Rewriting Your Story to Ace the Interview

by Justin Zackal

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
An abridged version of my job description as communication specialist is to "tell the story of the institution." My university recognizes the importance of effective storytelling and I believe stories make a difference in advancing the institution. But here's the thing: none of it is real; it's all made up.

Sure, the stories are factual, and when they are compelling they can be valuable currency in the marketplace, both for decision-making and perception. But like literal currency, stories are just words printed on paper or pixels on a screen. People determine and interpret the value.

The same goes for responses in job interviews. The actions of the institution -- by its students, faculty, staff, and alumni -- speak louder than stories, but to be hired by the institution you have to tell a convincing story, one that could be interpreted many ways by a search committee. Your candidacy depends on the way you perceive your career, present facts about yourself, and express the value you bring.

Before you deliver your next story in a job interview you must kill the story in your head about who you think you are and why you do what you do, and create a new story based on actions.

"The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves… we live in those stories and we live according to them," said author and strategic adviser Tom Asacker in a TED Talk that challenges many other TED Talks that have been done about storytelling and positive thinking.

This does not mean that you need more positive self-talk to be successful. Asacker, in an interview with Bryan Teare on the Quarter Life Comeback podcast, said there's no difference between negative and positive self-talk because both are invented.

Actions matter. But for job candidates to be successful, they must rely on stories that predict their actions and avoid telling the invented stories in their heads. Here are a few ways to tell action-based stories during a job interview:

Process, not traits
A candidate for a job at my university was asked to describe leadership traits relative to the position. The candidate could have listed every adjective befitting the role, all of which could have been interpreted differently by each person in the room. Instead, the candidate provided context, describing actions taken to solve a problem at the candidate's previous institution. By choosing to describe a process, everyone got a consistent interpretation of the candidate's leadership traits, not invented positive talk.

Quilts, not ladders
Process is often explained in a step-by-step progression. But when describing your work history to a search committee, don't simply provide a chronology of your career. Your resume does that for you. Instead, connect the pieces that are relevant to the position and define who you are. Inspired by Mary Catherine Bateson's book "Composing a Life," which described the creative process of five women's lives, think of the actions of your career as sewing together patches of a quilt and not climbing the ladder.

People, not numbers
In the same way the candidate at my university chose anecdotal information over the abstract, so should stories replace statistical evidence. Avoid overwhelming a search committee with numbers, which are better used on a resume. Instead, appeal to their emotions by talking about the actions of real people. Stories have characters. If you must use statistics, build them into your story and let the audience put them together. To borrow a line from one of those TED Talks about storytelling, "Don't give them four; give them 2+2," said filmmaker Andrew Stanton.

Happily ever after, not once upon a time
Your work history may include the five parts of a story: exposition (setting), conflict (identifying problems), rising action (the journey), resolution (solving problems), and denouement (achievement). While it's easy to dwell on past actions, remember why you're being interviewed. Keep moving your story toward the future so that when someone tells the next story of the institution, the search committee can envision you being part of it.