When someone asks “What do you do?” a one-word answer will put your career on ice. You need to have a story. When you want to establish a connection with someone, a story provides social glue. When you want to impress someone, a story is more memorable and than a list of achievements.

Early in my career, I interviewed for a job as a user interface designer. The hiring manager asked me how I got involved in UI design.

I could have said, “I thought it looked interesting so I gave it a try and I was good at it.” But anyone can answer the very standard how-did-you-find-your-career question with that answer.

So instead, I told this story: An old boyfriend was a programmer, and he worked from home, while I was in school. He plastered designs all over our bedroom wall and our living room floor so that he could think them through. Finally, I told him if he was going to mess up the apartment then he had to be the one to clean it, and I handed him the toilet scrubber. We argued about who had extra time for cleaning and who didn't and finally he said, “Fine. I'll clean, but you do the UI design.” And to his surprise, I did.

I got the job. And every time I have been able to tell stories in interviews, I have gotten the job.

When it comes to your career, have a one-minute story ready. It's the story of you — how you got to where you are and what your achievements are. When someone asks a question like, “How did you get into advertising?” tell your story.

When you interview, tell stories. You know you're going to encounter the question, “What are your strengths?” Don't give a list. It's not persuasive. Tell a story about how you did something amazing by using your strengths. This way you tell the hiring manager something memorable and you get in a bit about your achievements.

Once you get the job, keep telling stories as a way to promote yourself within the company. The first month of your job, no one knows you, so they ask questions like, “Where were you before this?” or “What sort of experience do you have?” These are times to tell your story.

If you are funny, make your story funny. If you are not funny, be vulnerable in your story. For example, when people ask me how I became a writer, sometimes I start my story with how I was working just blocks away from the World Trade Center when it fell and my software company never recovered. This is not essential to my story, but the World Trade Center brings people into my story right away.

Your success at your job will depend on you finding someone to help you navigate the corporate ladder: You need to find a mentor; you need to get on plum projects. You need to show people you are smart and interesting so that they want to help you. Don't assume that your work speaks for itself. It doesn't. Most people will have no idea what you have done, or what you do now. You need to tell them. And the best way to tell them without sounding boring or self-obsessed is to tell stories.

Still feeling queasy about talking yourself up to people? Check out the book Brag! by Peggy Klaus, the master of self-promotion. Worried that you don't know how to tell a story? Give business books a break and take a look at Flash Fiction edited by James Thomas. This is an anthology of two-page stories that have similar pacing as those you'll tell at the office.

Spinning a good story is difficult. But building a career without a story is even more difficult. So you'd better start spinning.

8 replies
  1. Stephanie Rivers
    Stephanie Rivers says:


    I’ve missed the deadline for Elaine’s choosing two candidates for retooling their resumes. Can she be contacted to hire to retool the resume outside the free service she was offering by March 25?

    Stephanie Rivers

    * * * * * * *

    Stephanie, Thanks for asking. Here’s her email: embasham714@hotmail.com

  2. mary
    mary says:

    you have a misspelled word. It’s not
    “plumb projects”, it’s “plum projects”.

    love your blog!

  3. Nicole Foster
    Nicole Foster says:

    It is about selling yourself and telling a story draws in an interviewer. They want somebody unique and different. Stories are never the same, so win them over with a unique story.

  4. social media
    social media says:

    When I taught public speaking in the 80s, we had our students craft two-minute stories with a call to action at the end. Attention spans have shrunk since then, so I think your idea of having one-minute stories to answer the generic getting-to-know-you questions is dynamite.
    Practice with Twitter. See if you can tell a story with those 140 characters!

  5. Erin A.
    Erin A. says:

    Awesome advice! I have an interview this Friday and am re-reading lots of online interview advice since its the first real interview I’ve had ever. I don’t count the interviews I did when I was a college grad. I would probably refer to a book of posts if there was such a thing :P

  6. Rakesh
    Rakesh says:

    Well… Your story sounds good. You are right, telling a story of our life is a bit difficult. I should start flirting with my story from now.. :-P
    Thanks for your content…

  7. Theresa Deitche
    Theresa Deitche says:

    This is great advice, and I will work on finding some stories to tell. The question I have is, since I currently stay at home and care for my children most of my stories seem to involve children. I also tend to network via mom’s groups. How then do I avoid talking about my children?

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