Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Everyone Needs A Story

This post is for anyone who will ever go on an interview.  It is also for people who do the interviewing in terms of what to look for in candidates.

Knowing why you are interviewing is a vital component of every interview situation.  It isn’t enough to just be unhappy in your current situation. You have to be able to articulate what brings you to be looking.  Beyond that, you must also be able to articulate two other aspects of your work life: you have to position yourself and you have to be able to explain what you are looking for.  These three elements form what I call, "your story".  Your stories need to be true, totally understandable, believable and compelling.  When you leave an interview, even if the job isn't right for you, the interviewer needs to know who you are and what would be right for you.  Your story should make them want to hire you.

Everyone must have a story.  In short, you need to be able to answer one simple question:  Why should you be hired?

Knowing who you are is really important.  Understanding your own experience and putting it into an understandable context so that the people talking to you know what you bring to their party is a critical component of the interviewing process.  You should be able to articulate who you are and what you do in one or two succinct sentences. 

The first rule in interviewing is to know yourself and your own limitations.  Messrs. Jack  Traut and Al Reis in their seminal book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (mandatory reading for all advertising practitioners, no matter what your discipline)  have always lectured that the essence of positioning is sacrifice - their supposition is that no marketer can be all things to all people.  And no person looking for a job can be everything to everybody they interview with.  It is better to not be considered for a wrong job than not be considered for a right job if you cannot articulate why they need to hire you.  It isn't just about your experience, but it is about what you can do with that experience.  Just because you have handled a competitive brand does not necessarily mean that you can resolve the issues that a competitor faces.

I see lots of résumés with headlines or self descriptions which read something like: “World class sales and marketing leader”.  I just got one which said, "Driving revenue growth through development of high volume growth..."  Huh? That isn't even understandable English.  And while I am sure that people have worked hard and thought long in order to generate such a self description, it really offers very little unique information. In fact, when I see résumés with statements like this, I often skip over them.  Far better would be, “World class sales leader who resolves serious selling obstacles”.  Then you need to be able to explain those obstacles during your interview.

When I was an account manager at ad agencies, I used to position myself by saying that I was a “fireman” who could resolve serious client relationship issues by generating trust.  It was simple and accurate and allowed me to go on to explain what I did and how I worked.  I rarely didn't get offered a job I wanted.

Everyone at one time or another has been asked about their strengths and weaknesses.  And while I think these are poor questions by asked by inexperienced interviewers, you must be prepared to answer them.  But what I am talking about here goes way beyond that.  You have to be able to explain yourself and, at the same time, you have to be able to give specific examples of how you have accomplished your achievements.

In interviewing, past achievements are indicative of future potential (I will expand on this concept in future posts).

Beyond that, whatever you say has to be true – it is too easy to reference check someone’s claimed accomplishments.  Do not exaggerate your role in your achievements. But take credit for what you have legitimately accomplished.  At the same time, don’t underrate yourself – I have had many candidates tell me that what they had accomplished  was a team effort.  This response could be the kiss of death in an interview.

But most important, your story has to be believable and understandable.  Over the years I have had many senior (and some junior) executives come in and tell me convoluted and complicated stories about how and why they left a company.  The best rule of thumb when giving bad news is to keep it short and simple.  It is much easier to say that your account cut its billings and you were cut than to give a long, woeful explanation about how the account dried up and how your client wanted to keep you but your boss needed to make cuts.  Complicated explanations of agency and client politics are not only irrelevant, but confusing.  First, no one cares, but second, in the words of Shakespeare, “he doth protest too much.’  Why cast doubts when none are necessary?

The best way to determine if your story works is to practice with an objective professional or a friend who is uninvolved with work.  I have no issue with candidates asking me how their positioning and explanations work prior to an interview.  An essential part of my personal interviewing process is to brief candidates about who they will be seeing and how to position themselves.  I am sure that many other recruiters do the same.  This briefing is a perfect time to bounce your story off a the recruiter. And, if you are a candidate of mine and you have networked your way into an interview, I would also be happy to have you share your story with me prior to the meeting.

Everyone needs a story and, with practice, it should come out easily and persuasively.

1 comment:

  1. Great article...it's what my son's guidance counselor told him about applying to colleges-- you have to figure out your story and let the colleges know what it is. You were always great with me, in helping me prepare my story-- I use your advice all the time.


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