Monday, December 7th, 2009

What Your Grandparents Can Teach You About Interviewing

grandparentsThis weekend I attended a workshop on story telling facilitated by a company called Narativ. During the workshop, I learned how to tell a better story and be a better listener.

One of the most memorable exercises of the day was when each person in the group was asked to tell a story about one of their grandparents, told through the voice of that grandparent. It was somewhat challenging at first…having to piece together memories that are somewhat hazy now that these people are no longer with me. We were asked to speak for several minutes and I wasn’t sure I would have enough to say. I’m sure others in the group felt the same way. But I think we were all surprised by how vivid our memories were and the strong emotions that came out when we told our stories.

There were fascinating stories about grandparents who were immigrants and others impacted by the Great Depression. There were stories of incredible opportunity and incredible loss. And in each story there was humor, intrigue, and drama…every story was moving and memorable.

What I gleaned from these stories is that what made them memorable were the details. Some storytellers used descriptive words or imagery to make a certain fact stand out; others used quotes that the grandparent had actually coined, and still others referenced historical events, religion, geography, and favorite family foods to help the listeners feel that they were truly in the presence of these grandparents.

I started thinking about how job seekers can learn to tell more compelling interview stories by drawing parallels between their family stories and their work stories. A person’s family history is unique, compelling, and often something people communicate about with passion. Career stories can be equally unique, compelling, and passionate. Here are a few things to consider when creating your stories for answering interview questions.

  1. Personalization equals passion. A great story of success to showcase during an interview is one that proves your passion. To simply state that you are passionate about building strong sales teams or creating technology infrastructures would sound cliche. But communicating a story about a time that you put your blood, sweat, and tears into a project to get it done on time and on budget would be an authentic and more interesting way to tell your story and make hiring managers feel confident that you could create similar experiences in their organization.
  2. Everyone has a story. So many job seekers think they have nothing unique to say. “I just did my job; I didn’t do anything special” is one of the statements I hear most frequently from job seekers trying to prove the impact of their work. But like your family history, your work history is unique to you. Try to focus on how you did your job effectively and what you do differently than your colleagues or your predecessors in the position.
  3. The specifics of the story are more important than the general facts. I don’t remember all the facts or the time line of every grandparent story I heard this weekend. But for each story I heard, I remember several snippets that best describe that grandparent  and even offer clues to their values and way of life. In interviews, most people think they should talk about their skills in general terms, but it is the specific examples of success and the specific metrics behind those stories that prove your impact that the interviewer will remember.
  4. A personal story can represent a universal feeling or experience. All the grandparent stories I heard were quite different. Yet there were common themes of family, community, love, and loss that everyone could relate to. When you interview, you are attempting to find common ground with the interviewer. You are trying to develop rapport by proving that the things you have achieved in your past positions will help improve their current work environment.

My grandparent story was about my maternal grandfather, Pat. He and my grandmother were married for 60 years and were first generation Americans living in a small town in Pennsylvania famous for its busy train station, Horseshoe Curve, and Malamar cookies. My grandfather taught me how to hit a baseball. He wrote the letter “e” in a special way that I had never seen before that I copied and still use to this day. He loved watermelon with salt (yuck!) and my grandmother’s apple pies. There is a lot more to his story, but you can see how the little details can make the story memorable. So what’s your story and how can you be memorable to employers?