How to Craft Stories for Job Interviews

Guest Post by Bill Burnett

The Peak Interview

Excerpted and adapted from: The Peak Interview, CreateSpace, 2013.

Stories provide the fabric into which you will weave relevant competencies and personal characteristics. It is far more credible to allow a competency to emerge in the narrative of a story than to make the claim of a competency. A story, in which you play the role of a perceptive team leader is far more credible than making the claim: “I’m a good team leader.”

In crafting these stories, follow the Made to Stick model created by Chip and Dan Heath: S.U.C.C.E.S (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Story). I encourage you to get their book and read it. I think you will find it very helpful in creating great stories.

The juice in a story is its unexpectedness. You build that in with your opening. Unexpectedness is why we like jokes so much. We know something unexpected will happen at the end. That’s important for a well-crafted story (see Unexpectedness below).

Overall, keep it simple. You want to be both concrete and credible as you weave your competencies and characteristics into the narrative. If you are a gifted storyteller, you may be able to create emotions in your listeners.You don’t want to lose control of your own emotions. However, showing passion is a good thing.

Keep the story short. I find that a story is longer when I tell it than when I write it. Time yourself actually telling the story. Generally, unless the story is truly outstanding and you’re a great storyteller, keep it to less than two minutes if you can.

Your Starting Point: an Outline

You want to be able to tell this story from active memory. Some people need to write the entire narrative of a story to feel they will be able to tell it well in an interview. If you need to write down the entire story, do so. But start with an outline.

If you don’t need to write down the entire story, don’t. The story will come from your active memory. In other words, don’t memorize the text. But do start with an outline. The outline ensures your story contains the right elements needed for the job interview.

You may use a format like the following to outline the story:

  • Story Name
  • Problem or Opportunity
  • Players
  • Action
  • Result
  • Competencies
  • Characteristics
  • Unexpectedness

Character and Competencies

Below are the top six competencies and the top six characteristics, generally relevant to most job openings. During personal job search you may identify other competencies and characteristics that are more relevant for your particular job search. Stories can often thread several competencies and several characteristics simultaneously.

Competencies Character
Leadership Honest
Problem Solving Passionate
Teamwork Self-condident
Management Motivated
Communication Reliable
Customer Focused Efficient

In every case, story telling should use the active voice and avoid using the passive voice.

PASSIVE: “She was promoted by me on the spot.”
ACTIVE: “I promoted her on the spot.”


The hardest part of story telling is building in the “unexpectedness.” You want to arouse interest in the listener and create anticipation. A simple way to do that is to start by identifying where that unexpectedness may lay hidden. It could be with the people involved, the action, or the result. For example:

  • The people involved included an unusual character.
  • A surprising person made a key contribution.
  • The action taken was unusual.
  • A side-effect was unanticipated, but turned out to be important.
  • The result of the action was surprising.
  • Pursued one direction and ended up taking a different one.

Usually you would try to set up the anticipation within the first two sentences. In answer to the What’s your greatest weakness question, I start with: “I have a weakness for ice cream. I know it doesn’t sound like something that would impact my job, but it did.” The listener now wants to know how ice cream has this impact. The actual story doesn’t really answer the weakness question, but let’s face it, it’s a stupid question, nobody expects you to say, “When I drink, I gamble.”

You can build anticipation by starting with a phrase like: “You wouldn’t expect that by simply changing how you describe what you’re currently doing would have a $2 billion dollar impact on the bottom line, but that’s exactly what happened.” Or start with something like “We thought that we had the best-in-class method for handling risk, but we learned the truth from the most unlikely source…”

Final Thoughts on Crafting Interview Stories

Put in the effort to have about a dozen stories in your arsenal. You will probably only use four or five stories in the interview. But it helps to have several so you can pull out the right story for the right circumstance.

For more information, see also these sections of Quintessential Careers: Job Action Day 2014

This article is part of Job Action Day 2014.



Bill Burnett

Bill Burnett is author of The Peak Interview, which gives job-seekers the psychological techniques to be the person the hiring manager likes the most because that’s the person who gets the job. Today, Bill is working in Milwaukee as the Director of Global Cities Initiative, working on this Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase joint project to double exports. He has a wealth of international experience having lived in six countries outside the USA and worked with local teams in all sorts of cultural settings in more than 60 additional countries. At Diners Club International, Bill spent 10 years as Senior Vice President, Global Operation, and another 5 as Senior Vice President Strategic Initiatives. Bill also worked for the US Forest Service, Pittsburgh National Bank, Bank of America, Textron, and Citigroup. He is author of three books and numerous articles.