Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Interviewing Skill

Shan Wang
Shan Wang

Shan was born and raised in China’s Southwest City of Chengdu, and was educated in England for her Bachelor and first Master’s degrees (BSc. in Economics and MSc. in Economics) at the University of Nottingham and the University of Warwick, respectively. Her working/internship footprints have been scattered over the world from Beijing and Hong Kong to New York and Bangkok, and across various disciplines in Start-up (Foxtail Records), Government Think Tank (Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences), Financial Services (Bank of China, ISDA, AXA Advisors), International Organization (the United Nations) and Private Manufacturing Sector (family business). She regards music as cure and finds peace in art.

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As part of the MSF Speaker Series, the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School invited Laura Wexler, co-founder and co-producer of The Stoop Storytelling Series, to teach Carey students how to develop professional pitches. The workshop aimed to enhance our ability to create a professional identity and a story, and transfer those into powerful tools that can be meaningful in networking, interviews and general professional communication.

Prior to this session, when storytelling was mentioned, the keywords that instantly popped in my head included grandma, bedtime and fairy tales. For me, storytelling had nothing to do with interviews, job hunting or professionalism. 

That’s why a beautiful contrast sparkled when the storytelling session with Ms Laura Wexler painted a new picture for me, not as a listener, but as a teller. I became aware of the power of storytelling and how it can be leveraged to help me professionally.

Laura opened the session with a brief yet engaging story about her decision to devote herself to storytelling and how that decision had tremendously influenced her and others from various dimensions. As a listener, I found it a rather enjoyable experience and, at the same time, got the impression that she is passionate, optimistic, motivated and organized. The information-spreading process was fun – the speaker unconsciously planted her image in the audience members’ minds, a method that is much more impactful than plain, bland, resume-like introduction. However, it did, like the resume, smartly answer the most common interview inquiry: “Tell me a more about yourself.”

I, therefore, started to reflect on how I responded when faced with that inquiry in the past; I usually instinctively formed the bullet points found on my resume, points like my education, training, strengths, and qualifications. I suddenly realized that I rarely positioned myself as a listener and didn’t suspect that what I was trying to share might be boring or promoted in an unattractive manner.

Laura moved on to the next phase where she revealed how people’s natural hunger for stories can be directed to their advantage while they are trying to introduce themselves to prospective employers. The primary argument is that people relate to stories in which they can see pieces of themselves – the basic human traits that are not just successes, but are mostly struggles, failures and imperfections.

Her argument triggered my memory about an interview I had with NYC-based financial advisory company years ago, in which I accidentally mentioned my failed experience as an indie rock band manager. I certainly did not categorize the experience as a selling point, and spent fewer than 2 minutes on it. When I reported for the first time months later, however, the manager who interviewed me started the conversation with: “Oh, I remember you! You’re the girl who managed bands and failed miserably, right?” He said this with a smiley face and added: “Among all these people we’ve interviewed, I remember you because of this interesting and unique experience.” This totally echoes Laura’s argument – I was remembered by my failure, and I even suspect that it might have partially contributed to why I was hired.

After the detailed elaboration of storytelling, we were then divided into groups of 3 or 4, taking turns to interview and give feedback to each other. Applying the freshly acquired techniques of sharing struggles, imperfections and forming bonds with audiences, all members in my group told 5-minute stories that are contagious, relatable, and most important, different from the ones we used to present while asked to introduce ourselves.

I was fortunate enough to do a self-introduction in front of the entire group after the discussion. I chose to tell the same failed-rock-band-manager story mentioned previously. I was nervous initially, and unsure of whether I was telling the right story in the appropriate manner. But that gradually ceased as the audiences started to reward me with their true feelings about my struggles, and communicated with me via their facial expressions and body language. And the occasional laughter helped to further eased the tension, so that the last 1/3 of the speech was like an intriguing small talk with old friends.

The whole experience was new for me, who had not tried to share vulnerabilities with strangers, or even (imaginary) potential employers. The result of my first attempt to expose my imperfection, however, was not bad at all – I feel connected to my audiences. The lesson I took away from this session is that storytelling is a powerful tool, and vulnerabilities in your stories can be strengths – failures and struggles are signs of ambition, motivation and passion among a series of other attractive qualities. After all, let others experience the true you with pulse and empathize your efforts could be advantageous in demonstrating your capacity to be a likeable employer and co-worker.

So why not unlock your storytelling nature, add struggles and failures as spices, and confidently offer your interviewer a multidimensional you that she cannot say no to?

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