How do you get the most out of interviews? Get them to tell their story.

Centric Consulting’s spring meeting in Columbus, Ohio is always a great time for a culture refresh – a chance to remember why it’s a great company and why we love to work there. One of the highlights for me was the guest speaker, Kindra Hall.

I may be getting her title slightly wrong, but she is a corporate storytelling consultant. In short, she works with companies to help them tell their own stories – about their values, history, and vision – in support of culture-building and marketing. I especially love a good story, so I was definitely intrigued.

A big part of her message is how to use stories to get buy-in and empathy. She was speaking at a fairly high level, but you can take her ideas down to a pretty low level of detail. Projects and teams have stories, too.

The Power of Storytelling in an Interview

What her talk particularly triggered in my mind was interviewing. Think of the interviews you’ve been in and the questions you’ve answered. “What are your biggest strengths? What’s your biggest weakness?”

Yeesh! There are entire websites devoted to general answers for questions like that, and lots more sites where people report on the sorts of questions that specific companies ask.

Back when I was working Galactic Domination Consulting (name obviously changed just to be safe), I would say we mastered Critical Behavior Interviewing (CBI). I think it was a trend in the industry, though, and I don’t feel like anybody does this particularly well anymore. If anything, it’s become a caricature of interview questions. Every time you’ve gotten a question beginning, “Tell me about a time when you…,” you probably rolled your eyes and said to yourself, “Not another critical behavior question!” At the time, though, I thought we really nailed it.

I could spend a considerable amount of time getting into how powerful CBI is when it’s done right, but that’s not where I want to go. What I loved about CBI was how I could get people to tell their stories with it, and how much more I could learn about a person that way.

We had a list of 20 questions to choose from for CBI, and yes, they all started with “Tell me about a time.” My favorite was, “Tell me about a time you chose to learn something that was of particular personal interest.”

Now, there were certainly enough times when I got an answer along the lines of, “Well, I decided to teach myself HTML.” Those people assumed that the question was meant to probe into self-motivated professional development, but that’s really not where I wanted them to go. I was hoping I’d get a story. Not only would it be more interesting, I hoped it would tell me so much more about the candidate.

One memorable story I got out of that question was from a young woman who had decided to learn to SCUBA dive. This might have been as dry and technical as learning HTML, except that it turned out she was claustrophobic. The story she told, then, was about having a panic attack underwater, how she got herself out of that situation, and how she approached diving after that.

When she was done, I had a much more complete picture of her, and was darned impressed. Her story showed her courage and determination, and I could see how she would apply that on a project.

I also learned, as I got to be more experienced with CBI, to ask more open-ended, unscripted questions, particularly near the end of an interview. Again, the objective was to see if the person had a story to tell that would give me more insight than the answer to “Tell me about a time you had to deliver bad news to a customer.”

Storytelling as Indicative of Character

One interviewee was particularly memorable. He had been an assistant supervisor at a light manufacturing plant before he realized that, to be promoted, he needed a college degree. So he got into Northwestern University, which was remarkable because, besides being highly selective, NU doesn’t pull in too many non-traditional age students. Then he changed jobs to one that would be more flexible and support his education.

I’m nodding my head here: good, good! Planning ahead, taking charge of a situation. Check and check!

The job he got was as the assistant manager at a retail store in a shopping mall. This is where I asked him some question to get to his story: What unique things had he learned doing this?

There was a time, he began, when he’d been going over the store’s finances and he concluded that someone was embezzling money. I guess there’s a classic bit of legerdemain with returns and credits where an employee can basically empty the till for a friend if no one’s watching, and he was seeing it in the accounts.

I’m nodding some more. Attention to detail, deductive reasoning – check and check!

So he calls in Corporate Loss Prevention (understanding proper escalation – check!). This was particularly upsetting because my candidate had concluded from his detective work who had to be the guilty party, and it was a young man who was considered quite promising. The subsequent details took place behind closed doors, but the young man confessed to the embezzlement.

“All right,” said the Loss Prevention Officer. “Now you have to fire him and hand him over to the police.”

I’m thinking, geez, this is harder than anything I’ve ever had to do in my job. I want to hire this guy!

So next I hear about how my candidate takes the young man back to the employee locker room and watches as he clears out his locker. Then, because of the rules of the mall, he had to walk the young man through the store to its entrance where the police would meet them. All the time, he feels like everyone in the store is watching; it’s as if he was going to be arrested, not his newly-former employee. Finally, it’s over.

I’m in awe, and I tell him so (probably not an interviewing best practice).

“Oh, but that wasn’t the end of it,” he said. “Then I had to call his mother and explain why she had to go pick him up at the police station.”

This story was not just memorable, and not just relatable; it gave me a tremendously detailed picture of what this person could do, and I never would have gotten it if I hadn’t gone looking for it.