Job seekers think they need to be salesman, never storytellers. Nevertheless, storytelling is part of every job search. How well you tell your story in cover letters, resumes, networking meetings, interviews — even negotiations — will directly affect your success in the job market.
Storytelling doesn’t mean telling tall tales! It’s amazing how many people ask for help with their resumes by saying, “I’ve got to find a way to make this look better than it really is.” Exaggerating accomplishments and misrepresenting facts is never an acceptable approach. Nor is it necessary. Instead, when people take the time to remember the actual details, a more compelling and truthful story almost always emerges.
The problem is that people don’t naturally think about telling their story.
Your challenge is to find a way to describe your involvement so potential employers clearly see the before and after. In other words, how did you make a situation better because you were there?
You can’t get there simply by rattling off a list of accomplishments; by themselves, accomplishments rarely tell the story. Knowing how much time you saved or how much money you made for the company is of limited use if it isn’t presented in context. To appreciate the importance of your work, the scope of what you did must be clear. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What problem were you solving?
- How long had it been a problem?
- How many people were affected by the issue?
- What was the cost of not solving the problem? (e.g., lost revenue, frustrated customers, low morale)
- What, specifically, did you do to address the issue?
- How did you get involved?
- Were you asked to address the issue? If so, by whom?
- Or was your involvement the result of your own initiative?
- Did solving the problem require an investment of time, money or resources by the company?
- Were you the person who convinced management to invest in the solution?
- If so, how did you sell them on the idea?
- How long did it take to solve the problem?
- Were there any unexpected results?
Good stories surprise you
Once you have answered these questions, be sure to include the most surprising and memorable details when you tell the stories behind your accomplishments. This is the key to being remembered at the right time for the right reason.
Sadly, few people manage to include these crucial details.
Rather than tell memorable stories that might get people interested in their backgrounds, they rattle off job titles, responsibilities and other unrevealing aspects of their past.
For example, I vividly remember “Eric” (not his real name), a client who had a long-winded, fluffy summary statement that could literally apply to anyone. In it, Eric described himself as an “innovative problem solver.” Unfortunately, this was not supported anywhere in his resume or cover letter. Nor did he spontaneously offer any examples during the course of our mock interview.
Only when I probed extensively did Eric reveal a fantastic example to support his claim:
In his most recent position, Eric worked at a data center that handled transactions for financial institutions. At the time, the company was actively acquiring other data centers. Eric’s job was to help merge the operations of the various data centers the company acquired.
Throughout the process, Eric’s company relied on several highly paid consultants from a well-known firm to evaluate the acquisitions and make recommendations regarding the best ways to merge the technologies. In one case, the consultants concluded that the technology of a recently acquired company was incompatible with the firm’s operations and recommended running the data center separately. Eric didn’t accept that as an answer. Instead, he spent the next month researching and examining alternatives on his own, outside regular working hours.
Being quite resourceful, Eric networked his way to a person overseas who had successfully solved a similar challenge. By taking the time to learn how the other person solved the problem, Eric devised a way to implement a workable solution. Within a few weeks, Eric successfully converted the new data center to the company’s technology.
This is a great example of innovative problem-solving. It wasn’t one Eric had ever thought to share on his resume, in interviews or in any of his networking efforts. Nevertheless, it remains among his most memorable and compelling experiences. That’s the goal of storytelling. You want people to think of you and make the connection between what you have done and what they might need you to do. Potential employers and networking contacts should look at you and think:
“I remember her! She’s the person who _________.”
(Fill in the blank with whatever experience powerfully demonstrates your ability to excel in a particular area.)