Get Job Candidates to Tell Stories

by Suzanne Paling on May 12, 2011

Tell me a story

During an interview, employers ask questions to determine a candidate’s fit for an open position. Before the meeting, most candidates try to anticipate what they’ll be asked and rehearse careful responses.

This sometimes results in a stiff conversation where neither party gets to know the other as well as they might like.

Asking candidates to tell stories rather than answer questions helps with this problem.

To get them in “story mode” use phrases such as:

• Walk me through a scenario in which …
• Tell me about a time when …
• Describe your thought process during …
• If I gathered a group of your past and present co-workers together, what would they tell me about your ability to …

When interviewing applicants for a sales position, I could ask, “What do you do when a promising potential sale starts going downhill?”

Most likely, they would recite dry, text book solutions for saving and closing the sale. I would learn a little bit about them from their answer, no doubt.

However, I want to get inside this candidate’s head. I want to know how they think, feel, and respond in particular situations. Most of all, I don’t want a canned answer to my question.

By rephrasing the question and asking the candidate to “tell me about a time when you were shocked that a sale you thought was a done deal started to go badly” I get them to talk in story form.

I would add detail oriented follow-up questions such as, “What type of company was it? How long had you been working with them? Who was the decision maker?”

Asking job applicants for specifics or a “story” makes giving a rehearsed answer difficult.

They have to pause, look back, remember, and fill in the particulars. In the process, most give a frank and candid response to your inquiry.

This technique works no matter what type of position you need to fill (e.g. a programmer or an office manager).

While preparing for your next interview, think about what you want to ask the candidate. Reframe the question so that they must respond in story form.

The whole interview process will be more satisfactory for both parties.

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Image: shannon simbulan via Flickr, Creative Commons

Suzanne Paling is the principal consultant of Sales Management Services, with more than 20 years of experience in sales consulting, sales management, and sales for both field and inside sales organizations. Paling founded her company in 1998 to provide practical advice to business executives, owners, and entrepreneurs seeking to increase their revenue and improve their sales organization’s performance. Her new book, The Accidental Sales Manager, was published by Entrepreneur Press in October 2010.

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