Tell Me a Story: Lessons Learned from the HR Desk

“What your manuscript needs is more stories.”

That’s the number one piece of feedback I offer my clients when reviewing their manuscripts.

As writers we know that stories are central to our craft. Stories instruct, provide context, and perfectly illustrate the truths contained in our narratives. Yet why is it so hard to write a good story?

I was thinking about this as I was reviewing yet another draft that needed more stories. When discussing this issue with the author, she said, “But didn’t this paragraph suffice as a story?”

I reread what she had written. The paragraph was peppered with phrases such as “I always, ““he generally, “they usually” when it hit me: writing a good story is like providing a good behavioral example.

As an HR professional, I was taught behavioral interviewing techniques, and learned that words and phrases such as always, generally, and usually weren’t specific examples—they were generalizations. And we want specifics!

In behavioral interviewing, the interviewer asks a question such as:

Tell me about a time when . . .

Think of a recent example . . .

Consider a time when . . .

When asking a behavioral question, the interviewer is looking for a specific story that illustrates how the candidate has dealt with a situation. For example, when asking candidates about their ability to work as a team, you might ask, “Think about a time when you had to work in a team without a leader.” That question will likely result in an example that typifies the behaviors of the candidate. Candidates will share a mini-vignette, or a story, about how they were able to act, and then share the outcome, which allows the interviewer to make a judgement about the candidates’ ability to handle similar situations.

When asking behavioral questions, the interviewer is looking for a complete story—one that includes a STAR. The ST stands for Situation or Task, and is the set-up for the story. What was going on at the time? What was the problem? What made this situation difficult?

The A is for Action—what action did the hero of our story take? And finally, the R is for result–what happened as a result of the action what was taken to solve the problem or resolve the issue.

When you are writing a good story, you need to offer your reader a complete STAR, explaining the context, history, and situation, the action taken, and the result. When all the elements are there you have not only a complete behavioral example, but as writers, you have a complete story that illustrates your point.

If your story is peppered with words like “always,” “generally,” or “usually,” you don’t have a specific story.

So what does this mean for us as writers, you may be asking.

When struggling to find the right story to accompany your narrative, consider a behavioral interview question as a prompt. For example, if you’re working on a piece on productive procrastination, you might ask yourself: “Think about a time when you had a deadline, and yet did everything on your to-do list other than what you needed to do.” Voila. You have your story.

Or, you could use this technique when you are interviewing clients for your book or blog or other content piece. Instead of asking open, unfocused questions, you might ask a behavioral interview question so that the individual offers you a story you can actually use in your content piece.

Once you’ve asked the behavioral interview question, then listen for the STAR: what was the situation or task or problem? What did you do? How was it resolved, and what was the result? Now you’ve a story you can use!

When reviewing your manuscript, you might do a quick check and color-code your story to ensure you have a complete story. Is the problem clearly identified (red highlighter)? What action was taken (blue highlighter)? What was the result our outcome (yellow highlighter)?

Now, you’re equipped to not only write great stories for your book, but you’re also prepared to ask solid interview questions!

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