Sometimes, we get ourselves talking and we forget where we’re going. Or we don’t know what direction to talk in or how deep to dive.
You’re not alone.
It’s difficult to figure out how much you should say at any given time in a job interview. And with the prevalence of video interviewing it’s become ever harder to judge how people are receiving what you’re dishing out while you’re dishing it.
So how do you know what to say, how much to offer, and when to say it?
The answer lies in your storytelling.
Not only should be able to tell a good story but you should be able to tell stories on 4 different levels:
- Your Career Story
- Your Job Stories
- Your Project Stories
- Your Accomplishment Stories
There is a right time for each level. The reason you get overwhelmed or lost and start to fumble around is because you’re trying to tell stories on multiple levels at the same time. By sticking to a single level, you keep your listener (and yourself!) oriented.
Your Career Story is the arc of your entire career: your rise to fame, your evolution, the reason you are who you are now. The career story skips across multiple jobs and training. It connects the dots.
It’s the career story you should share when you’re asked that dreaded and inevitable question: “Tell me about yourself.” Aim high, don’t get tempted into dropping down into the other levels. It’s the big picture they want.
While your Career Story will probably include your origin story, that doesn’t mean you have to tell it in chronological order. Indeed, it’s probably better if you don’t.
Job Stories are a level down. These are high-level stories like Your Career Story, but they’re specific to a single job. Each of your jobs should have a beginning, middle, and end.
The beginning is the part most people forget to tell. That is, how and why did you come into this job? This is a question I ask all of my resume clients and it ALWAYS turns up interesting information.
What interested you about the job?
What did they need you for?
What aspect of your skills and background made you a good fit?
Were you filling an existing vacancy or was this a brand-new role?
What was the state of affairs of the company and department when you came in?
By telling the beginning of your Job Story, you set the context of your experience; you create a backdrop for the middle and end and, later, for your Project Stories and your Accomplishment Stories.
The middle part is easy; it’s the gist of your job. In other words, what you did while you were there. Just remember to stay at a higher level. If you’ve held multiple roles, you’ll need to cover all of them pretty quickly. At this level of storytelling, it’s the trajectory that’s important, not the content of your work. Note promotions, awards, accolades, and going above and beyond the call of duty. You may reference salient projects but only by name and outcome. don’t drill down or you’ll start to get lost.
To keep yourself on track, speak as if you’re sitting in a carpool with someone who is interested in learning what you do but who is also very short on time.
The end of your Job Story needs to explain the reason you stopped holding that position. This is probably the part of your Job Story your interviewer is most interested in, so don’t skip over it.
Make sure to include where you left off and why you left. It’s usually best to leave out the drama. If you had a personality conflict, got fired, or stormed out, keep your explanation general and blameless. Say “the leadership” instead of “my boss” and point to “dynamics” and “culture” more than “personality” and “management style.”
Ideally, your reason for leaving somehow links to your next job. For example, “We had grown 500% by that time, new leadership took over, and I wanted to go back to being in a startup.” Or “They weren’t using any of the cutting-edge tools in my trade; we were falling behind the curve so I moved on to Company X.”
Project Stories are explanations of your projects or programs within a specific job. Project stories tell the who, what, where, and when without diving too deeply into each individual thing that you did while on that project. Project Stories are often told with “we” and “our” not “me and “my.” That is, you’re usually sharing the collective effort of a group of people, namely your department, division, or group.
This is a good time to show you’re a team player, you’re humble, and you recognize that it takes an entire team to get stuff done.
Accomplishment stories are your own achievements within the projects/programs at a specific job. This is where you can put your C-A-R formula into action. In other words…
What’s the Challenge you were faced with?
What Action did you take
What was the positive (and hopefully quantifiable) Result of your actions?
CAR-powered Accomplishment Stories are the level you want to be playing on when you answer behavioral interview questions (e.g. “What’s a time where you had to overcome an obstacle at work?)
Sometimes Accomplishment Stories can be set up by telling the Project Story first, as long as you keep it brief. It’s always good to start with some context before you dive in deep.
Remember, you can always go down a level if the interviewer wants you to go deeper. For example, after you tell your Career Story, you can ask the interviewer if they want you to expand on anything you just said. If they point you to a specific job, then you know to drop down a level to tell that Job Story. And from there, should they want even more detail, you can drop into your Project Story.
By knowing what level of storytelling you’re using at any given time, you are much less likely to get lost and you will come off more organized, relatable, and natural in your presentation.
There is plenty of time to say everything, just don’t try to say it all at once.