May 11, 2009, 9:33 AM — With unemployment at a 26-year high of 8.5 percent, the biggest challenge job seekers face today -- next to finding a new job -- is differentiating themselves from the more than 13.2 million other people who are out of work and looking for new employment.
One way job seekers can stand out from the job search competition is to tell stories that illustrate their professional experience, says Katharine Hansen, the creative director and associate publisher of the website Quintessential Careers and author of eight career management books.
Story-telling, when done right, reveals a job seeker's personality, makes him or her more memorable, and helps a job seeker establish an emotional connection with hiring managers, Hansen says.
"That's what hiring managers really want: They want to learn about job seekers' personalities," says Hansen.
What's more, she adds, "When job seekers use stories, they show that they're good communicators, and most employers say that communication skills are among the top skills they're looking for."
Indeed, CIO's State of the CIO Research shows year after year that an IT leader's success hinges on his or her ability to communicate. And increasingly, CIOs seek the same from their IT staffs: They want IT professionals who can communicate effectively with co-workers in IT and with end-users. (See Surviving the IT Job Market: How Soft Skills Give You an Edge.)
By spinning compelling yet truthful tales about their experience, qualifications and fit for a company, job seekers can demonstrate their uniqueness and ability to engage people.
Here are five fundamentals of story-telling that job seekers can apply in cover letters and during job interviews to impress hiring managers.
Every story has a structure--a beginning, middle and end, or an introduction, confrontation and conclusion.
These narrative structures bring out the conflicts, tension and drama that enliven stories and keep audiences engaged.
Hansen recommends that job seekers employ the situation-action-result structure when describing their professional challenges and accomplishments. It works for résumés, cover letters and job interviews, she says.
The situation part of the situation-action-result formula sets the scene and establishes some tension or build-up to the problem the job seeker faced. The action, of course, addresses the measures the job seeker took to deal with the situation, and the result encapsulates the outcome of the situation.
For an imperiled project -- an inherently dramatic situation with which many IT professionals have experience -- a job interview story might proceed something like this:
Situation: My previous employer had spent $X million upgrading its core stock trading platform, on which all customer transactions run. The upgrade, which would enable faster trades and bring more functionality to customers, was critical for us to remain competitive. But the company bit off more than it could chew with the deployment, and customers began having problems making trades.
Action: Under my leadership, we temporarily switched back to the old trading platform to maintain customer service levels while we figured out what was wrong with the new system. After reevaluating our implementation plans, we decided to deploy new functionality in increments, rather than all at once, to ensure a smoother transition to the new trading system for customers and to better allocate work across project staff.
Result: We stabilized trading activity for our customers and eventually deployed all new technology and functionality. By switching deployment strategies, we prevented the cost of the project from ballooning to $X million and in fact saved $X by better managing our human resources.
Good stories depend on drama and tension, and the situation-action-result structure highlights both. Hansen says this approach also prevents job seekers from making a common mistake when answering interview questions: beginning an answer with an accomplishment and not offering any build-up.
Hansen also advises job seekers to switch around the elements of the situation-action-result formula as necessary. For example, she says, for résumés, job seekers should start with the result and explain how their action led to it: Cut IT costs by 20 percent (result) by renegotiating telecom contracts and outsourcing the maintenance of legacy systems (action).
The job seeker is, of course, the central character in his or her professional stories. But other characters, such as managers, staff and business partners, round out the job seeker's anecdotes. Job seekers can use those "supporting" characters to highlight their accomplishments when answering hiring managers' interview questions about their approach to dealing with conflict and their management challenges.
As job seekers discuss potentially thorny questions about interpersonal issues with prospective employers, Hansen warns against bad-mouthing your supporting characters: "You want to be careful not to trash a former supervisor or co-workers," she says.
Remember that the most memorable characters in literature are nuanced (they're also often the most flawed and conflicted: Think Shakespeare's Hamlet, James Joyce's Leopold Bloom, Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones.) Job seekers' stories need to demonstrate the depth of their character to hiring managers without exposing flaws that will scare them away. Their stories need to leave hiring managers with the impression of someone as dynamic and capable as Captain Kirk, without over-doing it on the heroics. Hiring managers will see right through that act.
Sensory details provide an essential element of good story-telling, says Hansen, because they help draw in audiences. Just as descriptions of a house's smell or a character's clothes make a story more believable, details about a job seeker's professional experience will make their stories more credible and enticing to hiring managers.
"In a job seeking story, numerical details-numbers, percentages-are really important," says Hansen. Key details to include in résumés and cover letters and in your answers to interview questions are the size of the IT budget you oversaw, the number of people you managed, size and scope of projects, and percents and dollars of revenue generated or costs cut.
Though detail is helpful, job seekers want to make sure they emphasize the particulars that are important to their audience-the hiring manager. They don't want to waste precious interview time describing what their employer's office looks like or the taste of the coffee in the break room.
The Two-Minute Rule
All this talk about recounting stories shouldn't make job seekers think they need to transform simple, straightforward anecdotes about their professional experiences into epic tales. Rambling responses to interview questions bore hiring managers.
Consequently, Hansen says job seekers' responses to interview questions shouldn't run longer than two minutes. She recommends that you draft your stories on paper, rehearse them out loud with friends or family who can provide feedback, and revise them as necessary until you can hit all necessary points in two minutes or less.
Even well-structured stories can fall flat if they're not delivered with emotion. This is particularly true for challenge-action-result formats, admits Hansen, so job seekers should speak about their work with enthusiasm. A job seeker's passion for his or her metier is infectious and demonstrates another quality that hiring managers find irresistible in prospective employees-confidence.
Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.