Too many people forget the key to a great interview: what the interviewer remembers about you.
The vast majority of what happens in any given interview is pretty forgettable…for the interviewer. As the candidate, you have one experience of the interview question. When the interviewer asks about your greatest weakness and you cleverly reframe a strength by saying, “Gosh, Jim, you know sometimes I work too hard.” You probably feel like you nailed it.
But the hiring manager had four people give them the same response. You thought you nailed that whole section of the interview, but you ended up being either completely forgettable or failing to gain any edge over the other people you are competing with. The good news is the hiring manager probably forgot the other four people as well. The bad news is they remembered the other three applicants who gave unique interview responses.
In interviews, your skills will always be judged in comparison with other applicants. Your key differentiators ultimately drive the manager’s decision-making. The hiring manager is looking for you to demonstrate how you are measurably better than your competitors at achieving business results. If you are not measurably better than your competition for that position, you are unlikely to get an interview. Great interviewing means demonstrating your competitive advantage in a memorable way.
Consider the business situations you like best. Are you clear on your competitive advantages—the things that make you better than your peers at dealing with particular situations? If 300 people were to apply for the same job, would your advantages put you in the top 10 percent of applicants?
And even if you are clear on your advantages, how do you explain them to the hiring manager so that you stand out from the competition?
With your stories. Your stories help you stand out because interviewers understand and remember stories. They are far more memorable than degrees, credentials, or any other facts about your background. The right story brings your skills to life and provides the vital context your listener needs. A well-told story contains more useful information than an unconnected interview answer ever will. Properly told stories help people understand and relate to you. When people listen to your stories, they better understand what drives you, and your odds of landing the job significantly improve.
However, don’t get lost in the details—you’re not Tolkien or George RR Martin, you don’t need to both tell a story and build an entire world. Your stories must be laser-focused on the business issues you are best at handling, the business impact of your work, and why that’s important to you. If you don’t explain any of that in a memorable way, hiring managers will be left guessing at your motivations. (Watch Simon Sinek’s incredible TED Talk for advice on the simple power of explaining why you do what you do.)
So now you’re better prepared. But the other thing to remember is that interviewers probably aren’t as prepared as you. They may be looking at your resume for the first time as they walk down the hall to your meeting room. They may not be sure which questions they will ask you. You must be prepared to succeed in the interview, even when the decision-maker is not prepared.
Employers understand their own business situation. They understand the big picture of what they are trying to achieve. What they will struggle to understand is how your capabilities are relevant. They may not understand the specific challenges involved on a day-to-day basis. This is the classic problem of a strategist interviewing someone “down in the weeds.”
Your job is to connect the dots between what you are good at and what work needs to be accomplished. Your well-crafted stories will do this, because they give interviewers the information and context needed to form a valid opinion about your capabilities—even if they don’t understand their own questions.
The best way to tell your career story is with short CAR interview answers (also called STAR or CALL answers). CAR stands for Context, Actions, Results—everything the interviewer needs to understand your achievement, how recent it was, and what the scale was. If you can be the person who says, “Just last week I was doing exactly that,” and can back it up with specific details and references that will support your stories, you win. Your credibility climbs.
(To kickstart your thinking, consider a great day at work, or an accomplishment you’re proud of. What happened? What are the elements of a “great day” for you?)
Build your entire job-search process around a narrative that explains your career trajectory, where you want it to go (and why), and what you are both good at and interested in. Develop vignettes and experiences that demonstrate your capabilities—and you will never need to tell someone that you’re the best option for the job.
Do all this, and the hiring manager will not only remember you but be left wanting more.
For more job-search advice, read our Guide to Executive Job Search.