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Seven Storytelling Tips to Stand Out in Your Job Search

In a crowded job market, storytelling in your secret weapon—narratives that highlight your social media presence, résumé, and job interviews. Jane Praeger, Lecturer in the Discipline of Strategic Communication in the Faculty of Professional Studies at Columbia University, offers these tips to make storytelling work for you.

1. Know your audience.

When you apply for a job, you compete against countless other candidates. But before you embark on telling your personal story, you must know the right story to tell.

“One of the biggest mistakes is a failure to really research the audience,” says Praeger. Seek information beyond the posted job description. “Be a bit of a detective” and tease out what challenges the hiring manager wants to solve.

In her case, when she hires an assistant, she looks for someone who is organized and detail oriented. She says that if a job candidate can tell a story about how they streamlined their boss’s processes, “that would be the story to tell me to land the job.”

2. Start as close to the end as possible.

“People start stories way too early. ““Two years ago?’ No, tell the story where the conflict arises,” she says. “Maybe those [extra] details are necessary if you’re telling this to your friends at a cafe, but in a professional context, it’s not.”

Especially at a job interview, starting close to the end helps with concision. “Stories are almost always too long,” she says. So forgo long introductions and include only the essential elements.

3. Clarify your message.

She says that, in her storytelling classes, oftentimes ten different students interpret a speaker's story in ten different ways. “People bring their own schemas to the story. So while you might think that the point of the story is very clear, they may be hearing it completely differently.”

She says that narratives need what radio journalist Ira Glass calls “the moment of reflection.” For example, “I’m telling this story because I understand that in your workplace, deadlines are really critical, and I'm comfortable meeting tough deadlines.”

“People don’t do that enough—convey in one sentence, ‘And here’s what the story means to you, not just to me.’”

4. Seize every storytelling opportunity.

Don’t limit storytelling to a job interview context. Instead of bullet pointing your work experience, create a narrative.

“People don’t tell stories enough on their resumes. They tend to be lists of credentials or responsibilities. And lists are boring!”

“You need to see where the opportunities are for using storytelling. Particularly for speeches and presentations and sales pitches, there are always opportunities.” Praeger says, ”Even in your LinkedIn profile, you can tell a short narrative about yourself.”

5. Be vulnerable.

Praeger says that, for her consulting business, Ovid, Inc., sometimes she coaches executives on their speeches for fundraising events. “I’m always pushing them to tell more stories, even if it makes them feel more vulnerable than they might be comfortable doing.”

“Stories do require a degree of vulnerability, particularly if you’re telling a story about yourself,” she says, “but that’s how you create an immediate connection with your audience.” It’s a way to cultivate empathy that not only inspires people but also persuades them to support your cause — or to hire you.

6. Craft your first and last sentences.

Praeger says, “You have to craft and memorize your first and last sentence. It has to be a great first sentence that pulls people in and signals to people that what you’re going to tell them next is going to be really interesting so that they don’t tune out.” Specific to job hunting, think of how to use your last sentence to emphasize your potential value to an employer.

7. Practice, practice, practice.

In class, Praeger has the audience take a step toward the speaker when they’re interested in what’s being said and take a step back when they feel confused or bored by the narrative. “You get immediate, visceral feedback as to what’s working or not in your story. You want to find out what was interesting.”

She says that It’s best to practice it in front of people. “Have your friends or your listeners tell you where they were compelled.”

Ultimately, “You have to craft the story. You really have to think about how to begin it, how to end it, what’s that moment of reflection going to be, what are the telling details?”

It’s not so much that stories are memorable to employers, they’re memorable to everyone: “People can’t help but respond to a good story. They engage our emotions, they engage our empathy, they enable us to see the world from the perspective of another person. Our judgmental selves tend to recede into the background. You see the world from the perspective of the protagonist. That’s what a good story does.”