Crush Your Interviews with the Power of Storytelling
For interviews, it's not what you've done, it's how you explain what you've done. It's that fundamental difference which makes storytelling a critical interview skill.
I've evaluated the answers to interview questions from well over a thousand candidates. I've also coached multiple people through successfully passing their interviews. I've written quite a few articles about how to interview better.
Weekly leadership advice from an ex-Amazon GM and Tech Director. Most articles have substantial previews available for free members. Paid members can read all current and future articles, and are statistically more awesome than the average person.
One key concept many people miss in the preparation process for an interview.
The interviewer asks a question. For example, tell me about a time you got into a conflict with a co-worker.
You provide an answer.
The core of your answer may be a time you disagreed with your manager.
Now here's the magic. The topic of your disagreement, who you had a disagreement with, and the result of your disagreement don't matter much.
You know what matters? How you describe it.
"I told my manager that they were being dumb." turns into an instant no-hire decision.
"I respected my manager's opinion, but I realized they were unaware of a critical piece of data." turns into a good attention grabber.
Too many candidates get wrapped up in the quality of their experience (what actually happened), and don't put nearly enough effort and thought into how they explain things.
Let me tell you a quick story.
It was a sunny day, and I was hiking with my wife on a ridgeline in the Northern Cascades.
What I hadn't thought about was that my hiking shoes are towards the end of their life. Unfortunately, that means the treads are worn down, and their grip was impacted. I had no idea that my shoes had been compromised, and I was trusting them with my life.
There we were, a hundred feet above the rocks, when I felt the ground beneath my shoes give way. My heart jumped as I tried to stabilize my feet. But instead, the rocks beneath my feet continued to slide.
As I slid towards the edge, the corner of my shoe hit a patch of moss and stuck. I stopped sliding, and was able to take a deep breath. Whew. One careful step forward, and I was past the ledge, and the risk was gone.
Alternatively, I could say:
I was walking high up, and my foot slipped. Thankfully, I didn't fall.
It's how you tell a story.
Clearly, interview questions aren't about entertainment. However, they're absolutely about making a connection to the interviewer. They need to feel the challenge and what you did to pass those difficulties.
I'm not talking about making things entertaining. But it does matter how you phrase things. You can mistakenly make a complex thing sound simple, and you can make a simple thing sound complex.
You can make a simple project sound like building the first iPhone, or you can make a massive, complex launch sound like you're building a website using WordPress.
In the above, I mentioned interesting data points (shoe treads). I explained more detailed context (Northern Cascades). I explained a few moments of my personal experience (heart jumped). Those points were not necessary to communicate the fact of the slip. But they were a part of helping someone understand the story from my perspective.
When you're answering interview questions, there are many ways to describe the same situation. You want to prove that you're a valuable worker, you did hard and complex work, and you'll be a great hire.
This article is about how to make certain you're sending those messages.
Talk about the why of what you're doing.
An interview candidate, Myrle was explaining a feature she was building.
She said, "And then we needed to remove the cancellation feature, which didn't leave us much time for QA. So we-"
Well, that's an interesting twist!
I interrupted. "Sorry, one question. Why did you need to remove the cancellation feature?"
Myrle looked startled. "Oh. Well, I don't know, the PMs asked us to remove it."
"But what's the reason they were asking to remove it?" I asked. "From my limited understanding, I'd imagine that cancellation is important?"
Myrtle shrugged. "I don't know. They didn't tell me."
You always should know the why behind your work. Why does that feature matter? Why does the outage matter? What do your customers care about? What does your business care about?
No one can afford remote control employees, those types of employees you need to tell exactly what to do.
Now, in reality, do we sometimes run into situations where we blindly execute on something? Sure! But never use those situations in an interview story. You only get one shot at making an impression on your interviewer. Don't make it sound like you're a remote control employee.
If you know the reason why, explain it. In the STAR model, the situation always needs to include the why. "And then we needed to remove the cancellation feature because…" It's a core element of the situation.
If you don't know the reason why, think about it. Hopefully, you can make an educated guess. Because you worked there, you knew the customers and the business.
"We needed to remove the cancellation feature because customers were confused by the self-service cancellation function. They'd cancel, but then ask why they stopped receiving our product. Until we could fix the cancellation process messaging, we needed to temporarily move cancellation to be a manual process."
It's not a perfect answer, but it's significantly better than "I don't know." It's an interview, it's time to be confident.
And no one will fault you for being wrong. First, they'll likely never find out. Second, people currently working at the company often have mistaken assumptions around the reasons the company does stuff. It's ok to be wrong.