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October 29, 2021

Acing the Interview: How to Tell Your Story and Sell Yourself

By Danielle DeGroot, University College Writer

Acing the job interview can be a momentous challenge, regardless of the stage of career one is in. The art of selling oneself as the best fit for the job, creating a connection with a potential employer, in a very brief time is a form of storytelling. This University College at the University of Denver’s Career Transition Workshop was hosted by award-winning actor, author, humorist, and University College educator Matthew Taylor tackles the art and process of using the power of storytelling to ace your job interview. He brings 25 years of coaching theater, storytelling, and the art of improvisation, focusing on communication using narrative. The founder of Persuasion Through Narrative has worked with many diverse groups of people; however, he has focused primarily on the legal and educational fields to help develop communication skills using the power of storytelling.  

As Taylor explains in the webinar, we interview all the time, even if it is not formally labeled as such. Every time we meet someone new, we are essentially interviewing. We want to make a quick connection, have them remember us, and have a finite amount of time to accomplish that task. Taylor points out that we actually are in an interview type of situation at least once or twice a day where we need to deliver information that is dynamic, understood, and memorable in a short space of time. This is where using storytelling becomes an asset that can set you apart from others.  

Why Stories Work   

Stories are powerful for many reasons; they foster a deep connection on various levels, often conjuring up personal connections with an audience. We learn and grow from our own experiences, and through others sharing theirs with us. Rather than a simple recitation of the facts, a story makes information interesting, dynamic, and most importantly, something others remember. They evoke emotion, memories, and associations from our own lives. In a situation like a job interview, this is exactly what we want; to get the interviewer to remember who we are and recall the information we share, then eventually hire us. Taylor developed an acronym of three critical storytelling elements that explains why stories work, he calls it CPR:  

  • Connect – Human beings are social creatures, we want to connect and bond with others, stories help us do this. “If you do not connect with the person you are talking to you stand little chance of that person receiving any of the information you are delivering,” Matthew Taylor.  
  • Persuade – Stories are persuasive, they have a purpose, to persuade others, aiding the storyteller to meet their goal. Often the storyteller is working to get specific needs or wants satisfied, in this case getting hired for a job. Facts alone are not persuasive, wrapping them in a story makes them persuasive.  
  • Recall – Stories are not just about remembering an idea, they allow the listener to recall information in the form of a story. The researcher Bruno discovered that stories are 22 times more memorable than a list or presentation of facts. We remember stories, then tell them forward, spreading ideas and thoughts. In an interview, a story helps the interviewer remember who YOU are, what the recall and retell is the story you told in the interview.  

How Stories Work   

Memory plays a huge role in how stories work; Taylor discusses the three types of memory humans have and how they play a role in storytelling.  

  • Sensory memory is through our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Sensory memory is very short-term; in fact, Miller says this information is stored for just about 20 seconds.  
  • Working memory is what Taylor calls the dry erase board of life, everything we do has to go through our working memory, which holds information for a brief time. Bits of information are pulled from short- and long-term memory to complete a task. Working memory is limited, it only holds information for a fleeting amount of time. According to famed researcher George Miller’s research in 1956, this time lasts only about 20 to 30 seconds and holds just seven pieces of information, give or take two.  
  • Long-term memory is huge and encompasses everything we have ever stored, a vast amount of information. With essentially unlimited capacity, the long-term memory organizes, and stores information and facts, and events are brought out by cross-connections, or “associations.”   

As Taylor shares, stories create cross-connections and associations in others’ minds that connect to their own story as we tell ours. A compelling narrative is not so much about what story one is telling, it is about the personal connection that is being made with the other person.  

Which Stories to Tell and Why   

Taylor shares a quote from businessman Peter Guber, author of Tell to Win that helps define what a story is and why stories work:  

“A story is a vehicle that allows you to put the facts in an emotional context.”     

Taking the facts that you want to share, then framing them in a compelling narrative, in an interview, through a cover letter, and even in a resume, is a form of storytelling. As with any story narratives need to have structure. Taylor uses German playwright Gustav Freytag’s pyramid to illustrate how this type of story should be structured.  

The exposition starts at the bottom of the pyramid. This is particularly important in storytelling and should include the inciting incident; what happened to break the routine and start the action. Rising action then leads to the top of the pyramid and the climax of the story. Falling action leads to the bottom of the pyramid, in most cases, the resolution or other end to the story.  

Storytelling Tips for Your Interview   

Taylor explains in the webinar how developing a good story to sell yourself sets up the entire framework of acing an interview. You must tell people the facts, then tell them a story, then retell them the facts. Interview stories should be simple.  

  • The first, and most crucial step, is determining what the most important facts are. Then you must build a narrative that wraps the facts in an emotional context, something others will relate to.  
  • Use names and specific details to build an emotional connection.  
  • Get right to the story, you do not need to include details that do not matter.  
  • Be natural: remember, the story is intended to illustrate the facts  
  • A story should be made up of small little moments that illustrate the facts you have already told them. Repetition is key to remembrance and recall.  

4 Steps to Crafting Your Interview Story   

  1. Consider the audience: what do they want, what do they know, what they do not know, and what do they need to know.  
  1. Start with the end in mind: what do you want them to do or think differently when you are done?  
  1. Identify key facts and messages, remember they will only keep two or three things you say in their working memory.  
  1. Identify which brief story moments will illustrate the facts. Ask yourself what is the statement that will make them ask me a question?  

Remember, you want the story to reveal important parts of yourself, inspire trust, compassion, stability, and hope. The story should include a moment of reflection and connect with the audience through logos(logic), pathos (emotion), or ethos (credibility or character). Keep it short at about 30 to 60 seconds, and make it feel natural, as unlike a forced story as possible.  

Taylor uses the example of a bankruptcy attorney when asked what they do, responding with “I help people,” rather than simply stating their profession, grabbing the audience’s interest, and prompting them to want to learn more. 

“Your story should flow so that all you are really doing is illustrating the facts, hopefully, they will never know there is a story, “Matthew Taylor.  

You can watch the entire webinar, as well as other career development webinars on the University College Vimeo page.  

Acing the Interview: How to Tell Your Story and Sell Yourself 

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