by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Note: This article is an excerpt from the book, also titled Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling that Propels Careers.
Once upon a time, a job-seeker underwent a frustrating series of interviews over a five-month period with no job offer. Then the discouraged individual read a book that suggested composing personal stories. Doing so, the job-seeker found, provided him with better interview preparation than any coaching he had ever experienced. Using stories he hadn’t remembered before he read the book, he said, made him more confident, convincing, and persuasive in his interviews. Stories enabled him to present himself in a personable and powerful way to his interviewers. He again used stories during the next round of interviews. The story ends happily with his hiring in an executive position that represented a major advance in his career. The job-seeker is a real person who posted a review on Amazon.com of Annette Simmons’ 2006 book, The Story Factor.
The book, Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling that Propels Careers, from which this chapter is excerpted, extends the ideas of Simmons and other current authors who tout the value of storytelling. It focuses on a narrow yet powerful use of storytelling — telling stories to advance your career, whether by moving up in your current organization or landing a job in a new organization. The title comes from the most commonly asked question (which isn’t even a question but a request) in job interviews, “Tell me about yourself.” Composing stories to reveal your personal and professional self in response to that “question” is just one way to use storytelling to propel your career.
Simmons writes that the natural reaction of an unfamiliar person whom you hope to influence is to distrust you — until you answer two major questions. The first question is “Who are you?” In resumes, cover letters, portfolios, and interviews, job-seekers attempt to tell who they are, but how often do you think these communications really convey a sense of who the job-seeker is? Simmons’ second question, “Why are you here?” can be translated as “Why are you contacting this employer?” and “Why do you want to work for this organization?”
But answering those questions is just the beginning of how storytelling can springboard your job search and career advancement. Here are more reasons that storytelling is especially appropriate in the job hunt:
- Stories establish your identity and reveal your personality. Stories satisfy the basic human need to be known. Clearly, being known among employers is a major goal of job-seekers, and it is in large part through resumes, cover letters, portfolios, and employment interviews that employers get to know candidates. Job-seekers can gain the employer’s recognition by integrating story into these career-marketing communications.
In Training & Development magazine, Bonnie Durrance tells a tale that exemplifies the notion of revealing one’s personality through story. She describes an aspiring dancer exuding happiness and a positive attitude while working in a tollbooth. While many toll-takers might consider such a job soul deadening, the protagonist in Durrance’s story radiates joy because he turns on music and practices his true aspiration — dancing — in his tollbooth throughout his shift. “We can feel the story move us,” Durrance writes, “opening windows of possibilities, expanding our idea of work, and challenging our thoughts about jobs, dreams, and tollbooths.” It’s not difficult to picture the toll-taker/dancer interviewing for his next job and dazzling the interviewer with his upbeat take on making the best of a dull job.
- Stories help you know yourself and build confidence. Not only can telling stories enable others to know you better, but they can help you get to know yourself better. Developing and telling your stories can becomes the underpinning for self-authentication. As you see common threads and patterns emerging in your stories, you’ll understand more about yourself, your goals, your best career path, your ideal job — and this understanding can’t help but boost your confidence and improve your ability to sell yourself to an employer. An emerging movement in career counseling involves constructing career narratives that enable job-seekers to uncover meaning and connections. They become central characters in their own stories and plot their own futures.
- Stories make you memorable. Simmons and many other experts extol story as a way for others to remember people and their messages. Tom Washington, who devotes a full chapter of his 2000 interviewing book, Interview Power, to storytelling asserts that “in less than three minutes, you can tell a powerful story that will make interviewers remember you favorably for days, weeks, or even months after the interview.”
Indeed, we remember people who tell stories because, as psychologists and neuroscientists tell us, stories form the basis of how we think, organize, and remember information.
- Stories establish trust. Trust has grown into a significant issue in recruitment. Celebrities who’ve been caught lying on their resumes are just one reason employers are reluctant to trust job-seekers. In 2004, outplacement firm Christian & Timbers researched the resumes of 500 corporate executives, and discovered 23 percent of executives lied about their accomplishments. Job-seekers can gain an employer’s trust by integrating story into a resume, cover letter, or in an interview. As Simmons writes:
Before you attempt to influence anyone you need to establish enough trust to successfully deliver your message… People want to decide these things for themselves’ the best you can do is tell them a story that simulates an experience of your trustworthiness. Hearing your story is as close as they can get to first-hand experience of watching you ‘walk the walk’ as opposed to the ‘talk the talk’ … You need to tell a story that demonstrates you are the kind of person people can trust.
- Stories establish an emotional connection between storyteller and listener and inspires the listener’s investment in the storyteller’s success. When stories convey moving content and are told with feeling, the listener feels an emotional bond with the storyteller. Often the listener can empathize or relate the story to an aspect of his or her own life. That bond instantly enables the listener to invest emotionally in your success.
The Information Age and the era of knowledge workers may seem cutting edge, but in his popular book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink asserts that society has moved beyond that mindset and into the Conceptual Age in which we are “creators and empathizers,” “pattern recognizers,” and “meaning makers.” Story is an important tool in this age because it enables us to “encapsulate, contextualize, and emotionalize.” Pink refers to story as “context enriched by emotion” and tells us that “story is high touch because stories almost always pack an emotional punch.”
- Stories help you stand out. Consider that many job-seekers or co-workers vying for the same position you seek probably have qualifications that are similar to yours. But will they be describing those qualifications to employers in story form? Probably not. If you do, you’ll distinguish yourself from those who seek to sell themselves to employers in less engaging ways.
Look around you. Story is everywhere. Increasingly, advertisers are telling stories in TV commercials and print ads. In an age of minuscule attention spans, marketers know that stories are the key to drawing in their audiences and connecting with them emotionally. A growing body of literature describes the connection between storytelling and marketing/sales, including an article in which Warren Hersch discusses the value of storytelling in insurance sales (“storyselling” in the words of Mitch Anthony, a financial planner that Hersch quotes). Merely being educated about a product is not enough to motivate a buyer to take significant action, Hersch notes; clients need to be emotionally energized through story. Given that that the intuitive thinking associated with stories leads prospects to conclusions more easily than does analytical thinking, Hersch advises salespeople to “use storytelling to build rapport and credibility with the prospect. Substitute “employer” for “prospect” and “job-seekers” for “salespeople,” and Hersch’s advice about using story in sales becomes instantly applicable to the job-seeker selling himself or herself to an employer.
- Stories illustrate skills, accomplishments, values, characteristics, qualifications, expertise, strengths, and more. Employers don’t want to know merely the dry facts of what you’ve done. They want examples, anecdotes, illustrations — stories. You can showcase just about any skill with a story. Washington advises that “using anecdotes to describe job skills is a highly effective interview technique.” Truly scrutinizing the stories behind your life and career enables you to recognize patterns that reveal and reinforce who you are, what you can do, how you are qualified, what you know, what you value, what you’ve learned, and what you’ve accomplished.
- Stories paint vivid pictures. Remember when your parents read or told you stories when you were a child? You undoubtedly visualized the story as a sort of movie in your brain. Job-seekers can use colorful and even entertaining stories to imprint lasting visual images onto employers’ minds.
- Stories explain key life/career decisions, choices, and changes. Especially revealing to employers are personal and career stories about coping strategies, risky moves, choices made under pressure, imperfections, and lessons learned from mistakes, failures, and derailments.
- Stories told well help you portray yourself as a strong communicator. Effectively using stories in job-seeking venues offers the further benefit of demonstrating your communication skills, which is huge because most employers seek candidates who communicate well. David Boje, a well-known scholar in the organizational-storytelling field, wrote in 1991 that “people who are more skilled as storytellers and story interpreters seem to be more effective communicators than those who are less skilled.”
Final Thoughts on Storytelling and Careers
The book from which this chapter is excerpted is rooted in my dissertation research for my Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University. I’ve made an exhaustive study of what scholars and experts have to say about the uses of storytelling and how those uses can be applied to the job search and career advancement. I’ve also conducted interviews with job-changers and people in changing organizations, as well as focus groups with hiring managers, recruiters, and human-resources professionals to obtain their reactions to storytelling in resumes, cover letters, and interviewing. Watch this section of Quintessential Careers for more about using storytelling in the job search, as well as career-story examples.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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