Job-Search Storytelling Continues to Evolve: New Nuances

by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

When I began my doctoral dissertation on the subject of storytelling in the job search nearly 10 years ago, the concept was largely unheard of. Today, the storied approach is so deeply ingrained in the world of career communication that 18 career gurus had no trouble producing rich articles on aspects of career storytelling for Job Action Day 2014. This mainstreaming of stories in job search means that job-seekers can find a vast array of resources online and off about how to effectively integrate story into job-search communication. In this article, we’ve curated some of the best.

    • When it comes to telling stories in job interviews, probably the most popular story structure advised by career experts is STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result. But, writing on the Careers – in Theory blog, David Winter suggests a different story structure, BARER.
      • Background – Winter suggests only the minimum the listener needs to know to understand your actions
      • Actions – what you did and how you did it
      • Reasons – why you did those things rather than something else
      • Explained result – what the outcome was and why it was the result of your actions
      • Reflection and re-application – what you learned from the experience and how it’s been useful

      Why this formula? “If you want to impress an experienced interviewer, just talking about your Actions and the Result will not be enough,” Winter asserts. “If you just describe what you did, I don’t know whether your actions have arisen from conscious decision making or as an automatic response to external conditions. I don’t know whether the result came about because of your actions or just the prevailing circumstances.” Winter’s isn’t the only formula that includes reflection and learning, but it’s certainly an approach worth considering.

    • Another popular interview-story formula is SOAR, in which O for Obstacles takes the place of T for Task in the STAR structure. Career expert Thea Kelley touts the importance of the obstacles portion of the story for demonstrating the ability to overcome challenges. Without the obstacles piece, she writes here, the accomplishment might seem too easy, and communication of the skills involved in the achievement would not be as dramatic.


    • A story formula known as The Pixar Pitch has made the rounds in recent years. Initially set forth by Emily Coats, the Pitch was featured in Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human. Here’s how it goes:

      Once upon a time _____. Every day_____. One day_____. Because of that_____. Because of that_____. Until finally_____.

      Conduct a Google search on The Pixar Pitch, and you’ll find several examples, but it’s harder to find an example applied to an individual and suitable for job-seeking. A sample published by Tom Cooper of the BrightHill Group perhaps comes the closest and can serve as a model for job-seekers:

      • Once upon a time, many years ago I was young geek who worked on software and IT projects.
      • Every day I watched too many good people and good projects fail to meet business goals. Have you ever seen failed projects at work? It hurts, doesn’t it?
      • One day I discovered the secret to successful projects. I learned that leadership is the key to effectively moving people and delivering business value.
      • Because of this I began to study what it means to be a leader and how to lead others effectively. I learned that leadership is a skill that can be learned,
        and over time I practiced those skills and became a better leader.
      • Because of this new awareness, I began to see that few tech leaders understood this secret. Few of them ever study these types of skills. I really wanted to help them learn what I learned.
      • Until finally I created a business with to help tech leaders get more from their teams. Would you like to know how I do it?
    • Of course, an interview story structure can be quite simple, such as the one recommended by Diane Windingland on her blog:
      Then -> Now -> How. You describe what the situation was then, what it is now (after you have taken action to improve the situation), and how you accomplished the Now. “By delaying ‘how’ until after the ‘now,'” Windingland says, “you get people leaning forward and wanting to hear the how.”
    • Are you an auditory learner? As a supplement to Walter Akana’s Job Action Day 2014 article, Five Keys to Developing Your Personal Brand Story, listen to Akana interviewed by Jeff Rock on Blog Talk Radio. In the 38-minute interview, titled Developing Your Brand Story with Walter Akana, the interviewee asserts that much of today’s personal-branding advice is image-building rather than the communication of who you really are. Akana followed up this interview with a blog post about framing your story as a quest. “Find your quest and your story will take care of itself,” he says.
    • Stories can help an employer visualize you in a role, says Thomas Crouser, Jr, in Tell a Great Story, Get a New Job! “If the interviewer(s) visualize YOU in the role, the probability that you will become their next employee (or advance to the next step of the process) increases significantly!,” Crouser writes. He cites storytelling guru Doug Stevenson, who notes, “If you want to make a positive impression at the same time you’re making a point, you’ve got to use stories.”
    • A pithy story that encapsulates one’s career is a must, and it goes by several names — elevator pitch, elevator story, career narrative, or response to the ubiquitous interview request to “tell me about yourself.” Heidi K. Gardner and Adam Zalisk believe that younger workers especially need this kind of story, particularly within the workplace so senior executives can grasp their appropriateness for assignments
      to projects and promotions. A powerful example, they say, of such a career narrative might be:

      “I worked in labs through college and entered the firm with a strong interest in health-care clients. I’ve had the opportunity to develop my quantitative financial skills in the comfortable context of health care. Now I’d like to test those skills with other commercial clients to determine what industry most interests me over the long term.”

      The authors note, of course, that the story must be dynamic and change as your situation and accomplishments change.

    • Another use/incarnation of a concise, overarching story of who you are is the About Me page on your blog or Web site or the
      100-word bio. A fantastic resource for learning to construct one of these stories is How to Make Your Story Shine, a lengthy,
      10-step tutorial that takes the user through a process for creating an effective story. The basics include:

      • Present who you are (answering the ever-important facts, up front)
      • Show where you’ve been (including your credentials, background, context, etc.)
      • Explain where you intend to go in your work/in your life (ie, this is what you’re driving at, and why you’re doing anything at all)
      • Invite the reader to join you, get on board, work with you, etc. (in other words, how to continue the relationship you’ve sparked)
  • The concept of storied resumes has caught fire in recent years, and many resume writers claim to tell their clients’ stories in these documents.
    One company, Storyresumes, focuses exclusively on graphically driven resumes that are story-based. While these graphic resumes cannot be read by employers’ Applicant Tracking software, they can be useful for networking, taking to an interviewer, or publishing on a personal Website of social-media venue. See a post about this company and what inspired its founder Andrea Martins to start it.

Final Thoughts on Career Storytelling Resources

These resources are just the tip of the iceberg of a vast variety of career-storytelling resources that have emerged in recent years. For much more on the subject, visit our Career Storytelling section. Job Action Day 2014




This article is part of Job Action Day 2014.