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Power Stories Fuel Winning Job Interviews
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 . . . .”
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.
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.
Here are some sample PARs:
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:
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.
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.
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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