Every resume tells a story. Actually, if you do it right, every resume tells four to seven stories, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Interviewing has to be the most grueling aspect of landing a new job. There are countless aspects to a good interview: the preparation, what to wear, the open, the small talk, the anticipated questions, the unanticipated questions, the close, and the follow-up. Interviews are high pressure situations in which the interviewer holds all the power. As part of your preparation, you will want to make sure that, during the questions phase, you speak powerfully to your work experience. So often, when asked about an entry on their resume, or how they might handle a particular situation, people respond with hazy, meandering answers.
This article is a tutorial that will help you arm yourself with several stories that will communicate and connect with the interviewer. If you think about it, you might also be able to use the story structure in your resume and LinkedIn profile as well. Take some time to work through this tutorial and develop four to seven stories. Then, when people ask about your resume, tell them a well-crafted story.
Let’s begin by being clear about what is going on during the hiring process: getting hired is first and foremost, a sales job. Selling anything is hard, and selling yourself is the hardest. Somewhere, somehow you have to convince a handful of people that you are the perfect person for the job. What do you say? How much detail do you include? What’s the best way to convince people — people you don’t even know — that you have value to provide to their organization?
We know what doesn’t work: too many details and mind-numbing facts about what you’ve done. Oh sure, you must include some details and facts. Unfortunately, facts alone rarely convince anyone. If facts won’t close the sale, how do you get people to see the value that you are able to provide?
The answer is … stories. You must relay what you’ve done — and what you’ve learned — as a series of stories. This point hit home for me several years ago when I saw an interview with David Simon, the creator of, what is arguably, the best television series of all time. He was explaining how, for twenty years, he was desperately trying to get people to understand the futility of our War on Drugs. Week after week he would publish intelligent, well-written articles about what he was seeing on the streets of Baltimore. And week after week his impact seemed to be minimal. Then he had an epiphany. In his own words…
As a reporter, I was trying to explain how the drug war doesn’t work, and I would write these very careful and very well-researched pieces, and they would go into the ether and be gone. Whatever editorial writer was coming behind me would then write, “Let’s get tough on drugs,” as if I hadn’t said anything. Even my own newspaper. And I would think, “Man, it’s just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts.” When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats…
Did you catch that? The key here — and the one that has been bouncing around my brain for the last five plus years — is when you tell a story, people jump out of their seats! There’s no question that the stories embedded in The Wire get the point across in a way that well-written, journalistic articles never could. Let’s bring that same power into our resumes and our interviews.
Our lives, our job histories, and especially our resumes, are embedded with rich stories. To learn how to find them, we begin with a crash course in storytelling. Step one is to understand how there is a distinct shape to every story. For a quick primer there is no better teacher than the ineffable Kurt Vonnegut. Watch this delightful 4 1/2 minute video, paying special attention to the first story shape he describes: the ‘Man in Hole’ story.1
While there are a multitude of shapes a fictional story could take, I believe that the best resume stories have a “Man in the Hole” shape — although the Cinderella story shape might be ideal for turnaround situations.
Now that we know what shape our stories will take, let’s dig the next level down and take a look at each story’s structure. Like most Hollywood movies, our resume stories will have a memorable title and be told in three acts.
- Act I: Background: Set the stage.
- Act II: Actions: Tell your story.
- Act III: Results: Happy ending.
Developing Your Stories
We’ll come back to the title in a moment. For now, look through your resume and take a close look at each role you’ve held. Recall each company, each team, each manager, each project. What stands out to you? What stories do you see? Develop a Background-Action-Results (BAR) outline — in the shape of the ‘Man in Hole’ story — for each story-worthy entry in your resume. These questions may help.
Act I: Background
This is the moment at the beginning of the story where we get the context. Provide some color. Give us some background. Help us understand what it was like.
- What was the situation in the team / company / market when you took on this role, project, or initiative?
- What do people most need to know in order to understand your actions and your results?
- Why did they bring you in or assign you to this initiative?
- What was your initial assessment as to what needed to be done?
- How bad was it?
The Organizational State
Understanding the state of the organization is helpful here. Michael Watkins, in his excellent work Your Next Move, illuminates how every organization (as well as team and project) is in one of five organizational states at any given moment:
- Accelerated growth
- Sustaining success
As part of ‘setting the stage,’ tell us the state your organization when you took the helm.
Act II: Action!
Relay the actions that you took. Let the hero in you shine. Tell us not only what you did but why you did it. It’s important to give some insight into your thought processes. Most importantly, take us from the bottom of the hole to the heights of high performance.
- What did you do?
- Why did you do it?
- How did you do it?
- What were you thinking along the way?
- What were some of the obstacles that you overcame?
Be diplomatic. Often we find ourselves in less than ideal situations — perhaps a difficult boss or a highly dysfunctional team. Use euphemisms and choose your words carefully. People get it. Your interviewers will have had similar bosses and been in similar situations. Whatever you do, don’t go negative. You are telling a story about how you took on a challenging situation and turned it around to produce great results for the organization. At the very least, tell what you learned from a failure or difficult situation. Not only do great outcomes make great stories, but great learning opportunities do as well.
Act III: Results
Tell us the happy ending. Facts and numbers can be useful here. If, perchance, the results were less than spectacular, do not worry. Focus on what you learned rather than just the outcome. Ultimately, although the hiring manager will ask you questions about what you have done (i.e. in the past), what they are trying to figure out is what you learned and what you might do in the future. Make it easier for him/her.
- How did it turn out?
- What was the longer-term impact?
- What did you learn?
- How was the team / company / culture changed?
- What would you do differently if you had the chance to do it over again?
Pulling It All Together
Try it! Write down the BAR outline for four to seven stories buried in your resume. Notecards are good. PowerPoint is particularly good because you can zoom out to ‘Slide Sorter’ view and see all the story outlines at once. Spend several days developing and refining your stories and honing the outlines.
Give Each Story a Title
Now that you have a nice three-act structure for each of your stories, give each one a title. Each story must have a title! The reason has to do with the way our brains store information and the way we communicate with one another. A memorable title gives our brain a mental hook upon which we can hang the rest of the story. It’s the same way that a person’s name stores the entirety if their personality in our minds. Our brain compacts each story and files them neatly under each title.
For your resume stories, come up with a two or three word name for each story, something that is distinct and easy to remember. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be specific. “Let me tell you about my work in product marketing” is not memorable; “Let me tell you about ‘the Swiffer Launch'” sticks in your mind. “My work at NASA” is too nebulous; “the Apollo Project” is unforgettable.
When we give our stories good names, not only are you giving the listener a mental hook to help them remember your story but we are also giving them an easy way to recall and discuss it with their peers — a sharable meme, if you will. Remember, getting hired involves convincing several people that you are the right person for the job. In the debrief that follows a series of interviews, the interviewers will discuss your candidacy. The mere mention of one of your story titles by one of the interviewers will bring the story back to the forefront for the other interviewers who had the good fortune to hear the same story.
Pick Your Favorites
Of all the stories hiding in your resume, pick two or three favorites that you will ensure get told at every interview. If the interviewer opens the interview with the classic opener, “Tell me about yourself,” hop on it as an opportunity to tell your best story. Give a brief background of your upbringing, your education, your career, and then say, “But the thing I am most proud of…” and then tell your number-one favorite story. Pretty cool, huh?
Over the course of the interview you will get an opportunity, whether asked directly or indirectly about your job history, to tell several of your stories. If you get to the end of your interview and you realize that one of your favorite stories remains untold, include it at the end. Tell the interviewer that there is one more thing should need to know about you, and then recount your remaining favorite story.
Keep It Short
Your stories should run two to three minutes when spoken out loud. Longer than three minutes and you run the risk of providing too much for the interviewer to remember. Less than two minutes and there won’t be enough substance to your story to make it impactful.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Developing — and writing down — the outlines to your resume stories is step one. Practicing them out loud takes them to a whole new level. Ideally, you also want to practice them once or twice in front of someone else as well. Have a good opening, a fluid story, and a strong close.
Finding the stories embedded in your resume can be hard. Figuring out what you’ve learned can take some work. The good news is that learning is always retroactive. We learn when we reflect back over what we have done with fresh eyes. Feel free to set up an exploratory call if you would like some help.
Finally, please share your stories and your successes — either in the comments below or via a more direct message. I’d love to hear from you.
I wish you success.
1 If you enjoy the idea of story shapes, check out the delightful article called My Kingdom For Some Structure that deconstructs the shapes of many of the stories heard on NPR, complete with drawings on cocktail napkins.