Interview tip: Manage your image by telling good stories

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The way you talk about yourself is very powerful. Whether or not you are conscious of it, the way you tell stories of your life frames how people see you, and how you see yourself. So you may as well do this consciously, and also be conscious that people get the most tripped up in their storytelling when they are talking about uncertain moments in their career.

“The stories we tell make an enormous difference in how we cope with change,” writes Herminia Ibarra in the Harvard Business Review. Crafting good story is essential for making a successful transition to your next point. Yet most of us do it badly — we can’t figure out a story arc, so we just start listing the facts of our career. But if you can’t tell people why your prior path and your new path are part of one story, then you probably can’t see it yourself, and that leads to feelings of being confused, lost and insecure — all the feelings that are typical of an uncertain life but do not have to be.

“Creating a story that resonates helps us believe in ourselves. We need a good story to reassure us that our plans make sense — that, in [making our next step], we are not discarding everything we have worked so hard to accomplish. A story gives us motivation to help us endure frustration, suffering and hard work,” says Ibarra.

For example, when someone bugs you about how can I trust you to stay at this company when you’ve changed your mind before, you can come at that person with a story. Don’t hide things because coherence is important. When you’re telling a story about yourself, coherence is the key to making the listener trust you. If you can make your story of change and self-discovery “seem coherent,” writes Ibrarra, “you will have gone far in convincing the listener that the change makes sense for you and is likely to bring success — and that you’re a stable, trustworthy person.”

Most importantly, coherence goes a long way in convincing yourself. “Think of the cartoon character who’s run off the edge of a cliff, legs still churning like crazy, he doesn’t realize he’s over the abyss until he looks down. Each of us in transition feels like that character. Coherence is the solid ground under our feet.”

The first way to envision yourself in a new phase of your life is to tell people about it. But there is another benefit to meeting new people: You can see yourself in a different light. Ibarra writes, ” Strangers can best help you see who you’re becoming, providing fresh ideas uncolored by your previous identity.”

The best reasons for wanting to change what you’re doing are grounded in character — they talk about who you are, what you are good at, what you like. Bad reasons are external, like getting fired. Giving external reasons for making change make you look like someone who is a fatalist. You need to show that you are taking charge of your life, not just reacting to what comes along.

More is good, though: The more detailed and more varied your reasons are, the more acceptable your next steps will seem to other people.

You feel comfortable telling it and the other person gives you positive feedback in the nonverbal cues department. When you are practicing, the best people to try it on are people who don’t know you. They don’t bring any preconceived notions of who you are to the conversation, so you can tell them whatever you want. In the conversation with a stranger you can try out being your new self, and you can tell if you ruin your clean slate with a terrible story.

Storytelling takes practice, but everyone who is making a big change in their life has everything a good story needs. You are the protagonist, and there is intrinsic conflict in that something changed in your world to make you want to change jobs. The journey of your story is your search for your next job.

If you’re feeling lost on this read John Gardner’s book, the Art of Fiction. Maybe you think it’s totally over the top to read 200 pages about story telling so that you can tell a one-minute story. But this is your life. And you are going to get through all the tough parts of your life by telling stories, intentionally or not. So why not take control of things and get good at talking to yourself about yourself?

20 replies
  1. kv
    kv says:

    Since most companies now use behaviorial questions for interviewing, the importance of storytelling cannot be overstated. I have had a chance to interview some people, and it takes some preparation to be able to set up answers that intrigue the listeners interest. It is easy to state the facts.

    There was a very interesting article in the Harvard Business Review in May 2003 that discusses how storytelling is a leadership trait.

  2. kenneth
    kenneth says:

    I was asked to leave my previous job, by the president in the indian office, however I later understood that he had convinced the Asia Regional office by giving them wrong information. Less than 9 months later matter caught up with this president and he has been asked to leave himself and a new person has been appointed in his place. The company is a good company and i have been keeping in touch with the Asian Regional office and I would like to go back. However, i do not know whether a) I should wait for them to ask me and b) If, i am called for reassessment by the new president, what should i tell him the reason of my leaving and now wanting to come back ? Offcourse all at the Asian regional office know the truth, but if I have to tell the truth then it will seem that I am bad mouthing the ex-president. Kindly advise.

    * * * * * *
    What a mess. Is there no other company for you to work for? Why not go to a company that does not have such big management problems? Then you wouldn’t have to worry about any of this.

    If you must go back to this company, though, and the Asian office knows the whole of your situation, then why not get a friend there to arrange for the company to extend an offer for you to come back? Seems like if you are well liked at the company then you can manoeuver to get someone to offer your job back to you. And if you are not well liked there right now, it’s probably not a good idea to go back.


  3. leese
    leese says:

    Fascinating. I know this is a blog about business but this very issue, not being able to understand the story of my education and career trajectory, led me to take up astrology and later numerology.

    While no silver bullet, the latter especially helped me understand my motivations, cravings and passions within a coherent framework. I’m actually kicking around a book idea that helps others discover the underpinnings of their work lives cast in the light of their numerological blueprint.

    Not everyone accepts the veracity of different spiritual traditions, but it sure makes for a great story!

  4. Cat
    Cat says:

    Such an interesting perspective! I’ve never thought about it before, but I have carefully honed my story of “literate geek”, how someone with a journalism degree and an extreme aversion to math and science ended up in technology. Now that I realize it’s storytelling, I’ll have to work on honing my work. ;)

  5. zing.i
    zing.i says:

    Alas, this otherwise highly useful post steps around the issue of what to do if you were actually fired – in my case for “bad fit” (read incompetence). How does it sound to say you weren’t ready for that job yet?

    For extra challenge, what’s a good story given that I was fired from another very different job 7 years later, with only consulting in between the two?

    Are there good careers for the fit-challenged?

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