How to tell your career story

Published: 06 Jan 2016

How to tell your career story

Stephanie Sparrow finds out the best way to tell your career story

Compelling career “stories” are the best ways to grab a recruiter’s attention. This is the advice from consultants and business psychologists, as they notice more HR professionals using these accomplishment-driven narratives in CVs and job interviews to prove their business credentials.

The story- telling approach will differentiate you from other applicants whose formulaic CVs and interview answers can look stale. “Too many CVs are collections of adjectives and meaningless statements, with no stories to back up their claims”, says director of executive search at Russam GMS Melissa Baxter.  “A story puts you into the mind of the recruiter or hiring manager so that they get the whole picture of you as a person, and your successes.”

A narrative can create a fluid explanation of the stepping stones, and occasional sideways moves, of your career. Proceed with caution however; this is not about creating fictitious or overly wordy accounts of your job history, and the story must be interesting and relevant to the recruiting organisation (the general advice of updating your CV to suit each job application always applies). “The challenge is not to let the story get in the way of maintaining a professional stance”, warns chartered psychologist and career development adviser based at Leicester University Martin Coffey. 

With these tensions in mind, we have asked Coffey, and other experts, to provide top tips on how, where, and when, to tell your career story.

1 Start with your professional profile

The profile section at the top of your CV is the best place to start your story, says Charlotte Matthew, manager of HR services at Robert Walters. “This brief profile should outline existing employment experience, industry experience and what the professional is looking for. The aim is to encourage the recruiter to read on”, she says.

your story2 Storify accomplishments

Your CV should be accomplishments-driven, rather than set out past duties and responsibilities, says Baxter. She advises that each story or accomplishment includes “the situation, problem or challenge that contextualises your achievement, the action you took and the results you attained.” She adds: “Tell this story in reverse order— from results, action, problem, situation, to challenge.”  Mastering this approach at CV stage will help boost your eloquence when referring to your story at interview. Always be structured, specific and concise.

3 Beat the bullet (points)

Many organisations prefer a CV that is formatted in bullet points. “This doesn’t exactly go well with storytelling”, says Baxter, who adds that the discipline of bullet points can be reflected in the CV.  “Therefore a story-based CV needs to be to the point, outcome focused and engaging”, she says.

4 Mind your language

At Penna Career Services, managing director Bev White emphasise that each “story” (such as a section of your CV or specific experience) should be framed by “the business context and the competitive environment”.

She also advises that it should be told in appropriate and “precise” business language. Talk knowledgably and accurately about terms such as “big data”. As more HR professionals are required to be business partners, they are expected to speak the same language as their colleagues in marketing or finance.

5 Tell your story in interview

Having a story allows interviewees to be proactive and provide relevant information. Your answers to the interviewers’ questions about your story should include personal and work-related examples which display relevant skills and competencies (keep the “results, action, problem, situation, challenge” approach in mind) and so can indicate transferable skills

Stories also create the opportunity for the interviewee to ask questions (a good interview should be a dialogue) as they can be used to build a bridge between the interviewee’s experiences and organisation’s needs.

6 Stories suit assessment centres

Assessment centres may include role play, group exercises, biographical overviews and presentations. “Each channel provides the HR professional with a different basis for communicating their story”, says Matthew, “biographical and presentation-based exercises in particular.”

7 Apply the science

The effectiveness of the story-telling approach is backed by evidence.  Neuro science researcher at Princeton University found that when one person tells a story, and the other person actively listens, their brains start to synchronise. In other words, both parties develop a connection— which is vital when trying to impress.

“The ability to relate effectively to others, and showing how you ‘sell’ yourself is crucial”, says Coffey, “as it shows how you can focus on customers’, including internal customers’, needs.”  He also points out that job applicants can use career stories to demonstrate how they have learned from experience. “This shows resilience and emotional intelligence”, he says.

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