Most non-fiction writers and editors have some confidence in their ability to weave a good story out of the raw material of real life. It turns out that this skill has a very practical application outside of writing articles or producing videos, podcasts and other media—it can help you secure a great job!
Today I’m interviewing Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers. She is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits its newsletter QuintZine, and blogs about storytelling at A Storied Career. Her most recent book, “Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career,” was published by JIST Works in April.
Hansen, who earned her doctorate from Union Institute & University, has also authored a number of other books on career-related topics, including “Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates,” “A Foot in the Door,” and “Top Notch Executive Resumes.”
How did you come to write this book?
Early on my Ph.D. program, I took an organizational behavior class that emphasized postmodernism. While researching postmodernism, I came across the discipline of organizational storytelling, which I had never hard of but instantly resonated with me because I’ve always loved stories. I immediately knew that storytelling should be the centerpiece of my dissertation research.
My Ph.D. program encouraged dissertation projects that were outside the norm — such as artistic endeavors and book manuscripts. I decided to write a book about storytelling in the job search. Since the book was directed at a mass audience, I was also required to write a “contextual essay,” the scholarly research version of the book.
Between the beginning and end of my doctoral program, a number of forces combined to make my school’s requirements more rigorous, and I was encouraged to turn the contextual essay into a full-blown dissertation. So, I ended up writing both the book manuscript and the dissertation for my program. I felt really fortunate that the book was published.
Why are stories such powerful tools in career marketing? What can stories do that traditional approaches cannot?
- Stories establish your identity and reveal your personality; they satisfy the basic human need to be known.
- Stories help you know yourself and build confidence.
- Stories make you memorable.
- Stories establish trust.
- Stories establish an emotional connection between storyteller and listener and inspire the listener’s investment in the storyteller’s success.
- Stories help you stand out.
- Stories illustrate skills, accomplishments, values, characteristics, qualifications, expertise, strengths, and more. Stories paint vivid pictures.
- Stories explain key life/career decisions, choices, and changes.
- Stories told well help you portray yourself as a strong communicator.
Based on your professional experience, are people in general aware of how to tell stories about themselves? Why or why not?
Definitely not! Based on my observations, most people are both uncomfortable telling stories about themselves and flummoxed about how to do it.
I think the discomfort element is because most job-search stories necessarily focus on accomplishments, and people are wary about talking about their accomplishments because it feels like boasting. They probably also have not thought enough about their accomplishments or catalogued them as they moved from job to job. Asking them to tell stories about their accomplishments is like asking a non-writer to write an article. That’s what my book is for — to help non-storytellers learn to tell their stories in the job search.
Most people are both uncomfortable telling stories about themselves and flummoxed about how to do it … Asking them to tell stories about their accomplishments is like asking a non-writer to write an article.
How do stories told in the career search differ from stories that nonfiction writers might compose in their day-to-day writing for publication?
They are not so very different. Stories in the career search by necessity are shorter, of course, than articles non-fiction writers produce. I also advise particular structures for job-search stories, such as situation (or problem or challenge), action, result, etc.
Do you think the pre-formulated story frames (SMART, STAR, etc.) given by career experts to structure interview questions are useful? Are there instances in which they get in the way?
I do think they are useful; however, I’m trying to expand the concept of the storytelling structure for the job search. If I do another edition of the book, I will likely present more expansive ideas on story structures. For example, at a storytelling conference I attended earlier this year, a presenter suggested that the situation-action-result formula is boring and that a better approach is to describe what was at stake.
What skills do career seekers need to learn to tell compelling stories as they look for work?
First, they need the ability to identify their skills and accomplishments and to discern which of these are most relevant to a given job. Then they need to compose or construct their stories effectively. And finally, they need to be able to tell stories well in an interview. These are all skills that anyone can develop with practice.
How can people “tell stories” on their resumes and cover letters? How can they provide a well-told tale without taking up excessive amounts of room?
The resume is the trickiest component in career-marketing communication in which to tell stories because the clipped, bulleted format we’ve come to expect of resumes doesn’t lend itself well to storytelling. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when creating a story-based resume:
- A commonly used section at the top of the resume, a Qualifications Summary or Professional Profile, provides an excellent vehicle for telling the story of who you are professionally. Imagine that this section begins with the phrase, “I am a(n)…” and let your bullet points tell a story of who you are and how you qualify for this job.
- Tell stories of accomplishments, not duties and responsibilities. Susan Britton Whitcomb, author of “Resume Magic,” one of the most highly recommended resume books on the market, calls accomplishments “the linchpin of a great resume.” Accomplishments are best communicated in story form. Think about what would have been different in each situation without your actions? What would not have happened if you hadn’t been there? How did you leave each organization better than you found it?
- Accomplishment stories are among the easiest and most satisfying to craft. Career experts advise job-seekers to use any one of several similar “formulas,” especially in job interviews. But you can easily use these formulas in resumes. The formulas are generally three steps long, and the last two steps are Action and Result. In a resume, however, tell these story in reverse order – results, action, problem/situation/challenge. Why? Because, the employer spends only 2.5 to 20 seconds looking at your resume. Example: “[Result:] More than doubled Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) scores from 40 percent to 88 percent in four months [Action:] by initiating phone campaign [Situation:] to proactively resolve issues.”
- Humanize and personalize your resume. The trend in resumes has been to eschew personal information and interests. But this type of human-interest information can work for you as long as you relate it to professional skills. It also helps to reveal more of your story to the employer and portrays you as someone he or she would like to get to know better.
- Remember that you don’t have to tell the same stories on every resume you send out.
Cover letters offer the job-seeker significant latitude to tell stories because letters are quite compatible with the narrative form. You can engage the employer, make an emotional connection, show results, and become instantly memorable by writing at least one paragraph in the form of a powerful story. Here are some guidelines:
- Make it as concise. Employers are spending less time than they used to reading cover letters. Ideally, your letter should be about four paragraphs, and one of those should tell a story.
- Tell only the stories that are relevant to the employer’s requirements, the problems you can solve, and the results you can achieve. If the relevance isn’t immediately obvious from your story, help the reader make the connection by pointing out the skills and qualifications the story illustrates.
- Work some of the employer’s own messages and language into your story. Pick out buzzwords and phrases from the employer’s Web site or print publications about the organization. Play these back to the employer in your story.
- Don’t neglect the “storyline” in the rest of the letter. Even if only one paragraph in your letter is in story form, try to integrate the story’s theme throughout your letter and tie the letter together by briefly referring back to the story in your final paragraph. Here are three examples of story-based cover letters:
- Make your stories specific and quantify results whenever possible. The reader can more easily picture you succeeding on the job when you describe a specific situation.
- Avoid lengthy stories with too much detail.
- Don’t overlook the story-fueling potential of job postings and want ads. The principle here is similar to the language-mirroring described above. In his book, “Don’t Send a Resume,” Jeffrey Fox calls the best letters written in response to want ads “boomerang letters” because they “fly the want ad words – the copy – back to the writer of the ad.”
While I don’t necessarily think of myself as a great storyteller, I do find myself mentally editing when I hear others telling a story — thinking to myself about how the story could be better. I mentally edit myself, too. I choose words carefully and tend not to speak until I’ve edited what I plan to say.
Do you think editing is an important skill for would-be career storytellers? Why?
This is a fantastic question and one I have not been asked before. Not surprising that it would be asked by an editor!
I just wrote on my blog recently that, while I don’t necessarily think of myself as a great storyteller, I do find myself mentally editing when I hear others telling a story — thinking to myself about how the story could be better. I mentally edit myself, too. I choose words carefully and tend not to speak until I’ve edited what I plan to say.
That’s a good cautionary note for telling stories in job-interviews: Before responding to a question, take just a quick moment to gather your thoughts before blurting something out. Editing also comes in with resumes and cover letter because you obviously must tell your stories in a small amount of space, so you must continually hone and refine your stories until they are not only the right length but also convey exactly the right message.
What advantages might professional writers and editors have when using the story-based approach in the career hunt?
In theory, they should have an advantage because they know how to compose stories and how to edit themselves and choose the right words.
But, again, in using myself as an example, I’m a writer who has done a lot of writing — 8 books — yet I don’t consider myself a stellar storyteller. I would be interested in learning the thoughts of you and your readers. As writers and editors, how does this approach feel to you? Do you feel it should be easy for you — or is it somehow more difficult?
Is there anything else we haven’t covered you think is relevant?
On my blog, A Storied Career. I talk about applied uses of storytelling that are a lot broader than just the job search, but I do write regularly about storytelling for career advancement and the job hunt.