Storytelling tips for interview responses

Giving panels examples of our experience to demonstrate skills is like telling mini stories. They need to be structured, engaging, and provide evidence.

Some of my professional speaking colleagues provide useful advice on telling stories. While they are focusing on presentations to larger audiences, their tips are still relevant. An interview is a form of public speaking, even if the audience is only two or three people.

An American speaker who has some useful tips on telling stories is Patricia Fripp. You can learn more about her on her web site where you’ll find plenty of free resources. In a recent newsletter she gave three techniques for better storytelling.

Much interview advice focuses on using the STAR approach to behaviour based interview questions. The STAR approach gives you a structure to your response and identifies the key pieces of information that needs to be included. The result is a story about a work experience that provides evidence to support your case for being offered a job.

One tip Fripp offers is to ‘think chronologically’. Children’s stories start with ‘Once upon a time …’ Your evidence story also needs to start with setting the scene. When did the event happen? Who was there? What was your role? Select these details carefully.

An issue that concerns interviewees is their ability to ramble, waffle, and take too long to tell the story. Fripp’s next tip is to shorten sentences or phrases. Your written responses can have longer sentences because when we read we can look back and read again. (Keep in mind though, that panel members are probably busy people who do not wish to re-read applications in order to make a decision.) When we speak we need our listeners to ‘get’ what we’re saying the firs time. So present information in shorter sentences than you would write.

Fripp’s third tip is to consider sentences as scenes. This helps listeners to ‘see’ what is happening.

Let’s take an example. The interview question is ‘Tell us about a time you have worked with colleagues to solve a problem.’

Applying the STAR method, a response might be:

When I was a project officer on the ‘Build financial understanding’ project I worked with two other staff to identify what financial knowledge managers needed to be able to understand their monthly finance reports. Our job was to talk with staff to find out what was difficult and come up with a way of building understanding. The problem was that managers were really vague in their responses and also were difficult to get to meet with them. So what we did was we met to come up with ways to obtain more specific information, including seeking senior managers support, changing some of the questions we were asking, and finding ways to fit in meetings. By working with colleagues we were able to obtain the information and then we designed a training program, supported with online material, to address the knowledge gaps. Since then we have seen an improvement in managers’ responses to monthly financial reports.

While covering the basics of the STAR model, this response could still be unclear to a listener. In particular, it’s not clear what the speaker’s role and contribution was, the specifics of the problem being addressed is unclear, and the actions are vaguely expressed.

Incorporating Fripp’s tips plus some more specific details, the response could be:

In December last year (Gives timeframe) I was a project officer on the ‘Build financial understanding’ project. This project was set up to help thirty project managers improve their ability to use monthly financial reports to monitor progress with major projects. (Gives context to why the project exists). We were a team of three and had five months to complete the task. (Short sentence gives who was involved and length of time).

After a month of talks, we had only vague information. (Problem emerging)

Plus twelve managers were proving difficult to see. (Further problem, short sentence, sets the scene for action)

At a team meeting I suggested we revisit how we were going about collecting information. We pooled a range of ideas including my suggestions, which were:

  • ask senior managers to remind staff to help us,
  • sit with managers when they received the next report and
  • go through it with them, and ask more specific questions such as whether they understood what variance meant. (specific details, short phrases)

These changes in approach meant we quickly completed gathering useful information from all managers. We then designed a training program, supported with online material, to address the knowledge gaps. Since then we have seen an improvement in managers’ responses to monthly financial reports.

In this revised version the personal contribution is clearer, the problem is specifically defined, the actions are more sharply expressed. Concrete, specific information gives stronger evidence than vague, rambling sentences.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.