“Tell me about yourself…” “What’s your story?”
A lot of ink has been spilled over how to answer these questions. Many people now have a memorized and — let’s be honest — boring LinkedIn answer. But listing impressive facts about yourself is not the same as telling a story.
Knowing how to tell a story separates people who get what they’re “qualified for” from those who soar into opportunities out of their league.
Whenever I looked into these special cases, I would hear the P-word. They have “potential” to be better than anybody else. As I became a hiring manager, I too began using “potential” in my interview notes.
“Potential” is a squishy word. So I want to put some structure around it and share ideas on how to become high-potential to interviewers, and more importantly, yourself.
Deer in headlights
There’s a weird pressure that comes with telling your life story.
One time someone sprung the question on me in an elevator, and I desperately tried to compress my life while also trying to predict the length of the ride. I sounded like I had stolen someone’s identity.
In hindsight, I made the rookiest of mistakes: when someone asks you for your life story, they don’t actually want to know your life story. They’re looking for three things:
- What have you done and learned?
- Where are you going?
- Can you be engaging and concise?
Doing vs. learning
To present our most polished selves, many of us fixate on what we’ve done at the expense of what we’ve learned. Let’s look at two examples:
- Doing: I led the core discovery experience, shipping new features that generated X% lift in revenue over Y time
- Doing and learning: … in the process, I’ve learned how to be effective at a 20-person startup and a 200-person startup by reinventing myself every quarter. Now, I want to apply this to [insert relevant thing about new opportunity]
Doing shows you have a track record, but learning proves you can make the most of any opportunity. You have potential for more. Tobi says it best:
“Hey, the reason why you've got this job is not because of everything you know, but because you seem like the kind of person who can figure it out when you need to know something.”
-Shopify CEO, Tobi Lutke
Polished feed vs. time machine
Great answers prove you can figure things out given what you’ve done and learned.
Stellar answers bend the rules. Instead of painting your life as a series of wins, talk about the change you’ve undergone to get here. Give them a time machine, not just a polished LinkedIn feed.
If you’re a kick-ass individual contributor, start with when you were new, and the 3 things you did and learned to get here. If you’re managing a team, start with how you built the team from scratch or how you made a lasting change. Mix in triumphs and setbacks.
In other words, find your high-contrast story. Work backwards from your current perch to when you were at the bottom of the mountain.
Same story told two ways
Polished feed version: I’m a PM at Acme Corp. where I lead the iOS and Android apps. In just 6 months, our apps have grown to 30% of total revenue and convert 2X better than mobile web.
Nice, but boring. Now let’s add a twist.
Time machine version: Two years ago, I joined Acme Corp. as a data analyst but quickly became the founding PM on the app team. Here’s how it happened...
The time machine format works for a few reasons:
- Creates a narrative arc around potential: if you’ve come this far in X amount of time, imagine what you can keep doing!
- Makes you memorable because you’re covering a journey not a laundry list
- Makes you easy to root for because you’re more authentic
Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. The more experience they have, the more fluent they are in corporate-speak and confidence theater. Their stories are often so polished I’m forced to ask: what’s the catch?
Will they earn the trust of the team? Can they put aside ego and do unglamorous work? Do they kiss up and kick down? I search for flaws because everyone’s got ‘em!
On occasion, I meet someone who owns their narrative, including business downturns, difficult hires / fires, humble retrospectives. Sometimes they’ll even ask for my take.
Almost always, someone on the hiring panel goes to bat for them. Shared struggle is an effective way to bond with strangers. So why don’t we do it more?
Big vs. small moments
When you’re only a name on a resume, you need big splashy moments to hook your audience in a split second. But once you make it to the interview, you need small moments to build a connection. The game changes.
Your big moments are your greatest hits. Your small moments are everything in between — false starts, scary plateaus, setbacks that tested you.
Big moments lionize us, small moments humanize us. The most endearing stories have both. They work especially well when:
- You’re underqualified on paper and need people to bet on your slope
- You’re interviewing at startups; they need people who grow quickly
- You intimidate the other person, and they need a reminder that you’re not that different from them
As far as superpowers go, storytelling is as universal as they get. For more on how it applies to day-to-day life, try Storyworthy — one of my all-time favorite books. And for how narrative shapes company valuation, read this.
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