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Sharing personal stories in a compelling way will help you spread your job-search wings.

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Tell the story of your life

Do you ever find yourself getting bored in a conversation, perhaps having to force yourself to pay attention? I have. Occasionally, when scientists introduce themselves to me at a conference or networking event (or when I ask the infamous “Tell me about yourself” question in an interview), I drift away. I’m still present physically, even smiling and seemingly paying attention, and yet, mentally, I’m out the door. 

It’s not because I slept poorly the previous night, or that I’m distracted by more urgent matters. The fact is, this happens when the people I’m speaking with simply don’t present themselves in a way that holds my attention. And it doesn’t bode well for their chances of being hired.

The knack for keeping conversations engaging and interest alive is quite valuable to the job seeker. Many factors can contribute, including charisma, eye contact, and demeanor—some of which are easier to learn than others. But there’s another skill that anyone can pick up which offers a big conversational advantage: good storytelling.

Do you notice how you perk up when someone you’re talking with digs into a good story, tapping into your emotions to make their point? Give me a great storyteller, and perhaps a cup of coffee or a bottle of wine (depending on the circumstances), and I will stay engaged for hours! And when it comes to the job hunt, with today’s emphasis on behavioral interviewing, this skill is one of the most valuable utensils in your career toolbox.

The perfect place for a good story

The premise of an informational interview is that the way you’ve managed previous situations predicts your future job performance. So, to decide whether you’re the right fit for the position, your interviewers will ask specific questions about your past experiences. As a friend who works in human resources explained it to me, “It’s not my intent to ask our candidates ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, or even easy questions that allow for a lot of wiggle room. I want to know exactly what occurred—what the situation was and how they handled it—and by that response we’ll learn more about how they would likely manage a similar situation when it occurs here.”

In other words, these types of interviews are the perfect time to use well-chosen stories to make your case.

As you might imagine, it can come as quite a shock when, after getting in the rhythm of answering technical questions, you’re thrown a curveball asking you to describe a challenging personal experience—in detail. And there are two directions you could go with your answer. For one, you can give them the “Just the facts, ma’am” response, explaining what happened without much emotion or reflection. This may seem like the safest bet, but you risk putting your interviewer to sleep.

The other—much better—option is to respond with a well-considered and relevant story. The idea isn’t to launch into an epic 30-minute-long tale. It’s basically repackaging the information from the previous response into a concise, compelling anecdote by removing needless details and including elements that will engage the interviewer’s emotions and keep her or him listening.

The elements of a good story

I have an older family member who has had a wonderful life, full of interesting travel and splendid acquaintances. And yet, every time she tells a story, she concerns herself with so much detail that she loses everyone in the first few minutes. “Did I ever tell you about the time I met Jack Kennedy?” she’ll ask, offering a promising lead. But then she starts to lose momentum as she gets distracted by the minutiae instead of focusing on the broader story arc. “I was with my girlfriend Alice, or perhaps it was Janet,” she’ll continue. “And it was a rainy Tuesday morning in Cleveland. No, I think it was Friday, actually … .”

Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, focus on being succinct and removing meaningless detail. There’s not an interview answer in the world that needs to consume more than 2 or 3 minutes, tops. And, in drawing up a set of stories that will aid your job search, ensure that those few minutes are filled with elements that will hook your questioner and ensure she stays with you through the outcome.

The first question that you might get in a job interview—and one that also comes up in networking conversations and informational interviews—is that old nugget, “Tell me how you decided to get into science in the first place.” You’ll have to answer this question at just about every job interview, and it’s a great opportunity to hook your interviewer’s interest if you can tell them a good story. But imagine how tedious your story about your passion for science becomes if you start with a line like, “It all began when I was 6 years old, when my parents were impressed by how curious I was about the world around me.” That’s likely to set the stage for a real snooze-fest.

Instead, as you’re shaping your stories for interview deployment, keep these three ideas in mind to reach the right level of impact:

Expose your feelings. When asked to describe a situation when you had a conflict with another lab member, for example, don’t simply lay out the facts of the time that you had a disagreement about author status; tell the interviewers how you felt while you were in that situation. They have emotions too; they’ll relate, and appreciate that you are being candid. You might say something like, “When it became apparent that my colleague felt that he should be first author, it wasn’t that I was angry. It was more a feeling of lack of respect. I had put in far more hours of effort in the lab and in writing than he had, and I was shocked that my colleague didn’t see this.” And, in any story for an interview, you need to come around to a positive outcome. “We brought in our PI to do some mediation, and both of us were able to see the other’s reasoning,” you might continue. “We ended up publishing it as a shared first author paper, with good feelings all around. We’ve published together since then as well—always discussing in advance what our roles and authorship will be.”

Make them care. Humanize your stories to bring your listener in emotionally in any way you can—as long as it’s not syrupy and obvious. Going back to that question about why you got into science, for example, give your interviewer enough information to help them visualize the family farm where you grew up, and to feel the stress on your family of eight kids as your mom and dad tried to get everyone into school and off to a good start. Let them feel your pride in being the first in many generations to attend college, let alone to earn a doctorate. Emotions play a critical role in decision-making, so don’t just offer your interviewer a straight recitation of the facts; tell stories that engage their emotions.

Use dialogue. When telling a story in an interview, try using actual dialogue. If you are describing how you felt when you were accepted into a Ph.D. program with a prestigious professor, for instance, you could say, “I shook Dr. Smith’s hand and said, ‘Thank you for the opportunity; I won’t let you down.’ But inside, I was really thinking, ‘I have no idea how I’m going to pull this off. I’m going to get booted out on my first day!’” Using dialogue allows the visualization process to take root in the listener’s mind. They’re actually seeing the film of the event as you describe it, which makes it much more intriguing.

I’ve been thinking about storytelling lately because I recently read Sell with a Story, by Paul Smith. It’s aimed at businesspeople who are selling their services, but a lot of the ideas and lessons are also applicable to job interviews. Smith perfectly describes why storytelling is important for building rapport, and even though he directs his advice to salespeople, it makes sense for scientists as well. “Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made,” he writes. “Cognitive science tells us that humans often make subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational decisions in one place in the brain, and then justify those decisions rationally and logically in another place.” It’s up to you to harness this tendency for a successful job search by sharing the stories of your life. 

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