave them out.

4. Focus on what you want to communicate–your behavior and how it affected/effected the outcome you wanted, or, if you are a huge risk taker, how it caused exactly what you didn’t want and what you learned from that. Tempting. I wouldn’t, but we’re all different.

5. Stay organized; provide details in order. Don’t throw in a flashback or surprise ending or you will spend the next ten precious minutes regrouping.

6. Keep the drama to a minimum–do not make faces, add tone to your voice, or wave your hands around. All of these diminsh the quality of your words.

7. The story should be self explanatory. You should not have to go back and explain how this anecdote relates to the question you were asked. If you have to, know you missed the mark, but your best bet is to provide only two more sentences: “Well, here’s what I learned from this experience: (add learning here).”

You can practice this. You can learn to think in stories and STARS. Since the best interviews turn out to be conversations, your goal is to tell a story that lifts up your conversation, lengthens it, and gets you asked back for another, and another.  Good storytellers are warm and a little fearless when they reveal details about themselves.  Don’t apologize, defend yourself, or alter the details after you’ve provided them.  A credible story is always better than a careful one–you are human, after all, and it is your story.

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