From Listing Skills To Leveraging Stories: How To Show, Not Tell, Your Value

Day 11: Start telling stories. This post is part of Forbes’ Career Challenge: Get Job-Search Ready In 15 Days.

It’s been a long year already. That’s not a comment on the political environment, but on your own schedule at work. You’ve accomplished a ton. You’ve been involved in some projects that were planned, and some that sprang out of nowhere. Some were crises—challenging and interesting—that tested your skills. Others were mundane and tested your patience. In any event, you’ve worked hard, grown as a professional and developed new talents. If you’re in the market for a new role, think of how you have grown in the last 12 months. When you’re interviewing, whether for a different role in the same organization, or at a new employer, you must consider what you bring to the table. But just listing your skills on your résumé isn’t enough.

At the top of your résumé you’ve written: “Hard-working and innovative professional with a proven track record of success.” That’s interesting, but you’re asserting a generic, self-serving conclusion. It means little or nothing to the prospective employer. During the interview, you’ll be talking about your talents and your skills—all necessary steps in the conversation. But it’s not the conclusion you draw about your abilities that I’ll notice. It’s the simple story you can tell that proves to me you have the goods. Let’s talk about telling stories.

Whether you are currently interviewing or simply starting to determine your “personal brand,” you should always be thinking of how you differentiate yourself in the marketplace. Think of it this way, regardless of the industry in which you work, and whether your organization provides products or services, you are the key product you are offering—your integrity, your self-discipline, your innovative ideas. Think in terms of, “What do I claim to offer, and how do I prove that value?” I can’t answer the first question for you. But the second point is simple—you prove your value through the stories of your accomplishments. Stories resonate with us more than facts.

Stories are tricky. Too short and they don’t make the point or are too vague. Too long and they’re boring and pedantic. Some ground rules:

1. Telling stories about your accomplishments is not bragging. (Unless you are stretching the truth. Don’t stretch the truth; that’s called lying and eventually you will be exposed.) Telling stories will allow you to back up your conclusions about the skills you claim you have. If you can’t tell me when you were successful professionally, why would I hire you? You can tell meaningful stories about your success not from the perspective of “Look at how great I am,” but from the perspective of, “This group or individual was facing a challenge and I was lucky enough to be able to help them overcome that problem.”

2. Stories don’t need to be long and complicated to make a point. Distill the facts of your story to the key elements important for this person to hear: not so short that your story becomes an over-eager, “I’ve done that!” but not so long that the person starts to think, “Where is he going with this?” Tailor your story to meet the needs of the interview. What issues has the other person raised as challenges in the role for which you are interviewing? What story can you share that shows you have dealt with that challenge?

3. Stories have a structure. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All stories begin with grounding the facts in time or space.

  • There’s a small firm in Peoria….
  • On the outskirts of Boston….
  • A month into my current job….
  • Two weeks ago, Tuesday….

(N.B. If “Two weeks ago Tuesday,” was also “a month into my current job,” find a different story.)

All stories end with a line that lets you know the story is complete. In your case, that line should sound something like, “So it felt great to be able to help solve that problem for the client.” That type of ending highlights your talent, while coming across as modest and grateful rather than arrogant.

The middle of the story will change in length and content based on the audience to whom you are speaking and the needs in the moment. Every story has myriad details we include or don’t based on the setting. Include those details you think drive home your main point, but always err on the side of brevity.

4. Don’t go negative. No one likes a downer. The story should never be about how someone else failed and you stepped in to save the day. You can highlight a problem that existed, but not the party who created the problem. You should feel comfortable sharing an instance when you failed, but, ideally, it’s a small failure, not a major disaster. And even then, the focus of the story is about how you made things right in the end, not about beating yourself up over a personal failing.

5. Use the story to introduce a question. “Recently, I was working with a technology group that needed to accomplish X. How are you dealing with those issues?” That simple, one sentence “story” creates context. The substantive, specific question tells the interviewer that you both understand the issues her company is facing, and have dealt with this problem before. Now the conversation is less about whether you possess a particular skill set and more about how you are already putting your skills to work to solve the interviewer’s challenges. You can seem incredibly smart in an interview by asking relevant, insightful questions, even before you get around to talking about your skills.

6. Leverage any element of your story that appeals to the five senses. People are more likely to remember stories that appeal to our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. The interviewer isn’t just assessing you in the abstract. She or he is assessing you in comparison to many other candidates. The more memorable your story, the more likely you’ll be remembered.

Last month I was coaching a senior associate at a law firm who was on the cusp of making partner. He is a smart attorney with excellent technical skills, but his quiet demeanor was keeping him from standing out as a strong client relationship person. As we sat at the massive table in the stately conference room at his firm, he shyly commented that he didn’t have any stories to tell, which I flatly refused to believe. (You don’t work long, hard hours for 10-plus years without having lots of stories.) It only took a few questions about his work life to help him realize that every client he had helped, every project he worked on, every pro bono matter he had handled, all provided instances of his success. Each provided ample material for a story about the different talents he brought to bear to help the firm. Once he started seeing those moments in terms of stories, he was able to convey his value with much greater confidence. His voice became stronger and his body language became more animated. He simply became more convincing. You can too.

These are just a few pointers to keep in mind as you hone your own stories about your professional successes while you look to new and different opportunities in the workforce.

Best of luck.

SOURCE: Jay Sullivan