Job Seekers: How to Tell Stories to Stand Out

By spinning your work experiences into compelling stories, you can distinguish yourself from the job-hunting competition and demonstrate your impeccable communication skills. Here's some practical advice for story-telling in job interviews and cover letters.

By
Tue, May 05, 2009

CIO — With unemployment at a 26-year high of 8.5 percent, the biggest challenge job seekers face today—next to finding a new job—is differentiating themselves from the more than 13.2 million other people who are out of work and looking for new employment.

One way job seekers can stand out from the job search competition is to tell stories that illustrate their professional experience, says Katharine Hansen, the creative director and associate publisher of the website Quintessential Careers and author of eight career management books.

Story-telling, when done right, reveals a job seeker's personality, makes him or her more memorable, and helps a job seeker establish an emotional connection with hiring managers, Hansen says.

"That's what hiring managers really want: They want to learn about job seekers' personalities," says Hansen.

What's more, she adds, "When job seekers use stories, they show that they're good communicators, and most employers say that communication skills are among the top skills they're looking for."

Indeed, CIO's State of the CIO Research shows year after year that an IT leader's success hinges on his or her ability to communicate. And increasingly, CIOs seek the same from their IT staffs: They want IT professionals who can communicate effectively with co-workers in IT and with end-users. (See Surviving the IT Job Market: How Soft Skills Give You an Edge.)

By spinning compelling yet truthful tales about their experience, qualifications and fit for a company, job seekers can demonstrate their uniqueness and ability to engage people.

Here are five fundamentals of story-telling that job seekers can apply in cover letters and during job interviews to impress hiring managers.

Structure

Every story has a structure—-a beginning, middle and end, or an introduction, confrontation and conclusion.

These narrative structures bring out the conflicts, tension and drama that enliven stories and keep audiences engaged.

Hansen recommends that job seekers employ the situation-action-result structure when describing their professional challenges and accomplishments. It works for résumés, cover letters and job interviews, she says.

The situation part of the situation-action-result formula sets the scene and establishes some tension or build-up to the problem the job seeker faced. The action, of course, addresses the measures the job seeker took to deal with the situation, and the result encapsulates the outcome of the situation.

For an imperiled project—an inherently dramatic situation with which many IT professionals have experience—a job interview story might proceed something like this:

Situation: My previous employer had spent $X million upgrading its core stock trading platform, on which all customer transactions run. The upgrade, which would enable faster trades and bring more functionality to customers, was critical for us to remain competitive. But the company bit off more than it could chew with the deployment, and customers began having problems making trades.

Action: Under my leadership, we temporarily switched back to the old trading platform to maintain customer service levels while we figured out what was wrong with the new system. After reevaluating our implementation plans, we decided to deploy new functionality in increments, rather than all at once, to ensure a smoother transition to the new trading system for customers and to better allocate work across project staff.

Result: We stabilized trading activity for our customers and eventually deployed all new technology and functionality. By switching deployment strategies, we prevented the cost of the project from ballooning to $X million and in fact saved $X by better managing our human resources.

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