Brain Research Shows the Power of Storytelling in the Job Search

StorytellingBrain-scan research reported last year shows an astonishing phenomenon: When a person tells a story and another person actively listens, their brains actually begin to synchronize. [Neuromarketing, http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/stories-synchronize-brains.htm]

What could this research possibly have to do with your job search? Well, imagine, for example, the implications in a job interview.

Let’s say that instead of a dry recitation of facts in response to an interviewer’s questions, you respond to each question with a story about your skills, strengths, or accomplishments. If the interviewer’s brain is becoming virtually synchronous with yours as he or she listens to your storied response, just think of the impression you are likely to make on the interviewer.

This new research suggests just one reason stories are powerful tools in the job search. Stories can do many things that traditional approaches cannot:

  • Stories establish your identity and reveal your personality; they satisfy the basic human need to be known.
  • Stories help you know yourself and build confidence.
  • Stories make you memorable.
  • Stories establish trust.
  • Stories establish an emotional connection between storyteller and listener and inspire the listener’s investment in the storyteller’s success.
  • Stories help you stand out.
  • Stories illustrate skills, accomplishments, values, characteristics, qualifications, expertise, strengths, and more. Stories paint vivid pictures.
  • Stories explain key life/career decisions, choices, and changes.
  • Stories told well help you portray yourself as a strong communicator.

You’ve probably already read about using a type of stories in interviews – the frequently prescribed formulas for responding to interview questions, especially behavioral questions. Job-seekers for many years have been advised to respond by deploying a Situation (or Problem or Challenge) à Action à Result structure, often referred to by the acronyms SAR, PAR, or CAR. These formulas are, after all, a form of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Another way to look at this structure is as the one novelists use: setup, confrontation, resolution.

So, stories have been used in interviews for years. But how might you use them in other parts of your job search? You can develop stories of various lengths and containing assorted amounts of detail for each element of your job search:

Short bullet-point version for your resume. Because a resume needs to attract attention quickly, it’s a good idea to tell each story so that the result comes first, as in the following bullets about a job-seeker’s multi-part accomplishment:

  • Beat two-month deadline for operationalizing online scheduling, time/attendance, and payroll system by overseeing fast-track implementation from outside vendor.
  • Reduced payroll discrepancies 25 percent and time spent scheduling employees and resolving timesheet-related issues by 50 percent.
  • Decreased time spent on reports by 25 percent by customizing reports to track labor/benefits allocation.
  • Earned vendor’s Certificate for Management’s Commitment for Successful Implementation and Design Contribution to Improve Efficiencies.

More detailed paragraph version for your cover letters. In the following example, the same story is told in paragraph form in the job-seeker’s cover letter. Note that a cover letter should not rehash the resume, so even if you are highlighting the same accomplishment in both documents, vary your language and the way you frame the story:

I demonstrated my strong project-management skills when the project team I led exceeded all expectations while implementing an outside vendor’s system for online scheduling, time/attendance, and payroll. Not only did we crush our two-month deadline, but we also reduced payroll discrepancies, slashed in half the time spent scheduling employees and resolving timesheet-related issues, and cut time spent on reports. The icing on the cake was earning the vendor’s Certificate for Management’s Commitment for Successful Implementation and Design Contribution to Improve Efficiencies.

Still more detailed version, composed in a conversational style, for job interviews. My company was struggling with scheduling employees, monitoring their time and attendance, as well as tying these elements into payroll. We needed a system, preferably online, that would make these tasks more efficient, save time, and reduce errors. When management decided to go with an outside vendor for the new system, they chose me to head up the project team. We were on a tight, two-month deadline, but I led the team to surpass not only the deadline, but the expected results. Under my guidance, we got the vendor’s system online so successfully that we reduced payroll discrepancies by 25 percent. Since we’ve operationalized it, the company has saved time in scheduling employees and resolving timesheet-related issues; in fact, these processes take half the time they used to. By customizing reports to track labor and benefits allocation, we also cut time spent on reports by a quarter. We did such a great job and made the functions so much more efficient that the vendor recognized us with its Certificate for Management’s Commitment for Successful Implementation and Design Contribution to Improve Efficiencies.

In my book, Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career, I also talk about using storytelling in networking situations, career portfolios, personal branding, and in the workplace. You can read the first edition of the book in this blog serialization, the Facebook fan page serialization, or page-by-page here. You can also purchase the second edition.


Guest Expert:

Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits its newsletter QuintZine, and blogs about applied storytelling at A Storied Career. Kathy, who earned her PhD from Union Institute & University authored Tell Me About Yourself, Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates, A Foot in the Door, Top Notch Executive Interviews, Top Notch Executive Resumes; and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills.

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