Aloof as they may seem, employers are actually begging you to get them excited. Show that you can make or save them money, solve their operational problems, or ease their workloads, and they’ll be thrilled to hire you. Merely saying you can increase productivity or get staff members to work as a team isn’t enough. You must support your claims with vivid examples. People remember best those things that are stored in their minds as pictures. In fact, the latest brain research reveals that memories are stored as 3-D pictures. That means if your words do not create any images or emotions in the minds of employers, those words will literally pass in one ear and out the other—there will be no impact or long-term memory.
Consider what happens when a person is asked to describe himself. He may declare that he is hard working, energetic, a true leader, and a person who successfully juggles multiple tasks. He may be trying to sell too many things at once and doesn’t do a good job with any of them. If he doesn’t back up any of the claims with examples, none of the points will be remembered after he leaves the interview.
Employers Will Remember You For Weeks
Using anecdotes to describe job skills is a highly effective interview technique. 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. Since employers know that the best predictor of future success is past success, tell stories which vividly describe your successes.
Stories Have Impact
Stories are important because they say so much about you in an evocative, concentrated way. Paul Green, founder of Behavioral Technology in Memphis, Tennessee, teaches corporations how to utilize behavior-based interviewing, a system of interviewing in which each question requires an example from the interviewee. Paul gives an excellent example of how telling stories in an interview can make a difference. While he was conducting an interview, he asked the candidate for an example that would demonstrate a strong commitment to completing tasks. The candidate described a time when he had had his appendix removed on a Thursday and was back in the office on Monday—to the dismay of everyone. His explanation was that work was piling up and he might as well do everything he could, even though he was unable to work a full day for the first week. The story provided strong evidence that he was a driven, hard-working person. The memory he created was that he was “the appendix guy.” To this day, when Paul thinks about this person, all he has to say to himself is, “the appendix guy,” and a flood of memories and emotions return. The beauty of stories is that they can evoke a recollection of many skills, qualities, abilities, and characteristics.
When telling stories, provide all of the key information. Describe the situation and the challenges you faced. Then describe your analysis and the recommendations you made. Next, describe what you did and the results you obtained. Look for interesting tidbits and details which, though not crucial for understanding what occurred, will provide a stronger visual image of what you did. We call these tidbits and interesting details hooks, because they hook the interviewer.
Effective stories are always vivid, and they always create visual images in the mind of the employer. Whatever creates this visual image we call a hook. The hook causes the employer to remember you. A hook is any word-picture or imagery that helps a person recall a story. When the story is recalled, positive qualities you possess are also recalled. In the above example, referring to the person as “the appendix guy” is the hook.
While the hook need not be a critical point of the story, it may be. When the hook is not a critical piece of a story I refer to it as a tidbit. On page 27 you’ll read the story of James, who played a key role in enabling his ski club to build its own chalet at Crystal Mountain. The hook in the story is his reference to Mount Rainier. In recalling the story he states, “I’m an officer of a ski club that loves to ski Crystal Mountain, where you have great snow and a beautiful view of Mount Rainier.” Because Mount Rainier is considered the most majestic mountain in the United States, it is well-known and easily recognizable by people throughout the U.S. To explain his accomplishment it was not necessary for James to mention Mount Rainier. He mentioned it solely to make sure he was remembered. For people in the Pacific Northwest, you cannot mention Mount Rainier without them visualizing the mountain, even if for but an instant. From that point on, the story is associated with Mount Rainier.
Ron Saves A Processing Plant
A client shared a story with me that included vivid details and tidbits; it is a story I’ll never forget. Ron had worked for 25 years in the management of seafood-processing plants in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Because of his reputation for working effectively with unions, he was asked to take over a plant in the Caribbean which was experiencing serious labor unrest. Always one for a challenge, Ron took it on. One day, about a week after he arrived at the Caribbean plant, he found himself surrounded by ten workers. When they began accusing him of trying to destroy the union, he simply faced them down and reiterated the changes he felt needed to be made. When he finished speaking, he walked through the crowd and began heading back to his office. As he walked away, he knew that one of the leaders had pulled out a gun and had pointed it at his back. Although his heart was racing, he kept walking and did not turn around. He was sure that at any moment he was going to have a bullet in his back. He had never been more frightened in his life. When he got back to his office he realized he had been so scared he actually wet his pants. He said it with laughter, of course, and we both laughed together. I heard that story over ten years ago, yet I still recall it most vividly.
Whenever I recall this story, I have very strong memories of Ron. The story didn’t end there. Ron showed the workers that he could not be intimidated and that he was a man of integrity. The workers began to end their work slowdown, and they began to have confidence that he would be fair with them. Within six months the unrest was a distant memory and the plant began making a profit again. I’m not suggesting that in an interview Ron should mention his incontinence, but I’m pointing out how this detail makes the story more striking. In this story the image of being surrounded by the workers, and the image of having a gun pointed at his back, was more than enough to make it a memorable story. The key point is, by imprinting vivid images in the brains of employers, you will be better remembered and more highly regarded.
All Experiences Can Be Told Vividly
Software engineers and other technical people tell me that their projects simply don’t translate into colorful stories like the one described above. I agree with them to some extent—few of us have such dramatic stories to tell. But anyone can still tell a vivid story by emphasizing the challenges faced and by graphically describing how the problems were overcome. It’s the details of a story that create strong visual images and strong emotional memories.
TELLING EFFECTIVE STORIES
There are several techniques for effectively telling stories. These techniques work very well, and because few job candidates use them, they can really make you stand out.
A Nonwork Experience With A Work Experience
One technique is to combine a nonwork experience with a work-related experience. The nonwork-related experience may be especially vivid or have a particularly useful hook in it which will help the employer remember you. A hook is any word-picture or imagery that will help a person recall a story. The nonwork experience might be selected simply because it is the best experience you have which demonstrates a certain skill. Combining the nonwork experience with a recent work experience can help create a vivid picture of you that communicates a lot about your skills and qualities. It can demonstrate that these skills and qualities are an integral part of your being, as you use the skills both on and off the job. A nonwork experience could come from volunteer work such as being a chairperson in a professional association, it could be related to a hobby, or it could come from any type of experience that is not directly associated with a job. Let’s look at an example where James answers the question, “What is your greatest strength?”
My greatest strength is my ability to take on difficult projects. I guess I just like the challenge. And people know that if I take something on, I’m going to get it done right. I’m an officer of a ski club that loves to ski at Crystal Mountain, where you have great snow and a beautiful view of Mount Rainier. We skied there often enough that we wanted to have our own lodge there. The problem was we couldn’t afford one. And if we raised the dues too high, we’d lose some of our members. After three weeks of discussing the deal, virtually everyone thought it was a dead issue. I wasn’t ready to give up, though. I studied tax codes and every angle imaginable to finance the project. Eventually I came up with a way that our more affluent members could own shares in the $500,000 project and would receive a very secure return that would be tax free. Sixteen months later we had a beautiful lodge.
Another experience happened recently. The president of my company wanted to create a totally new product. We had the engineering capability, but we had no way to finance it. After trying numerous avenues, with nothing working, I suggested trying a joint venture with a Japanese company. I had studied joint ventures that had failed as well as ones that had succeeded. When they failed it was usually because the Japanese firm would gain new technology without giving much back to the joint venture partner. I identified a Japanese firm that already had had two successful joint ventures—one with an American company and the other with a German company. They really seemed to understand the idea of win-win. I was given permission to pursue a joint venture with the firm and after nine months of negotiating, finalized a deal. One year into the joint venture, both parties are satisfied. We got the financing we needed and an open market in Japan, and our partner has obtained some very valuable technology they can use in the future.
A Distant Experience With A Recent Experience
Combining a distant experience (work-related or nonwork-related) with a recent experience can also enrich your images and stories. It demonstrates that you have mastered that skill over time. If, for example, you are selling your ability to organize events, a related story from 5-15 years ago, when told in conjunction with a recent story, would clearly demonstrate that you’ve had the ability to organize events for a long time.
Something you should know about me is that I’m really good at organizing events. During my senior year in college I organized a white water rafting trip for our co-ed dormitory. In the past the dorm usually had a picnic which turned into more of a beer bash. On the rafting trip no beer was permitted and people had a lot more fun. In the past maybe a quarter of the students would go to the picnic, but on this trip we had nearly half the students out there rafting. Because of the teamwork required, it really brought people closer together.
Just three months ago I coordinated our national sales convention. We brought in 80 sales reps from around the country and gave them a great experience. I selected the speakers and negotiated the contracts with them, worked with the hotel in all of the details, and put in some touches that made it really special. I brought in one speaker that no one had heard of, but he had a new slant on sales and did it with such humor that he had the sales force rolling in the aisles. Several of the reps told me later they thought it was the best convention in the past ten years.
Show How You Overcame The Problem
When telling stories that demonstrate how you’ve solved a problem or overcome an obstacle, create before and after pictures that highlight your impact on the situation. Paint the before picture as bleak as you can. Make the employer feel how bad the situation was. If you were dealing with a quality control problem, you might describe how angry your customers were and describe how some threatened to stop buying from your company or how some actually did. Don’t exaggerate, but give the employer the full sense of the problem. As you complete your story, describe how smooth or effective things became. Create the strongest contrast possible without exaggerating. Bruce shared this story about his experience with a mobile home manufacturer:
Before I took over the parts department, it was taking a month from the time we received a dealer’s order until the dealer actually got the part. Because of this we had two problems—most dealers simply obtained their parts from other sources, while those who did order from the factory got their kicks out of yelling at me and telling me to get the parts to them pronto. The problem was that no system had been established. Orders either got lost or they didn’t get down to the shipping department for days. And no one even knew if the parts were in stock. When they weren’t in stock, no one bothered to notify the person who had placed the order. After a month on the job, I decided things had to change.
The first thing I did was create forms for recording orders, something which had never been done even though the manufacturing facility had been operating for four years. My predecessor either wrote things down on scraps of paper or tried to remember things in his head. He was really a smart guy, but he couldn’t remember everything. I established a hookup with the warehouse so our two computer systems could talk to each other. This system told me immediately whether the parts were available.
Next, I got the warehouse and the shipping-and-receiving managers together and we found ways to help each other rather than squabble over turf. Within four months we got our delivery times down from four weeks to five days. We haven’t lost an order for at least two years. Now I’m not wasting time tracking down lost or late shipments. And my hearing is getting better since people don’t yell over the phone anymore. The best thing is that parts sales to our dealers have increased from $12,000 per month to over $60,000. Our dealers are happy, so they don’t need to go to other suppliers anymore.
Didn’t you actually picture this person on the phone getting his ears burned? Did you imagine the orders getting written down on scraps and then getting misplaced? Could you visualize these three managers who were working at cross purposes? If so, the story was successful. But you were not merely left with a picture. You were left with a result. It wasn’t just that Bruce didn’t get yelled at anymore, but that sales increased dramatically. Employers get excited when you demonstrate that you can make money, save money, solve problems, or reduce the boss’s daily stress and pressure. Bruce demonstrated through this one story that he could do all four. The final point he made was that he could make money. After all, sales increased from $12,000 per month to $60,000. That did some very nice things to the company’s bottom line.
How To Tell A Story
A helpful way to prepare your stories is to remember the acronym SHARE, developed by Paul Green. Make sure that each of your stories contain each aspect of SHARE:
Situation Describe the situation and provide some background information.
Hindrances Describe the problems, challenges, or hindrances you faced.
Actions Describe what actions you took.
Results Describe the results you or your team achieved. Quantify when possible.
Evaluation Close with a summary or an evaluation of the experience.
Situation: Begin by describing the situation as you entered it. If it existed before you became involved, describe all of the negatives. In other words, do all you can to show how difficult the situation was. Your intention will be to create a strong before-and-after contrast. If you simply took on a project, describe the goals and objectives that were set by you or your boss. Explain why you got involved and why the project or your involvement was necessary.
Hindrances: If you are describing a project that you oversaw, describe the problems or challenges in the most graphic terms possible. Describe what made things difficult. It could be that the customer was particularly angry or refused to listen to reason. It could be that the problem was long standing. Then describe your recommendations or the conclusions you came to.
Actions: Explain what you developed and implemented. Describe your analysis of the situation and whatever research you applied to it. Provide a fair amount of detail about your actions because this will reveal a great deal about how you work and operate.
Results: Paint a picture of what things were like after they improved. If it was a project, concentrate on describing those parts of the project which met or exceeded objectives. Complete the story by describing how your work benefited the company. Quantify results whenever possible.
Evaluation: As you end the story, remind the interviewer of the primary skill or strength the story demonstrates. Then you can add another two or three additional skills as well. This could be done by stating: “So I really do believe that experience demonstrates my ability to manage projects effectively (the originally stated strength), as well as my ability to motivate employees and find solutions to really difficult problems.” The interviewer will readily agree that motivating employees and solving problems was fully demonstrated. The interviewer will consciously or unconsciously recognize another half dozen skills as well.
Many questions neither invite nor demand a story. Questions such as “What did you like best about your supervisor?” or “What frustrates you about your current job?” do not invite examples. While one could use specific examples for these questions, typically a person would answer them in a very brief and straightforward manner. If you had indicated that your supervisor often did not keep his staff well informed, the interviewer might possibly ask for a specific example, but that is unlikely. There are other questions which would never require a story, such as asking what public figure you most admire.
Even though many questions do not invite stories, you need to be prepared so that when an opportunity to tell a story presents itself, you’re ready with the best example possible. In fact, as soon as the question is asked, make an instant decision about whether an example is appropriate. If it clearly is not appropriate, you can immediately concentrate just on your answer. If the question does present an opportunity for a story, you may not immediately know which example to use. That’s okay. The human brain has an amazing ability. Go ahead and start your answer, and while you’re speaking, another part of your brain can be searching for a good example. Your goal, of course, is to come up with your best example.
Occasionally you may complete your answer and still not have an example to use. Assuming the interviewer has not demanded an example, you can simply conclude your answer. Since few interviewees use examples in their interviews, the interviewer will not be wondering why you did not share an example. Of course an example would have scored more points on that question, but you will not hurt yourself by not including an example.
Here is an example of a story told in an interview using the SHARE concept where the interviewer asked about Brenda’s greatest asset:
I’d have to say it’s my drive. I’ve been told by several people that they’ve never seen anyone with the drive and determination that I have. I do whatever it takes to make things happen.
Situation. During my second year as manager of a gift store, I had to figure out how to meet or exceed our sales quota for the holidays. I had hired what seemed to be the right number of temporary staff to support our permanent staff. I scheduled them in such a way that we would have sufficient staffing throughout November and December. When November came we were very busy, which led me to believe that either people were simply shopping early or this would be our best holiday season ever. Once December hit it was incredible. I needed to hire more help but was having trouble finding people. I was so busy I couldn’t even find time for lunch. Eventually I managed to hire four college students who were looking for work on their break, and that still didn’t give us enough help.
My staff was amazing! They worked very long hours. We couldn’t get the shelves stocked fast enough and we were running two stocking crews instead of the normal one. I was working from the opening at nine until the closing at ten. And I came in on most of my days off. It was fun, though, because our sales gain was the biggest I had ever seen.
Hindrances. Six days before Christmas Eve one of my assistant managers did not show up for work. We were all worried because she was the “mom” of our crew. She was very dependable and always a big support to the team. A day later she called from Austin, Texas (1200 miles away) telling me that a family emergency had come up and she would not be coming back. I wanted to talk longer with her but the store was so busy all I could say was that I understood. This was going to be a major blow to the crew and I couldn’t afford to have it affect their morale.
Actions. I panicked for about thirty seconds and then told myself I could not let this get us down now. I grabbed the schedule and made whatever adjustments I could, but I knew we were hurting. I asked my four assistant managers to hang in there with me and we would make it through. I ordered pizza and other goodies to keep everyone going for the next five days and told everyone they could wear jeans on Christmas Eve. That night we sang songs and passed out candy canes to the long lines. We made it through the night and actually had fun. By the time we closed everyone was tired, but very pleased that we had helped a lot of people.
Results. When I came in on the 26th I knew we had had great sales, but I didn’t know how great. When I got the results a couple days later I realized that we had increased sales 62% over the previous year. We had by far the biggest increase in the region of 18 stores. We succeeded because everyone pulled together and because over the past two years we had added many loyal customers by having unique merchandise and by providing great customer service.
Evaluation. That experience showed me what you can do when you have a staff that cares and is trained well. I put a lot of effort into hiring people who want to work and are trainable, then I show them how to sell our products and how our customers like to be treated. It’s incredible what you can do as a team. I also realized at that time what I was capable of. I had always worked hard and I knew I had a lot of energy, but I didn’t know that I could stay that focused for that length of time.
Let’s review the story and the impact it had on you. Brenda told the story to back up her claim that she had drive. Without a doubt you are convinced that she has drive. She also created some word pictures that will help you remember her. You probably felt that moment of panic when a key assistant manager quit just seven days before Christmas. Then you probably visualized the staff eating pizza. Then you saw them in jeans singing songs and passing out candy canes and being very friendly even though all were exhausted.
Notice how Brenda created her word pictures. She mentioned the holidays so you probably pictured people bundled up. She said they couldn’t keep the shelves stocked so you probably visualized people quickly grabbing items right off the shelves. Brenda has told a very effective story, in large part because she used SHARE.
Results Sell You
To have the greatest impact on interviewers, include results in your stories whenever possible. It is always best if you can describe accomplishments in terms of dollars or percentages. One of my clients was able to tell employers that in the two years since she had taken over her territory, she had increased the sales of shoes by 54% and profits on her sales by 68%. The company had been marketing in that territory for 20 years. You can see how impressive this would be to an employer. Another client stated, “I developed a simplified computer program for a client which reduced the computer runtime by 40% and saved over $17,000 per year.”
Dollar figures and percentages are so valuable that you should even estimate them when necessary. The computer programmer in the example above had to estimate the dollar savings. She knew the runtime was reduced by 35–45%, so she chose 40% as her figure. She knew how frequently the program was run, and she knew the cost of the computer time. Thus, the $17,000 figure was calculated using simple arithmetic.
While not all results can be quantified, many can. When I’m talking with people to gather information for their resumes, I’m frequently told, “There’s really no way to estimate it, I just improved it.” I will then ask questions from different angles and we invariably arrive at a figure we can use. You can do the same with your results.
Below are additional statements which effectively convey quantifiable results.
I developed a new production technique which increased productivity by 7%.
Through more effective recruiting techniques, I reduced terminations company-wide by 30% and turnover by 23%.
I edited a newsletter for an architectural association, with readership increasing 28% in one year.
I implemented a 12% cut in staffing through attrition which resulted in virtually no reduction in output.
I organized a citizen task force which successfully wrote a statewide initiative, adopted with a 69% favorable vote.
As chairperson for fund raising, I developed a strategy which increased funds raised by 26% while reducing promotional costs.
I set a record of 46 days without a system failure.
Which/Which Resulted In
Results are powerful. Everything you’ve done on a job has had a result. When the result is positive and significant, it is worth sharing in an interview. Train yourself to look for results. Remember, you don’t need computer printouts to verify your results. Your own honest estimate is sufficient. If asked about it during an interview, just describe how you arrived at the figure and then go into more detail concerning how you accomplished it. Results sell you.
I’ve developed a simple technique which will help you identify your results. Take each of your key experiences and add the words which, or which resulted in. Then simply ask yourself what the result was. For example, “Wrote an office procedures manual” becomes, “Wrote an office procedures manual which decreased training time and billing errors.” After you’ve taken time to quantify the results and to explain it more accurately, it will become, “Wrote an office procedures manual which decreased training time of new employees by 25% and reduced billing errors over 30%.”
The trick is to identify the result or results first and then seek to quantify them by using the hard data you have available or by estimating the result. Also, don’t stop with just one result or benefit. Many of your best experiences have had several results, so take the time to identify them. Each different result will come in handy at different times in an interview.
Let’s look at a project that produced multiple results.
In my position as lobbyist for the Detroit realtors’ association, I was very active in building coalitions with the homebuilders, the Eco-nomic Development Council of Detroit, and other housing groups. As part of these coalitions, I was asked to co-chair an affordable housing committee. From the realtors’ perspective, government regulations were a major problem. So I pulled together an all-inclusive committee, including representatives from General Motors, Housing Coalition of Detroit, and the Detroit Housing Authority, as well as county and state officials. We brought in local experts on a variety of topics and asked for recommendations for reducing or streamlining unnecessary government regulations. We came up with over 80 recommendations and presented it at a regional event sponsored by the mayor and county executive as well as the Detroit Free Press. It was publicly well-received, and because of the quality of the recommendations and the breadth of the coalition, over 30 key recommendations were adopted in the past year, with more to follow I’m sure. By streamlining permit and building processes, builders are saving about $600 per home.
Sam demonstrated numerous skills in this project as well as several results. Let’s examine the results and quantify them if we can.
Brought together a coalition of groups that usually oppose one another.
Persuaded government organizations and agencies to remove unnecessary government regulations.
Reduced the cost of building a home by over $600 each.
Reduced the average time to obtain construction permits from 120 days to 75 days.
Developed strong relationships with government agencies by showing that we realtors didn’t oppose everything they recommended, and worked with them to actually strengthen some regulations.
Developed allies that we never had before. (With many of these allies we knew that we wouldn’t agree on certain issues, but we found that we could work with them on others).
This array of businesses and organizations learned the importance of really listening to what each group was saying and of taking the time to learn what was most important and critical to them.
Got the ear of the mayor, who previously would not listen to us.
I personally gained great visibility by being interviewed by three major newspapers and by the CBS and ABC local affiliates.
Received a $5,000 bonus from the realtors.
Everybody wins. More affordable housing units can be constructed so more new homebuyers can get that first home. The city and region win because the changes did not compromise the quality of the homes or their energy efficiency.
In the first year the percentage of new homes purchased by minorities increased from 28% of all homes to 38%, a 36% increase.
When we first started identifying Sam’s results I quickly saw about four, but I had no idea we would come up with this many. In an interview Sam can decide which results to discuss. He would virtually always mention that the cost of building homes was reduced by $600. That may not seem like much, but it was accomplished exclusively by eliminating some unnecessary regulations. Part of the cost reduction came by reducing the time required to obtain building permits. When land has been purchased with loans, every day that a home has not been completed (and sold) adds cost in the form of interest. If the profit on a $95,000 starter home would be about $9,000, then $600 equals 6% of the total profit. That’s substantial. It takes time to come up with results and to quantify them, sometimes an hour or more. You may have the data necessary to quantify the result, but the information may be spread among several different sources. Of course sometimes the numbers are readily available and have already been calculated.
This should be a reminder to you for the future. As you start a project or look for a way to improve a particular process, figure out how you will measure your success. First you have to determine what you hope to accomplish. Then you have to determine what the current status is. If you are going to improve training in hopes of reducing turnover and errors, then you need to know what the current turnover and error rate is. If those rates are not currently being measured, then you’ll have to do it. This effort is worth it because you can obtain a great payoff: you can bring it to the attention of your boss through a memo. You don’t have to ask your boss to respond. As long as your boss does not dispute your results, it means he or she accepts them. Of course your results could help you get a raise, a promotion, or a bonus. But you have to let the key people know what you’ve done. Don’t let yourself be a well-kept secret.