[I'm delighted to present this TempWorks exclusive essay by our guest writer, Margaret Steen, about story telling, especially since I've always had troubles with conversation starters and warming up to people. But when I look around and think about people who are good at that, people like my brothers Mike and Doug, it's obvious to me they get intuitively what Margaret is sharing. --Gregg]

Whether you’re pitching your services to a potential client or coaching a candidate on interview strategies, your interviewer will likely get very similar plugs from your competitors.

To rise above the noise, you need to make what you say more memorable than all the other pitches and candidate interviews your audience will hear.

A key strategy: Tell stories.

“People are natural-born storytellers, and from a very early age they interpret what’s happening to them in their lives through stories,” said Kathryn Rentz, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati.

“Humans continue to use narrative their whole lives, not just to try to explain or convince or justify, but also to understand: What happened? What will happen?”

In business, narratives can be overlooked in favor of metrics and data.

“Storytelling can seem on the face of it to be something frivolous and not terribly relevant,” Rentz said. “But it turns out narrative can be useful in a workplace setting in all kinds of ways.”

One reason is that when you tell a story, you tend to include a lot of concrete detail.

“I think narratives are compelling because they invite people to imagine themselves or other characters in a specific situation,” Rentz said.

In the staffing business, there are several ways to use storytelling to boost your business:

Coach candidates to tell stories in job interviews.

Candidates will tell you they’re hard workers and fast learners. But as Shelley Seibolt of Staffing Kansas City said, “Who cares? That could be anybody.”

Seibolt, whose Overland Park, Kan., firm places mostly contract-to-hire and permanent workers in office support jobs, tells candidates she works with to think of five adjectives that describe them and their work – and then think of an anecdote that illustrates each one.

“If you really believe you’re a punctual person, make an anecdote about it: ‘I didn’t miss one day of work in 2010, so they gave me two extra weeks of vacation,’” Seibolt said.

You may need to help candidates through this process, offering examples and helping them judge which stories will best illustrate their points.

“A lot of people in the staffing industry, they tell candidates to do this and they don’t tell them how to do it,” said Jeff Skrentny, owner of Chicago-based Jefferson Group Search and Jefferson Group Consulting, which provides training in staffing and search.

“You need to coach them.”

Skrentny advises having candidates think of a problem they faced at work, the action they took to resolve it, and the result of that action.

The problem and solution should illustrate specific qualities that the candidate wants to emphasize. Then build a narrative based on those points.

It’s also important to know when to tell these stories in the interview. In some cases, interviewers use a behavioral interviewing model – in which they try to draw out stories about the candidate’s past experience – and that will give the candidate a cue to use an anecdote.

In other cases, the candidate will need to learn how to tell the stories as part of the answer to standard interview questions.

Tell stories on sales calls.

You can use stories to sell your own services, as well. When you’re pitching your company to a potential client, don’t just tell the client you’ll do a good job: Use stories showing how you have solved similar problems for past clients.

Getting written testimonials from former clients can help. For an in-person meeting, you may want to tell most of the story in your own words, using just a few quotes from the client.

“If you say you’re good at something, I would call that bragging,” Skrentny said. “If someone else says you’re good at helping them, that’s a testimonial.”

Many staffing firms’ pitches sound the same, Skrentny said. The stories that show specifically how you helped a client will make a stronger impression and stick in the client’s mind better than a list of adjectives saying you’re hard-working or series of metrics that show you have a high success rate.

Ask others to tell you stories, and listen carefully.

Knowing how to listen to a story is just as important as knowing how to tell one.

When Elise Lewis of Los Angeles-based Distinguished Domestic Services is interviewing potential clients, she asks them to tell her about the last person in this position – and why they left. Her firm places household staff members in private homes.

“It gives us a good impression of the client,” she said. “When they go on and on and tell you how nice they are, it’s usually just the opposite – that’s the house where people aren’t even allowed to drink their water.”

Lewis listens for subtle cues that the potential clients are not telling her the whole story. Sometimes the tone of voice may make her wonder, and other times it’s details that don’t add up or a story that just doesn’t explain why someone behaved the way they did. “You can tell when someone’s not being forthright,” Lewis said.

No matter how you are using narratives to advance your goals, experts advise keeping certain tips in mind:

Tell the truth. A “story” in this context does not mean fiction. You want to be absolutely accurate, so if the interviewer repeats the story to, for example, someone who is acting as a candidate’s reference, that person doesn’t contradict it.

Be positive. Because stories are powerful, a bad one can send a strong negative message. If you’re telling a story about something that went wrong, “you don’t ever want to try to blame it on anyone else,” Seibolt said.

Be brief. Stories should not go on and on, and their point should be clear. “Don’t take more than 45 seconds to a minute and a half,” Seibolt said.

Practice, practice, practice. The anecdotes you use  - whether you’re selling your company’s services or your own skills - need to be on the tip of your tongue. “That’s the big thing, being able to pull them up quickly,” Seibolt said. “You’ve already done the introspection.”

Practice will also help you hone the stories so they are interesting and on point. “They’re memorized, they’re fun and interesting and dynamic – and they allow someone to see a real-world example” of your work,” Skrentny said.

Consider using numbers or humor. Not all stories are funny or filled with numbers, and you shouldn’t force it. But both are effective strategies for making stories memorable, when you have the appropriate material.

Seibolt remembers one effective candidate whose anecdotes included numbers showing how he had improved sales at a store he had managed. “That’s really cool to be able to have quantitative examples of success,” she said.

Likewise, humor makes for a memorable story – and it paints you as someone who would be fun to work with. “If you get a prospect laughing, they will listen, and if they listen, they will hear how you can make a difference,” Skrentny said.

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