How storytelling in an interview will help land your dream job

This interviewer shares how and why he hires certain candidates. Take notes.

As a journalist, I interview people nearly every day, from politicians to CEOs to college presidents to people on the street. That experience has proven invaluable to me when I hire.

When I interview candidates, I usually start by asking them to tell me about themselves. Such open-ended questions sometimes puzzle people who have over-prepared for the typical questions: name your strengths, talk about challenges, etc.

I once interviewed a candidate who looked great on paper, but when I asked that opening question couldn’t figure out where to begin his story. He restarted it three different times, jumping from his childhood to college to his first job as a teenager and ended up talking for 20 minutes. Not everyone’s career needs to follow the perfect narrative arc, but I like to hear the thought process behind why candidates made certain decisions in their career.

Journalism is about storytelling, and so is interviewing for a job. When I hire, I’m looking for people to tell me stories about their lives. In many ways, the most successful candidates that I have hired followed some of the basic building blocks of journalism, among them:

What is the angle of your story?

Every reporter has an angle on a story. But the story pitch you make to an editor early on is rarely the angle you end up taking after reporting the piece. In our careers, Plan A rarely works out. I look for candidates who have dealt with some adversity in their life or career.

I once had a candidate who was all but offered a job at a metro daily newspaper out of college only to lose it when the company was sold. So he went to a small-town newspaper in an out-of-the-way place and worked the cops beat for two years. Not only did he learn the basics of reporting and writing on deadline, but he didn’t sit around waiting for that dream job in a big city.

What’s the headline on your story?

Think of this as your elevator pitch: your way of describing something in a few words. Recently I met someone I hadn’t seen since college. I asked him what he was doing now, and he wasn’t able to describe it in a few words or even a few minutes. Be sure to have the “headline” for every job, activity, and significant event on your resume. What’s that one thing you want the employer to remember about each of your experiences.

What’s your ‘nut graph’?

In journalism, the “nut graph” is the paragraph near the beginning of the article that explains what the story is about and why it’s important-in other words, its news value. In an interview, your nutgraph is the talking point you keep returning to throughout the interview to say why you’re the perfect candidate for this job.

How would you explain this to your mother?

Journalists deal with complicated matters every day and then have to write articles aimed at a lay audience. Often editors will ask reporters to translate technical information as if they were talking to their mother. Be sure to translate what you’ve done in another industry or at a smaller scale to the opportunity you’re pursuing. Connect the dots for the employer rather than leaving them guessing how your experience might fit what they’re looking for.

Finally, check everything twice and then again.

A few weeks ago “The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch” credited a record-breaking performance by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to John Elway, who hasn’t played in the NFL since the late 1990s.

Mistakes hurt the credibility of the news media. They also hurt the credibility of job candidates. I can’t tell you how many applications I have tossed because they were addressed to different companies throughout the cover letter (not just once) or dismissed candidates like one who referred to me throughout the interview as two different people even though he had an agenda in front of him and looked down at it several times. Details matter in the job, so they should matter in the interview, too.

Jeffrey Selingo is author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students and editor at large at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow him on Twitter @jselingo. A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Topics: PR

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