May 30, 2019

How to Tell Your Story

At this point in my career, I estimate I’ve interviewed thousands of candidates over the years.  Different companies, different levels, different roles - and yet how I start the conversation has remained consistent. I typically begin with a simple request to “Tell me your story.” I will literally flip their resume over and look them in the eye, letting them know I believe the sum of their career is likely far more interesting when told rather what made it onto one sheet of paper.

I use this as a launching pad because it has the opportunity to take the conversation in a variety of different directions. Often, people will look for clarification.  

“Do you want me to focus on work, or personal, or what?!” My standard response is, “However you think I can best get to know you, and help you decide if this is a good fit for you or not." Where people take that direction is fascinating. How they proceed is often just as insightful to me about them as what they actually choose to share next.

More often than not, people will dive straight into a colorful retelling of their resume. Of course, they want me to know how qualified for the job they are, and they want to ensure they hit the parts they believe are most important for me to know.  This is valuable, but I know my colleagues will be the ones digging into deeper skills and experience, so candidly, I don’t care about this part too much. The people who stand out to me are those who can truly tell their story. Of course, they primarily weave in their work experiences as part of that career gestalt. When someone has the courage - especially in an interview - to share more of themselves, however, I take serious note.

Today we live in a world that is clouded by image and brand. So many people take to social media to share their lives: staged, filtered and faux-wonderful. And yet, when you follow someone for more than a few days, you are often able to weed out the BS from their reality.  I am drawn to those people are able to communicate and dare to share their real selves, in whatever way feels authentic to them.

Whether you are ever interviewed by me or not, the ability to tell your own story is a critical skill for us all. Understanding how to hit the salient points, not babble on, and exclude the superfluous details takes time, practice and effort.  This epic scene from Reservoir Dogs highlights a made up personal story, but it focuses on the importance of the details. By the time Tim Roth’s character needs to actually tell it, he nails it.  No, I’m not suggesting you should make up your own story; just that learning how to tell it well is important.

How to start? Think about any amazing story you’ve heard. Start with the most basic piece:  What’s the point? Then add in why you choosing to share these particular things and why are they important to you. Then consider the critical elements that make it into any fantastic story:  conflict, a hero, suspense, and resolution. Why is the ability to do this so important? Simple:

  1. Your resume is just a piece of paper. I would hate for someone to think that they had major insights into who I am or what I am capable of simply by reading a single sheet of paper with carefully crafted bullet points heralding how great I am. Unless someone asks you to walk through the chronological history of your career and asks very probing questions, think about what your actual experience says about you. For example, does your experience show you have been a risk taker?  Does it highlight how your life and work experiences have shaped how you lead? Not only should you understand the answers to these types of questions, but your ability to articulate them well is vital.

  2. Realize self-awareness is key.  There is a side benefit to being able to tell your story.  By doing so, you’ll also gain a deeper understanding of what led you to this place in your life, and why certain experiences played out the way they did.  In other words, it allows you to dig deeper to explore what you’ve lived and worked through, and ultimately how you got to the place you are today. By crafting your story, you aren’t just showing an interviewer a more intimate version of how great you are beyond your resume; this ability may also lead to a deeper self-confidence and understanding of yourself.  Who doesn’t want that?!

  3. Get help if needed. We’ve all been taught to be humble, but being able to balance humility with being able to articulate what makes you special takes skill and practice.  Don’t know where to start? Ask friends or co-workers whose opinions you trust for what they think makes you compelling. Then begin to structure it into your own unique tale, and practice telling it to this group.  Sounds silly, but feedback and practice will help you nail it. Organizations that can craft a compelling vision reap the benefits of brand loyalty and a devoted following (think Patagonia or Tom's).  You want to do the same for yourself, so people cannot help but to want to work with you.

  4. Go try it. I promise you’ll benefit from the exercise. Feel uncomfortable? Lean into it. Pretend you are sitting on my couch, and I’ve just asked you “What’s your story?”

I can’t wait to hear it. :)

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.