Today’s workforce is hyper-competitive. It’s hard to stand out, and if you’re hunting for a job, you need strategies to appear more credible, authentic, and memorable than your peers.
What’s the best approach?
In his bestselling book, Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina shares a surprising insight that explains why one job candidate’s application gets them noticed while another’s lands them in the reject pile: emotion.
Recruiters may think they make decisions based purely on logic, but their feelings play just as large of a role. It’s human nature. Emotions drive how connected we feel to other people, and those connections lead us to perceive someone in either a positive or a negative light. The quickest way to land on the “positive” side of that equation is simple: Tell a good story on your resume, in your cover letter, and during your interview.
With the right narrative, you can make anyone you want feel great — about you.
Storytelling is a powerful tool when it comes to influence and persuasion. Science tells us that voicing our opinions is often more polarizing than persuasive, and statistics, even when used as evidence, are difficult to retain. But if you blend the two together and weave them into an engaging narrative, suddenly, you can tug at heart strings and change minds.
This means you, job candidate, have a lot of power. With the right narrative, you can make anyone you want feel great — about you. All you have to do is organize your ideas into a story that elicits positive emotions, resulting in a rush of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, in your listener’s brain. As Medina points out, “Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing … it creates a Post-It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”
So how can you weave storytelling into your next job application? Here are four tips that will help you get noticed — and get ahead — in your career.
Increasingly, employers are using artificial intelligence platforms to quickly scan through thousands of resumes and make decisions based solely on objective criteria (like keywords that match job descriptions). These are important factors to incorporate into your resume, which should be tailored to the specific job you’re applying to. But the good news is that appealing to a robot recruiter is not incompatible with appealing to a human recruiter behind the screen. You can, and should, try to influence both.
Whether you’re fresh out of college, or a seasoned industry vet, many of us enter the job-hunting process thinking it’s best to offer a lengthy, chronological laundry list of projects and activities we’ve been part of. Why not? If you jam in as much experience as you can fit into a 45-minute interview or a two-paragraph email, something’s gotta click, right?
Actually, the opposite is true.
Let’s stop and look at this through a business storytelling lens. Is the person receiving this information going to remember everything? No way. Would it be wiser to use your time prioritizing the information that will be most relevant to them? Absolutely.
You don’t want to seem like a cookie cutter applicant. You want to seem like a real human.
We can’t say it enough: Always begin with your audience in mind. What is their role? What is their level? What’s going on with their business and industry? What current challenges are most important to them?
Conducting some extra research on LinkedIn, the company website, a corporate report, or through mutual contacts will let you “walk in the recruiter’s shoes” and craft a narrative — both through the accomplishments you include on your resume and through the message you write in your cover letter — of how what you bring to the table as a candidate is perfect for the challenges and needs their company is looking to hire for.
And remember, recruiters are looking for more than a list of skills and experiences. They want to hire a candidate who possesses both the technical skills the position requires and soft skills — also known as people skills: authenticity, strong communication, mindfulness, inclusivity, and the ability to bring new perspectives to a team. Resist the temptation to pepper your resume and cover letters with jargony keywords, and instead, be thoughtful about the words you use to convey your voice and tone. You don’t want to seem like a cookie cutter applicant. You want to seem like a real human.
Now that you know your audience, stop and imagine the ONE thing you want your prospective boss to remember about you above everything else. Before you interact with a recruiter, hiring manager, or anyone, be prepared to offer a single, simple theme you will leave with them.
In storytelling, this is called the big idea and it’s the lynchpin of every good narrative. During your job hunt, your theme, or big idea, should encapsulate precisely what you will bring to an organization and be woven into all of your written and verbal communications.
Are you trying to join a marketing organization? The overarching theme in your application materials could relay: I’m a person who is driven by innovation and growth. Every example you cite should point to how you use your creativity to help brands expand their audience. (I grew a marketing department by 50%. I increased clicks on our ads by 30%. Our customer base doubled in two years.)
If you are a recent grad just beginning your search, you may be wondering how you can have a “theme” as someone with a limited employment history. Well, you may not have a lot of job experience, but you do have more than 20 years of life experience, moving through the world with your unique history, mind, and perspective. This alone provides you with a great foundation for telling the story of who you are, what you’ve done, the challenges you’ve overcome, and the type of employee you’ll be if hired.
Your theme is not just there to help you take control of your narrative — it is a tool you can use to influence the memory a recruiter associates with you.
For instance, let’s say you want to join that marketing organization, but you’re also fresh out of college. To start, showcase your theme by saying something like, “I’m all about boosting brand awareness on social media.” From there, cite specific examples from your personal social media accounts, one-off gigs, internships, or school projects. Maybe you can describe how you grew your TikTok following by 50% in a year and how you’re excited to help XYZ company do the same. Or maybe you can share how, in your last internship, you helped the marketing team grow their newsletter subscribers by 25% in just three months.
Again, all the experiences you reference on your resume, in your cover letter, and during your interview should directly tie into this single idea. Your theme is not just there to help you take control of your narrative — it is a tool you can use to influence the memory a recruiter associates with you.
Throughout the application process, you’ll have to tell many stories about yourself and your experiences. Like all great stories, the experiences you talk about will need clear context to resonate with your listeners. Storytelling experts call context the “why” that drives the plot of a narrative. It gives your audience a reason to listen through to the end and arrive happily at your resolution.
Job hunters often make the mistake of leading with their resolution. (I managed a team during my summer job. I built a 50K digital marketing campaign. I implemented a plan to reduce the cost of our supply chain by 25%.) These are all good things to include on your resume, which will likely be quickly skimmed and used to judge your capabilities.
In your cover letter and in your interview, however, it’s your chance to really expand, let your personality shine, and set yourself apart from all the other candidates. You do this through context.
Whether you’re just starting out or have years of experience, context is typically established through three things: setting, characters, and conflict. Let’s break these elements down:
Setting: The place where the event of your story occurs. Did you launch a product in a past job? Your setting could be the marketplace for this product.
Characters: The people involved in and impacted by the inciting incident of your story. Were you leading a team on campus, or managing an important project at work? Were you working with suppliers, volunteers, or interns? Paint the characters in your story to make it (and you) feel more authentic.
Conflict: The inciting incident that causes you and the other characters in your story to take action. What problem were you trying to solve together? It could be your sales plummeting or even something as simple as a disorganized process that needed to be optimized. Spelling out the conflict is crucial because it builds tension and raises the stakes. Think of it like this: What makes the hero of a story heroic? Saving the day — or resolving some kind of conflict.
As you tell your story, let the context sink in to give your potential boss or co-worker a reason to lean in and gain a better understanding of how you work with others, approach challenging situations, and solve problems. This is the best way to establish your credibility.
With all of this context, you’ve hopefully given your prospective colleague or manager a reason to care about the outcome of your story. And, if you’ve researched your audience well, you’re highlighting experiences that will feel relevant to their world.
Now it’s time to be the hero and tell them how you resolved the conflict you set up. This is the part of the story where you can state those impressive metrics listed on your resume, but in a lot more detail.
For instance, your resume might say, “Boosted sales by 15% in the first quarter of the fiscal year.”
In the end, the resolution you are suggesting is to hire you.
In your cover letter, and during your interview, you can expand this resolution into a much more interesting narrative: “One of my strengths is the ability to pivot strategically under pressure (the big idea). For example, our sales plummeted in the last quarter of this fiscal year due to travel bans brought on by Covid-19 (the conflict). To work around this, I started thinking about what our customers (the characters) really needed from us during this time, and how we could refocus our strategy to serve domestic markets (the setting) with locally produced products. My team (more characters) did this by doing A, B, and C. As a result, we were not only able to contribute to improving local economies worldwide, we also boosted our sales by 15% the first quarter of the next year (the resolution).”
Do you see the difference? One version states a fact, whereas the other breaks down how you solve problems and what you value as an individual: contributing to local communities and bettering the lives of your customers during a challenging time.
You get the idea.
In the end, the resolution you are suggesting is to hire you. Combined, the above tools can help you influence any recruiter to do just that.
If you’re feeling intimidated, remember that you are already a master storyteller. Every time a family member asks you how you are and you respond genuinely, you are telling a story. Every time you recall a funny memory during a conversation with your friends, you are telling a story. Every time you “catch up” with your coworkers, you are probably also telling some kind of story — about your life, about your mental health, or even about your weekend plans.
Now apply your special skill to your job applications, and see what happens. We promise, it will be good.
You’ve got this.