Storytelling for job hunters – ace your interview with an anecdote library

Hari Patience-Davies on how starting an anecdote library can help you prepare for a job interview.

Losing a job can be a horrible feeling, and searching for one is not without stress. Job interviews especially can make people very nervous – whether that’s in-person or over a video call.

But they don’t have to be nerve-wracking experiences, you can use some of our storytelling tools and techniques in your interview preparation to ensure you present yourself in the best possible way to a potential employer.

Why create an anecdote library?

I can’t tell you how many times people in storytelling training have said to me “but I don’t have any stories.” A claim which is immediately proven false when I ask them a specific question such as “what’s your favourite memory from school?” or “tell me about the strangest hobby you have?”

People are full of stories, because our lives are full of experiences – but it can be hard knowing which ones to tell. It’s easier to say “I don’t have any stories” than having to review your memories and think about the lessons you learned along the way every time someone asks you to share.

So that’s exactly why building an anecdote library is worth doing – because once you have it, you can use it in all sorts of circumstances, including job interviews.

What is an anecdote library?

An anecdote library is a record – physical or digital – where you write down some of your best stories and what you can use them for.

For example, one of my entries would read:

Sainsbury’s logo story
I used the wrong logo in the pitch doc – logo had changed the week before – we didn’t win the work and I was lucky not to get fired!

  • always check the details.
  • don’t use Google images for work purposes.
  • embarrassing professional failure.

It’s short – just a few details to job my memory – and it includes a few bullet points on when I could use it as a lesson learned – for this example it’s when reminding listeners to always double-check the details of a document or why it’s dangerous to use images from Google for work purposes.

How do I create an anecdote library?

First decide whether you’re a digital or analog person. If digital choose a notes app for your phone, ideally a new notes app you haven’t used before and not one where you keep things like shopping lists or work notes. I’ve enjoyed using  Bear and  IA Writer – but you could also use Evernote or one of countless others.

If you’re an analogue person it’s time to do that most delightful shopping activity – buy a new notebook! I’d recommend a small one that can live in your desk drawer or bag, probably hard-backed so it doesn’t get too dog-eared. Moleskine is my preferred brand for physical notebooks but again there are loads of different ones available.

Once you have your notebook/app, plan some you-time. You’ll need about an hour away from your desk or family responsibilities, in a place you feel comfortable. Your beverage of choice is optional, but often helpful.

Open your notebook/app and think about the funny stories you tell at dinner parties or to amuse friends. What are the great experiences of your life that you like to share with other people? The idea is to write down on each page or entry a story in as few words as possible (but enough so you recognise it) along with any notes about how you think you could use it.

As mentioned above, when I’ve asked people to tell me a story their minds often go blank, so it can be helpful to prompt yourself with a few topics to begin with. You could start with trying to think of 3-5 stories about each of the below:

  • Childhood
  • Education
  • Memorable holidays
  • Notable achievements
  • Failure experiences/embarrassing mishaps

You could then expand into areas like “things I wish someone had told me before I learned them for myself” or “my best/worst day at every job I’ve ever had” or “the biggest problems I’ve ever solved.”

Before long you’ll realise that you’re writing down stories that can be used as answers to common interview questions such as “tell me about a time you overcame a problem at work,” or “what would you say is your biggest weakness.”

When interviewers ask questions like those, it’s not necessarily because they want to know about the details of the problem itself – instead they want to know what your approach was to solving it. Did you get your team involved and work on it together? Did you have an inspirational idea which fixed everything? Did you work through the night and make the deadline by the skin of your teeth? All of these approaches tell the interviewer something about the sort of person you are and lessons you have taken from challenging circumstances.

Ideally you’d want to have a few different stories you could draw upon for each of the below types of questions:

  • Tell me about a time you overcame a problem at work.
  • What’s the biggest mistake you ever made at work and what did you learn?
  • When working with multiple stakeholders, how do you resolve conflict?
  • What do you think good leadership looks like? (This is a chance to pull in an anecdote about someone else – either a former boss or perhaps a famous figure such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates)
  • What’s your greatest weakness? (This is all about lessons learned – it doesn’t have to be a current weakness, you can choose something you used to suffer from and show how you overcame it).

Don’t forget that for questions like “Where do you see yourself in 5 year’s time?” you can always play the 5 year’s time storytelling game as inspiration and preparation.

The key thing to recognise is that interviewers are often looking for anecdotes, but they won’t always phrase the questions like I did above. Don’t be afraid to reframe the question back to them so it fits better with an anecdote that you have prepared – just don’t take this to extremes, and use something completely unrelated such as replying with an anecdote about endurance and running your first marathon when they are asking you about resolving conflict between colleagues.

Interviews are as much about finding out if you are a fit for the company or team culture as they are about learning your professional background. The types of stories you tell and how you tell them reflects the person you are. So using some personal stories (such as the marathon/endurance examples mentioned above) alongside your professional stories is a great way for interviewers to get to know you as a well-rounded person and not just a person-shaped CV.

Don’t be worried if you don’t add many stories to your anecdote library in the first session – just keep updating it as stories occur to you. That’s why having the library accessible as either an app on your phone or a notebook you keep close by is so important. Before you know it, you’ll have loads of stories to draw upon – for job interviews but also elsewhere in your professional life.

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