What Have You Done?

—Telling your story during a job search

When I’m interviewing someone for a job, I’m always impressed when he or she confidently talks about career achievements. Those who interview well are those who describe their accomplishments in a story format, and the ones who rise to the top are those who tell their stories in three parts—a beginning, a middle and an end.

You can effectively describe your achievements if you tell stories that cover these three things:

  1. The situation. Describe the circumstances you found yourself in. Perhaps you were given a problem that needed to be fixed. Or maybe you were assigned to lead a project with declining revenues or eroding market share. Maybe you inherited a team with low morale or poor productivity. Describe the problem (but no whining, please).
  2. Your action. Then, talk about what you did to address the situation. Maybe you developed a plan and implemented new procedures or systems. Perhaps you hired and trained new employees, coaching them to work together cohesively as a team. Maybe you identified an untapped market for your product or services.
  3. The results. As a result of your actions, what measurable impact did you have? What positive results did you produce? How was your department, your organization or the community a better place because of what you did?

When describing what you’ve accomplished, talk in the first person, using “I” rather than “we“—even if you were part of a team effort. I’ve sometimes interrupted interviewees who were proudly describing what their team had accomplished. I asked them to tell me specifically what their individual contribution was to the team’s success.

I recommend that you develop nine success stories using this formula (situation, action and results). Why nine? Because I love the rule of threes. You can always remember three things when you don’t have access to your notes and the pressure is on. So here’s how I came up with nine stories for your portfolio:

Three Positioning Themes. Select three broad categories that represent your professional accomplishments. These should be three differentiating attributes you want someone to know about you. Your interview answers should be anchored on these themes so that at the conclusion of the interview the other person will remember at least these three things about you.

Three Success Stories. For each theme, develop three stories describing your success in that area. Stories are memorable and will bring to life the three themes. Each story should be written, edited, honed and practiced. Then, during an interview, you’ll be able to tell the stories in an engaging, conversational tone.

It works best to have various versions of each story so you can adapt it to the specific situation. Sometimes you might need to be very succinct, telling your story in just one sentence. (“Faced with declining sales, I identified an untapped market and increased our revenue by 12% the first year.) By the way, the one-sentence version of your story should also be a bullet point in your resume. Other times the listener will want more information and you’ll be able to flesh out the details and tell a more complete story.

With the right preparation, you can approach your next interview with a relaxed confidence, knowing you’re just having a conversation with someone who wants to hear an interesting story.

…and they all lived happily ever after!

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