Strengths, Stories, and Showing Up: How to Interview Better Than Most

June 17, 2019

June 22, 2021

Over the last few years, I’ve spoken to a ton of students and recent grads entering the job market and looking to find a career that fits their interests and skills. While many of them reach out interested in Google, some are more curious about startups, and some just interested in finding a career path with international opportunities on the horizon.

No matter the path they are pursuing, interviews stand in the way.

On the flip side, I’ve interviewed lots of candidates at Google from a diverse range of countries, professional backgrounds, and personality types. So I’ve seen the difference in a standout candidate and one who doesn’t meet the bar.

I hope that what follows will be helpful and informative to those looking to find a job that suits them best.

This is just my own experience and perspective, so take it, like everything you read, with a nice grain of salt (preferably Pink Himalayan).

Sketch out your strengths

This seems obvious at the face of it, but you’d be surprised to know how many job seekers lack self-awareness about their own skills and strengths. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being unaware, and sometimes it’s more that they feel uncomfortable speaking to their strengths.

We’ve got to face reality here: you need to be your biggest fan in this process.

You don’t have to be, and don’t want to be, arrogant or pompous in an interview. But you have to speak honestly about what you bring to the table.

Here’s how I’d recommend you find the balance:

First, aim to identify 3–5 of your key strengths and attributes. You don’t need a laundry list of 20 things you’re good at. Just keep it simple and find the ones that are authentically you.

How? Check out tools like StrengthsFinder, take an online quiz, or simply ask a handful of trusted people you have experience working or studying to list your strengths. Then compare what the tools show to what your friends and acquaintances say. You’ll be surprised at the consistency of their perspectives.

With that list of your key strengths in hand, we move to the next step: stories.

Solidify your stories

Humans love stories. From an evolutionary perspective, they were key to our survival. From a 21st century perspective, our collective lack of attention means you need to play even harder to keep your interviewer engaged and interested.

Let’s break down a story to the basics.

Every good story has three points:

  • Beginning
  • Middle
  • End

Ta-dah! But there’s more to it.

In the context of a story you want to tell in an interview, you can also think about the key parts to a story in three sections. This simple framework (referred to as STAR) has been really useful to me:

Situation

  • What was the problem at hand? Why did it matter?

Task

  • What did you have to do to fix the problem?

Action

  • What actions did you take to accomplish the task? Why did you take those steps?

Result

  • What happened? What did you learn as a result?

I realize this might seem pretty basic and elementary, but you’ll be surprised at how often candidates struggle to share their experiences in a way that makes sense to their audience.

Try telling your story to a friend with a timer on. If you can’t succinctly tell it in 2–3 minutes in an understandable way, refine it and practice, practice, practice until you can.

Strengths + Stories = Success

Now, the secret sauce is also quite simple. The best sauces always are, right? (disclaimer: I don’t make tasty sauces so this is all hearsay).

All you need to do is take those top strengths and map them to your favorite stories.

This makes it really easy to tell someone why you are creative/strategic/disciplined without having to come out and say “I am the most creative person you’ll ever meet!”

Let the stories do the talking for you.

The best part about this recipe is that one great story can serve to highlight multiple strengths, and can fit multiple questions.

So you might find yourself flexing the story of a particular situation to fit a question about “a time you led a project from start to finish” as well as “a time you had to manage a difficult situation with a colleague.”

Or you could take the same story, and focus on a different attribute that is more relevant to the particular role you’re interviewing for. Thus, the exact same story could highlight your ability to work well with others in one scenario, or your ability to deliver complex projects efficiently and on-time in another.

Now that you’ve got a list of your strengths and a handful of your best stories, you’re almost ready to make interview magic. Only one thing stands between you and your goal: showing up ready to shine.

Show up like you mean it

I’ve found that lots of people, myself included, tend to over-prepare for the intellectual aspect of an interview but fail to adequately prepare for the emotional and human aspect.

I can’t overstate how important it is to come to any interview with the proper mindset. Being relaxed, positive, excited, and attentive really does make a difference on how people perceive and evaluate you.

In the end, as Maya Angelou famously said,

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What is true in life is true in the context of an interview. Show up with the right attitude, and you’ll leave people feeling a certain way, and that will create a lasting impression.

So stop your prep at least 10 minutes before the interview, and use that time instead to fire up your favorite tune, have a stretch, breathe some deep breaths, or do whatever makes you feel good.

Keep it simple!

All in all, if you can highlight your strengths in a few simple, short stories and show up ready to go, you’re going to interview better than most.

Just keep it simple and remember that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.