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Power Stories Fuel Winning Job Interviews
By Laura Hill and Al Rankin
 
 
In the past decade the interview process for job-seekers has changed radically, rendering many professionals who haven’t looked for a job in a while woefully unprepared.   In recent years recruiters and employers increasingly have adopted “behavioral” (also known as “competency” or “performance-based”) interview techniques. This approach holds that past performance—and the behavior that produced it—is a good predictor of future performance. 

Interviewers seek specifics about what you actually did, why you did it, and how it affected people and the business.  They look for candidates who best match the competencies their companies believe are critical.  Astute interviewers don’t want promises of what you can do; they want proof of what you’ve actually done.

As Henry Ford once said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” 

The secret to answering the hard-nosed, underlying questions at the core of interviews— “Why should we hire you?” or “What makes you special?” . . . is simply telling stories.  One specific example is better than saying you did something 100 times.

Good interviews start with an opening statement or “elevator pitch” that puts forth your key attributes.  This provides the foundation from which you select the stories that make your case.  And in doing so, you will be able to answer behavioral interview questions such as “tell me about a time when . . . .”

You can use a systematic approach to organize and develop these vignettes.  Though seldom spotlighted in the media, it is known in the career trade by different acronyms.  We call it PAR:  Problem/Opportunity, Actions and Result.   In other words, a power story. 

With PARs, you can prove the abilities you claimed in your pitch and the promise behind your personal “brand.”  PARs are effective templates that help relate examples of your experience in a way that is both easy to deliver and easy to understand.  These power stories can highlight skills that are transferable across industry boundaries.

The PAR formula works like this:  Describe the problem or opportunity in two or three sentences— whatever basic background the listener needs to get the story’s key points.  Then list three actions you personally took.  Finally, state the results.

When preparing for an interview, first review the job description and company information you have researched.  Develop a list of questions that you will ask the interviewer to get more insight into the real issues and needs.  Then select the two or three PARs most critical to communicate in the interview, to show how you can meet the employer’s needs. 

A PAR story should be written out in conversational language, then practiced aloud until it becomes effortless.  Ideally, a PAR should be less than two minutes long, and you should have six to 10 of them ready in your arsenal.  After you’ve told your prepared story, STOP.  The interviewer then can move on to other topics, or ask more questions if he or she wants more details. 

One key rule: Don’t ramble.  Remember, PARs are not “war stories.”  They have a specific purpose.  With just a dash of drama, everything you say should help concisely explain the decisions, behavior or results that are relevant to your overall point.  If it doesn’t, then take it out. 

Rule two:  Relax, and remember to listen.  PARs work best when they are relevant and seem unforced. Use them not only to respond to an interviewer’s questions but also to volunteer examples that address issues the interviewer has mentioned.  After all, a good salesperson tries to understand the customer’s needs before launching a presentation about the product. 

What kind of material is right for PARs?  First, use specific examples of key accomplishments and other stories based on your elevator pitch and résumé bullets.  Many behavioral questions target how you manage problems, stressful situations, changing or unanticipated environments (in essence, bad things), so be ready to deal with them.  In general, think of relevant stories that show you in action—where you were effective, creative and resilient, rose to the occasion or saved the day.
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Here are some sample PARs: 

1. Problem

One of the most difficult decisions I had to make as VP Information Technology was outsourcing our systems.  A consulting firm had shown that it would save us a lot of money, but people were resistant —they feared system problems and job losses.  To address my colleagues’ concerns and move the project forward, I did three things:

 Actions

  • I developed a plan that called for the outsourcing firm to initially employ all of our existing staff for the first six months and to provide appropriate severance packages to employees who subsequently lost their jobs.
  • My plan addressed service concerns by defining service levels, including response times for system outages and penalties for falling short.
  • I convinced my key staffers that this move was critical to keeping our company globally competitive—that if we didn’t take this step we’d all lose our jobs anyway! 

Result
I made the decision to move forward and was unpopular while the transition was underway.  By the second year, however, not only were we seeing costs go down but our systems performed better.  Looking back, it was one of the best business decisions I’ve made.

2. Opportunity 

When I was promoted to product manager for the XYZ line, it was making money but wasn’t growing.  It was considered mature—a “cash cow.”   But I believed there was still growth potential, and set out to find it.

Actions

  • First, I traveled to 10 different markets, five outside the U.S. (ever been to Singapore in August?); met with our regional sales managers, distributors and retailers.  Wore out a pair of shoes walking the aisles of dozens of stores that sold our products, to get input directly from sales clerks and customers.                                                 
  • I came back with a lot of information— why people like the XYZ products, how they use them, why they like our competitors’ products.             
  • Then I created a task force with people from R&D, strategy, and marketing; got them jazzed about the possibilities. After poring over the market intelligence and brainstorming for weeks, we selected 10 ideas to pursue.  Eventually, we got funding to develop a new product model with extra bells and whistles that didn’t cost much to produce, but that customers wanted enough to pay a premium.

Result
In our first year we sold $12 million of the enhanced product without cannibalizing legacy revenues.  We now project that the XYZ line will grow 15% next year, with profit margins improving. 
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Don’t limit the use of PARs just for responding to questions.  Selectively go on the offensive.  Borrow a classic media technique:  “Bridge” the discussion into the stories that best communicate how you can apply the lessons you’ve learned.  And remember that you can also use the PARs template as a comfortable way to organize your thinking on questions for which you may be unprepared.  It will give you a way to crisply express your answer.

Recent articles in the business press—quoting CEOs and executive recruiters alike—continue to verify how much they value candidates’ anecdotes in revealing the capacity, energy and integrity needed for growth and success.  As a piece by one major search firm puts it, “Telling a good story and painting pictures by taking [interviewers] through a variety of personal and professional situations, rather than simply ‘giving the right answer,’ will make a stronger impact.”  

Today’s interview environment is intimidating, but it gives the well-prepared candidate an opportunity to shine.   Unleashing the power of PARs will really pay off.  The preparation to make that happen depends on you.
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Copyright 2009 by Laura Hill and Al Rankin  

Laura Hill is founder of Careers in Motion LLC, a New York-based career coaching firm that works with senior executives. A former corporate communications executive now based in Raleigh, N.C., Al Rankin counsels non-profit and career transition groups.


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