3 Step Guide to Being Yourself and Nailing Your Next Job Interview

suit interview

Have you ever gone on a job interview knowing you are a great fit, only to stumble awkwardly through question after question?

Everything was going so well:

  • You tailored your resume to hit all the key points in the job posting.
  • You researched the company ahead of time and learned as much as you could about it.
  • You even reached out to your network for some key insights about working there.

So far so good.

And now they want to bring you in for an interview. Great!

But why does your whole body tense up at the thought of interviewing? Now that you are finally getting some interest, why are you so nervous?

In this post, I’ll tell you why and I’ll show you what you can do about it by taking a very simple approach: telling stories.

Story Time

One day my boss asked our group to process a bunch of customer emails that were coming in. There were hundreds of them. It took each person in our group around five hours to process them and it wreaked havoc on all our other projects.

So when my turn came, I decided to find a better way to get the work done.

Three hours later, I told my boss I had good news and bad news. The bad news was I hadn’t been processing emails like he asked.

He wasn’t happy.

The good news was I found a way to process as many emails as needed in just three minutes using software we all had on our computers and a handy checklist I created.

My boss was thrilled.

My coworkers were ecstatic they didn’t have to do any more mindless work.

And I felt great—I managed to avoid boring work, find a more efficient way to get it done, helped my coworkers out, and played the hero for my boss. 

In other words, I nailed it!

Now, I could’ve told you “I’m a team player that values efficiency,” but that doesn’t quite have the same heft, does it?

Instead, I chose to tell you a story…which one do you think is more effective?
 

man telling story

The Power of Storytelling

Telling stories comes naturally to most of us. We talk to our friends and family by telling them what’s happening in our lives.

We answer these questions effortlessly:

  • How was work?
  • What’s up?
  • What are you reading these days?
  • Did you watch The Wire yet? 

We turn all those questions into stories and that’s how we communicate with our friends.

When was the last time you got nervous talking to a friend of yours?

What about your last job interview? Were you nervous then?

Don’t worry—most of us are.

The dynamic of a job interview is very different than sitting down to dinner with your best friend. With our friends, we drop our defenses and aren’t trying to be something we’re not.

We just are.

But you don’t have to be a nervous wreck at your next interview. I’m here to show you some strategies to help you approach your next job interview in a way that’ll help you:

  • Feel more comfortable
  • Look good
  • Take a more active role in the interview
  • Be fully prepared for any question

And it all starts with telling stories.

The Storytelling Approach 

Instead of reciting parts of your resume, regurgitating some elevator pitch someone once told you was important, or trying to tell an interviewer how great you are at this or that—we’re going to focus on telling stories. 

It turns out that stories make our brains more active and “sync up” the brain activity of the story teller and the listener.

Writing is very similar.

One central tenet of good writing has always been to show and not to tell.

Let’s take this same approach into your next job interview.

Stop trying to tell them how great of a fit you are—and start showing them.

Stories are the perfect way to do it.

Your stories will focus on showing—not telling—what kind of a person you are. To do that, we’re going to go through three simple steps:

  1. Find the theme
  2. Find your stories (this part is a lot of fun)
  3. Practice

This post is taken from a guide I’m writing that teaches you how to be happier at work. And yes, money is a big  part of it—but it isn’t the end all be all. To sign up for updates, enter your email below:



Step 1: Find the theme

Your first step is to scour the job posting and break it down to its core essence or theme. Hopefully, you’ve already done some of this when you tailored your resume to the position.

Here are the types of questions you’re looking to answer:

  • What are the most important qualities they’re looking for?
  • What are they really looking for under the surface?
  • What kinds of tasks will you be doing?
  • Will you be managing others?
  • Are you going to be part of a team?
  • Are there credentials that matter to them?
  • Did they list any “preferable” or “nice to have” skills?
  • Do they keep repeating the same thing in different words?

A lot of these job postings have some very generic things in them, like “must be solution focused” or “must be a good communicator. 

Most of us read these platitudes, yawn, and ignore them because they’re boring and everyone seems to be using them.

“Of course I’m a good communicator,” we say to ourselves. “Let me find the skills that I don’t have and focus on how I can make up for them.”

But they’re in there for a reason! Just because they’re being lazy with their language doesn’t mean you should.

For Example

Let’s take a look at a real-world example and break down what they’re actually saying. Here’s a snippet from an actual job posting:

Communication is key to success in this role. You should have the communication skills to liaise with C-level client contacts as well as the technical know-how to talk to developers both internally and externally about technical risks.

That’s a mouthful! So let’s break it down.

Communication is going to be key? YAWN—tell me something I don’t know. Let’s dig in to see what they really mean.

They want someone that can talk “up” to high-level executives and also interact with developers about technical issues. This posting actually has this bullet further down:

Basic understanding and competency in CMS knowledge, HTML, CSS, JavaScript as well as environment and infrastructure setup.

Hmmm…now we’re starting to get a better idea of what they want in this role.

This job listing actually uses the word “communication” seven times—so that’s something to make note of.

Go through the whole post and highlight recurring themes. It’s also a good idea to go through the job posting several times—it’ll make it easier to notice how certain parts of it are connected.

It’s also important to look at what words aren’t in the posting. When I applied to a job a few years ago, they didn’t use the word “process” once—but as soon as I told my future boss I was a stickler for process, he lit up and told me that’s exactly what he wanted to hear.

Look for clues to hidden themes hiding just beneath the surface.

Themes Matter

Themes are important because they give us a way to create unity around a series of stories.

Now that you’ve gone through the entire post and jotted down some notes, let’s take a step back and figure out what common threads we can spot.

That post we looked at earlier? The theme is probably something like “Good communicator with technical skills” or “Able to translate technical terms so anyone can understand.”

It had the word “communication” in it seven times.

It’s important to get the theme nailed down because all your stories should be working to pound that theme home over and over. The whole point of interviewing is to show the people you interview with that you can definitely do what they need. 

The theme is the lens through which you will prepare answers to any question that might come your way.

If the theme of a job opening is “A creative writer with some SEO experience,” then you don’t want to answer “What’s your biggest weakness?” the same way you would for a different theme.

Let’s look at an example of how different themes will affect how we answer a question. 

The role they’re trying to fill here is “Copywriter,” but notice how our answer will shift from theme to theme.

Question: What’s your biggest weakness?

Theme: A creative writer with some SEO experience

Answer: Well, sometimes it takes me a while to share what I’m doing rather than getting quick feedback and addressing issues that way. One project I worked on where I was writing menu pairings for different types of beers took me a long time because I wanted to make sure I had covered all the qualities of the beers in the descriptions. I also wanted to hit every single bit of meta information I possibly could: title tags, descriptions, keywords—all that on-page stuff that the crawlers can digest. My boss sat me down and told me it was just taking too long and not to try to be perfect on the first draft. I’ve gotten a lot better at that, but it’s something I’m constantly working on: sharing early and often so I can get things done quickly by getting feedback from others. I realize I don’t have to figure it all out on my own.

Question: What’s your biggest weakness?

Theme: Technical writer with knowledge of financial/investing principles

Answer: My copy runs a bit long sometimes because I don’t like making assumptions—just because I know what everything means it doesn’t mean the users do! A couple of years ago I was working on a requirements document that was going to be used by developers to make the software and by traders to eventually learn how to use it. So I defined all the terms (both software and financial) to make sure both of my audiences understood everything and didn’t have any questions. My boss saw the document was getting way too long so he suggested I either create an appendix to define everything or break it out into two separate documents. It was such a simple solution that I felt dumb I hadn’t thought of it! That experience really helped me make sure my copy is as concise as possible without feeling like I might lose my audience. Because not that many people that understand credit-default swaps also know what a work-back schedule is, you know?

You see the difference there? These are two job openings for the same title: copywriter. But the theme is very different, so we need to tailor the story differently by having a wholly separate story for each.

Did you notice how both answers casually dropped some keywords in there? The SEO theme dropped in keywords that say “I know SEO inside and out” while the other one used some advanced terms that indicate “I know finance and I know the technical process of how software is made.”

Showing, not telling.

Those two stories opened with a sentence directly answering the question, then told a relevant story that backed up that answer, AND added some keywords that implied they have the skills the interviewer is looking for.

That’s why getting the theme right is so important.

Make sure you have this part down before you start the next step—otherwise you’re going in the wrong direction.

Step 2: Find your stories

So now it’s time to step back and access our vault of experience to find stories that hit on that theme and show what you can do.

This is where you want to stop and really think about this for a minute—don’t rush through it! You have hundreds of stories in your arsenal and to think you’ll pick the best one in a couple of seconds is ludicrous.

I recommend jotting down the types of stories you’re looking for as you break down the job posting and then blocking off an hour (away from a computer/phone/tablet) to sit back and go through memory lane to find the best stories.

Don’t worry about the format, just freewrite as much as you can to help you dig up some good ones.

Don’t have any stories that match up perfectly? That’s OK!

While you may not have a killer story that you can think of right off the top of your head, odds are you have something close enough to get who you are across.

The term close enough was bolded up there for a reason: nobody is perfect for any given roleyour job is to simply find the closest possible story you can find that shows them you can do the job. 

This is all assuming you actually CAN do the role, and if you’re being called in to interview then I’m assuming you can. 

Remember that we’re showing not telling.
 

What if I don’t have any stories?

 You’re probably selling yourself short.

I’m serious! Most of us have this view of ourselves that’s much less flattering than who we really are.

 If you really don’t think you have the professional experience to come up with a relevant story, then you might have to get creative, and this is where you get to have some fun with this.

Say you got the interview and they’re obviously interested but now that you look at the post it’s clear that their central theme is one you don’t have a lot of experience with.

I’ll use myself as an example. If I was to interview for this opening we’ve been looking at, and I couldn’t use any real-world experience (say I was in high school or something), here’s what I’d say:

When I was 13, my father bought a new computer and then went on vacation with my mom. It was our first computer so I stayed up every night learning everything I could about it.

After a couple days, I managed to break it. I was terrified! A brand new, expensive machine and I had broken it—my dad was going to kill me!

I didn’t know anyone that could help and my parents would be back in a few days, so I opened up the massive “manual” that came with the computer and tried to figure out how to fix it.

It looked like gibberish to me—I didn’t understand a thing! But I knew I had to fix the machine or else.

It took me a couple of days, but eventually I managed to get it working again. Not only that, I had learned everything I would need to fix any problem that came up in the future.

When my parents got home, I was the one showing them how to use the computer, which features could help them, and what NOT to do.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but I managed to hit some key points here:

  • I have technical ability with computers
  • I’m able to learn quickly
  • I can communicate with higher ups—doesn’t get much higher than mom and dad when you’re 13!

Is that a ridiculous example? Maybe, but the point is that you don’t have to have a perfect story: it just has to be an honest representation of who you are and what you can do that matches the theme of the job posting.

Don’t get hung up on finding the perfect story: but do take some time to find a story you like telling that shows that you’re a capable person.

If it’s a story you like telling, that’ll turn your nervousness into a positive energy during the interview.

Step 3: Practice

When you read articles about getting ready to interview, you see a lot of this:

Make sure you prepare! Practice with a friend and go over your answers. Then try on what you’re going to wear the next day and get a good night’s sleep!

Making sure you don’t have mustard stains on your suit is important—yes—but you can’t just gloss over the preparation part.

We need to dig into the details of this a little more.

Here’s what I propose:

  • Make sure your theme is on point and lines up with the job description
  • Have a library of stories that zero in on that theme
  • Review some of the most common interview questions and incorporate your stories into those answers
  • Practice telling those stories out loud as much as humanly possible
  • Practice with someone else and record it (use your phone) to review

There’s a reason why I have two bullets devoted to practice. First, it’s extremely important. Second, most of you won’t do the recording part. You feel weird, nervous, awkward, etc.

And I get it: that’s totally normal. Most people only interview a handful of times in their life—so of course you’re not going to be very good at it. Which is why I tell people to go out and interview now even if you are happy at your job—do it for the practice! 

If you can’t muster up the courage to practice with another person and tape it, then please at least practice out loud.

You’ll absolutely kill it if you record yourself and learn from watching. You’ll do much better if you practice out loud. But you might totally bomb if you don’t do either of them.

Practicing will help reduce your anxiety and help you feel more confident—you’ll be glad you did when you actually walk in there.

The difference between someone who practices by themselves and someone who goes the distance is HUGE. 

If you’re serious about nailing that interview, then you know what you need to do.

Bonus #1: Briefcase Technique

 I learned this one from Ramit Sethi. You can read all about his Briefcase Technique on his site, but the gist is this: bring a physical piece of paper with some ideas, a plan, or an outline to your next interview.

On this paper you’ll show them an idea you have or a process they could apply or a set of practices they could adopt to help them improve their business.

And of course, it should fit nicely into that theme we discovered in step 1.

How are you going to gather the information you need to put this thing together?

  • The job posting, for sure
  • LinkedIn, duh
  • Your friends and family

The point is twofold:

  1. Show them you understand their needs and can help address them right away
  2. Go the extra mile to stand out

I recently found out that someone I had been competing with for a job opening came in with a fancy Keynote presentation that really had a lot of the deciders wanting to hire him instead of me.

This was before I knew about the briefcase technique, so I didn’t bring anything in. 

Lucky for me, I was still able to get the gig, but the briefcase technique can help tip the scales if there is competition for an opening..

Here’s how you go about putting one of these together.

 You’ve got the theme and you know what they want out of the person they hire, but what might they want that person to bring to the table? Maybe process is something that they need help with (hint: EVERYONE needs help with process).

So you could jot that down as an idea.

Pay attention during any phone interviews you have before going in, since you’ll often hear phrases like “We really need someone that can come in and do…” or “Our biggest need right now is someone who will take over the …”

Take close notes of those kinds of phrases because they’re telling you exactly how to prepare.

The next step is to find people you know that work there or that used to work there or that know someone that knows someone that has a cousin that used to work there.

Whatever you have to do to get an insider’s view of the company.

 This is another time where it’s good to get creative. Think about the company and the job you’d be doing there and find something appropriate that will impress the people you’re interviewing with. It could be a 6-month plan, a slick keynote presentation, or a collection of relevant academic studies—just make sure it’s relevant.

Then whip that baby out during the interview and hand it over with a dramatic flourish.
 

BONUS #2: Be Aggressive

Take charge! Don’t just sit there and let the other person interrogate you. This is a job interview, not a penitentiary!

Have a plan for the stories you want to tell and how you will steer the conversation in that direction. You have the power to guide the interview into different directions: don’t forget that.

Pretend you’re giving the other person a tour of the “neighborhood of you.” You want to make sure they see the best parts and you make it as enjoyable and informative as possible.

If all else fails, there’s always the “Well, anything else that you wanted to cover?” that effectively hands the keys over to you. 

Be prepared for that question and know exactly what you want to say there.

If you did your research, you know what they’re looking for and you know what stories you want to share that highlight how you’re a good fit for the role, so make sure you get those in.

BONUS #3: Hack your brain

Studies show that being in a happy or positive state of mind boosts performance—it’s the reason why so much advice tells you to smile all the time during an interview. 

Use that research to calm your nerves before you head into the interview. This will be different for everyone, but on your way to the interview try listening to some music that cheers you up (Summer of ‘69 does it for me every time) or watching a video that makes you laugh (stand-up comedy does it for me).

I know it sounds weird and squishy, but the science backs it up so why wouldn’t you do whatever you can to settle your nerves before walking in?

Go Time

Being nervous for a job interview is completely normal. Your goal should be to do all the work ahead of time so when you actually walk into the room, you just have to be yourself and tell them a few stories about who you are and what you can do.

 Here’s a quick recap of what you need to do to make sure you’re ready to nail your next interview:

  1. Find your theme: Break down the job post to its core.
  2. Find your stories: Show them how you fit into that theme by telling stories.
  3. Practice: Film yourself and practice with another person.

If you haven’t gone on a job interview in a while, I recommend going on one as soon as you can just for the sake of practice. You’ll be able to practice this three-step method without the pressure of actually wanting the job. 

Good luck out there and let me know how it goes in the comments!


This post is taken from a guide I’m writing that teaches you how to be happier at work. And yes, money is a big  part of it—but it isn’t the end all be all. To sign up for updates, enter your email below:



Image by Jonathan Mueller

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