THE ART AND SCIENCE OF STORY TELLING: A KEY TO CUSTOMER ACQUISITION AND INTERVIEWING

This article is the text of a presentation I will be making for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Series on October 28. If you would like to attend, a limited number of seats are still available. To register visit: http://www.manhattancc.org/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=1291. As the presentation is designed for business owners, employees and job seekers, if you are only interested in learning about storytelling for job seekers, an abridged version can be found on LinkedIn Pulse: http://linkd.in/1sxIZLs.

 

There are three components to a presentation: the presenter, the message and the audience. Assuming that the audience is not attending under duress, they want to be there and they are interested in the message. The presenter has agreed to make the presentation and therefore it is his or her responsibility to make certain that the audience leaves feeling that their time has been well spent and believing the massage.

In this case, it’s all on me. I’m the presenter. If I fail in getting my message across, I can’t blame the message and I certainly can’t blame the audience. And neither can you when you are making a presentation. And that is why making a presentation personal is so important. Personalizing a presentation results in differentiation. Differentiation is what closes deals.

Whether you are a business owner, an employee, or job seeker, you have competition. And while your widget may do something different than your competitor’s, your competitor’s widget probably does something different than yours. So, at the end of the day, it all balances out.

Therefore, what differentiates your company, your product or your candidacy, is you. And this morning we are going to focus on what makes you, you.

But let me begin by telling you what we are not going to do. Our topic is storytelling but we are not going to be discussing the written word. We are only going to consider face-to-face presentations either to acquire new clients or to secure job offers.   I combine the two because there is really no difference between them. Business owners and employees are trying to sell their products or services; job seekers are trying to sell themselves. It’s the same thing.

In addition to ignoring the written word, we are also going to ignore customer retention. And that’s for two reasons: First, if all is going well, then everything I say about customer acquisition will hold true for customer retention. The customer is happy and all you are going to do is reinforce that happiness with an impactful story.

If, however, the customer is upset, storytelling won’t work. The mistake many business owners make is to view an upset customer or client, as a debating partner. We are not discussing debating.

When you debate, or at least when I debate, I like to use the Socratic Method and, if the logical conclusion does not win the day, then I end with a story. But with an angry client, you don’t have time for a barrage of questions or, for that matter, a story. All you have time for is to ask what is wrong and how you can make it right. They’ll tell you and you’ll either agree or not.

You cannot win an argument with an aggravated client. If you prove them wrong, you lose their business. If you admit that they are right, you are liked to lose their business. All you can do is to assure them that you want to retain them as a customer, ask them what is wrong and try to come to an amicable outcome.

So now that we know what we are not going to discuss, let me tell you a story:

Years ago I was staying at a hotel outside of Toronto. I checked-in and, after getting settled, I went to Reception and asked the receptionist if she could recommend a nearby restaurant. She did and when I arrived I found a small restaurant with maybe a dozen tables, all but two occupied.

The man behind the counter, taking take-out orders, pointed to one of the empty tables. I sat down facing the entrance and, before the waitress could get to me, a young couple came in with their five-year old daughter. She looked around, saw that I was sitting alone, straightened her posture, got a devilish smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes and walked right over to me and announced,

“This is very sad. You are the only one here without a date. I’ll be your date.”

Her mother was mortified. But, I immediately stood up, raised my hand in front of the mother to let her know that I was not interested in her protests, pulled out the chair for my date, thanked her and, before I knew it, the waitress appeared with a booster seat. Mother placed daughter securely in the chair. I introduced myself. We shook hands. The waitress asked what we would like to drink. I ordered two glasses of “Canada Dry champagne.”

The waitress smiled, returned with the ginger ale and, totally innocently, the little girl took a sip, giggled and said, “The bubbles tickle my nose.” Everyone who heard chuckled and then the date began.

Before I could ask her anything she asked me, “Bruce, what do you do for a living?” Coming from a five-year old it was a rather mature question. I told her I was a fundraiser and she asked me more questions. Every time I tried to steer the conversation to her, she steered it back to me.

At one point during the meal, the little girl indicated to her mother that she needed to use the restroom. As I said, it was a small restaurant so everyone heard the door leading to the restrooms open and close. Once the door closed every man in the place started complaining to their date, “Why don’t you ask me about my job? She’s asking him. All you do is complain!” And the ladies just sat there and took it.

In the meantime, I was thanking the father and he was thanking me. I asked him what his daughter would like for dessert, even if her mother may not approve. He smiled and told me. When they returned I asked my date if she would like dessert and suggested whatever it was that her father had told me. She got excited, looked to him for permission, and was delighted when he nodded that it was alright. Mother was not happy.

In any case, dessert was delivered and when we finished it, both her father and I motioned to the waitress that we wanted our checks. She gave him his, and me mine. He took mine making it quite clear that he pays for his daughter and her dates. I took mine back making it equally clear that I pay for my dates and myself. We went back and forth one additional time and the owner, the man behind the counter who was taking the take-out orders, walked over, said it was his restaurant, and “whoever has the best date eats free.” He tore up my check. The little girl beamed!

We thanked the owner. I left a tip for the waitress. I’m certain the father was equally generous. And we parted company.

When I got back to the hotel the receptionist asked me about the restaurant. I told her the story. She laughed and I went to bed. Next morning when I went to check out, there was a new receptionist and I heard her telling two guests about my dinner and date. The story had changed a bit, like any game of telephone, but the basic facts were there: five year old had date and owner let her eat for free because she was “the best date,” making her feel special.

I was incidental. The child’s parents weren’t mentioned. Neither was the food nor the service. And I really don’t remember what we ate!

So why do I tell you this story? Think about what happened. The owner was a very kind man. He did something very nice for a little girl – calling her “the best date.” I told one person. She told one person. That person told two people. So at least four people heard the story from me. There were 22 other adults in that restaurant. If we all told the story and we all got the same results, that’s 88 people who heard about my date within 12 hours. How many of them do you think decided to go to that restaurant?

What did the owner do? And I will state categorically that I believe his only intent was to be nice. What he did was to provide ever patron of his restaurant with a positive story to tell about his establishment. Not about the food. Not about the service. But about his morals, values and principles. And that is precisely what you want to provide your customers, clients and staff with every day.

So how do you do it? How do you provide an effective story, one that will encourage people to do business with you?

First, you have to know what story to tell. They have to be receptive to the story otherwise you are wasting your time. Actually, this part is relatively easy. Ask. If the person talks about needs and not wants, you talk about attributes and not benefits. Then, after hearing their response, you share with them a story that will resonate with them. Usually it would be about a customer of their gender, age or profession, as the case may be. Now comes the science part of this presentation.

Second, you have to know how to tell the story.

In 1967, UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian wrote a paper titled, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communication.” According to his research, 55% of all communication is visual, 38% is vocal, and 7% is verbiage. In other words, how we say what we say, is more important than what we actually say. We listen with our eyes more than our ears. Our body language and tone of voice have to complement our words otherwise our audience will believe what they see and not what they hear. (For references see my book, Success! As Employee or Entrepreneur, p. 9.)

This happened to me when I was interviewing an executive recruiting candidate over Skype. The primary qualification of the job for which he applied was being detail oriented. After the usual preliminaries, I asked him to give me an example of a project on which he had worked where his “detail orientation” was a primary factor in the project’s success.

The funny thing was that, up to that point, I had not realized where he was. His computer was in his bedroom facing his bed. As he started telling me how detail oriented he was, I noticed that his bed was unmade and that every photo on the wall was crooked. Despite whatever he was telling me, my eyes were telling me that this guy was not detail oriented. I listened to my eyes, not my ears, and did not submit him.

But there is a science to the 55% of visual communication. Turns out that the 55% isn’t exactly 55%.

We humans actually only see 40% of what we are looking at. Our brains literally turn off, ignore, the remaining 60%, counting on our past experiences to fill in the blanks. That is why, if a typical person, for example, draws a chair, it’s not going to look like the chair she’s drawing. But if an artist draws a chair, it will look like the chair she is drawing because, instead of focusing on what is there, the artist focuses on what’s missing. So while most people would start with the legs, for example, an artist will start by drawing the space between the legs which most people pay little or no attention to. And that is why the artist’s chair actually looks like the chair.

The point is, when you are telling a story you are painting a picture. The picture does not have to be perfect. It’s the message that has to be perfect. People will see what they want to see. (I guarantee that no two people reading these words imagine, in their minds’ eye, the same restaurant with the same little girl. Clearly, it does not matter!)

That people see what they want to see was proven, totally by accident, by the founders of Pixar. Working at the time for Lucasfilm, they were charged with inventing the computer generated animation industry. They created the software and built the hardware. And they wanted to show off what they could do. So for an upcoming convention of computer animators, they planned to screen a two-minute computer generated animated motion picture.

The story was simple: A robot falls asleep in the forest. A bumble bee wakes him up. Startled, the robot runs away with the bumble bee in hot pursuit. The forest would be lush green with beautiful trees and vegetation. The robot’s face would clearly exhibit fear, and the bumble bee’s face would be the picture of glee. Real forest. Real characters. Real emotions. No Nobel Prize for literature, but that was not the point. It was all about the technology. And these computer geniuses failed…sort of.

The project was so immense that they could not finish on time. So, all of a sudden, in the middle of the film, the full-color 3-D animation disappeared and everything went black and white. Now, all the audience could see was the outline of what they had previously seen. And it did not matter. They were so caught up in the emotion of actually witnessing the future that they either had not noticed or had not cared that the technology had literally vanished. The creators of the movie had gotten the story right, and that’s all that mattered. The technology was so real that it became secondary to the story. They continued to see what they wanted to see.

Think of a Broadway play. If the story is great, you really don’t pay attention to the costumes and scenery. They are just part of the picture. If the costumes and scenery are what people leave the theater talking about, then the story was a flop.

This leads to the saying, perhaps the foundation, of Pixar’s success: “Story is King.” It’s the story that matters. Get the story right and the technology will take care of itself.

On a related topic, for many years I have been fascinated with why people believe nonsense. Just as the Pixar audience was no longer seeing 3-D and color, many people don’t see the truth. I am not talking about unfortunate souls who have nothing in their lives and are frantically searching for something to grasp on to. I’m talking about intelligent, well-educated people who believe foolishness. In frustration, I once said to a friend, who simply would not check his facts, that it was as though he had a developmental disability. Something was wrong with the wiring of his brain. Even though he was an academic, he lacked curiosity. He never asked questions. If someone he respected said something, he believed it. If someone said something he believed, even if he did not know the person, he accepted it. If someone he knew, and even liked, said something he disagreed with, he would not accept it. And, again, he would not take the time to check the facts to see who was right. When he would write a paper, he would begin with his conclusions and then find sources who supported them. In other words, his was the exact opposite of a proper scientific or academic process. Turns out, my assumption about his mental status was not that far off.

In physics there is a principle called Occam’s Razor. Named for the fourteenth-century English logician William of Ockham (Why the different spelling? I do not know.), “it says that if there are competing explanations for why something occurs the way it does, you should pick the one that relies on the fewest assumptions and is thus the simplest.” In other words, the easiest thing to do is just to accept what you want to believe. (This sounds like “the path of least resistance” and Sherlock Holmes’s mantra that when all the logical explanations have been exhausted, whatever is left, no matter how unlikely, is the answer.)

While this was close to what I wanted, it wasn’t really there. Something was missing. Then I discovered “confirmation bias.” This is “the tendency of people to favor information, true or not, that confirms their preexisting beliefs.” In the 1960s, British psychologist Peter Wason conducted a series of experiments “that explored how people give less weight to data that contradicts what they think is true.” This means that, “A few words uttered by someone close to us can carry enormous weight…whereas the same words uttered by a stranger won’t resonate at all.” Exactly what I found in my friend!

(These quotations and Pixar stories are taken from Ed Catmull’s, Creativity, Inc., about the founding of Pixar and its operations.)

This is why good, decent, well-educated people believe, as I said, nonsense. For them it is not science, it is theology or philosophy. Ever try to have a logical and rational debate over religion…? Let me give you some famous examples:

In 1968, Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich wrote the book The Population Bomb. Here’s a review on Amazon by Glenn Gallagher:

”I read the Population Bomb when it first came out, and believed it. Paul Ehrlich envisioned a horrific future with mass starvation of millions, if not billions of people by 1995. As we now know, Ehrlich was a Malthusian of the worst order, and almost single-handedly gave environmentalists a bad name. He is the epitome of an alarmist who has significantly harmed the ability of reasonable environmentalists to be taken seriously (The Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome). I’m sure Dr. Ehrlich meant well, but boy, was he wrong. This book should rest in peace, never to be read again. Or, perhaps it could be read as a lesson learned in how to avoid making extremist statements that make you and your colleagues look stupid.”

Two years after his book came out he was at Earth Day, preaching his gospel. That was the first Earth Day. April 22, 1970. What were the claims that were made and by whom were they made?   There were a lot. (The following quotes are taken from, Richard Larsen, “Bizarre Predictions from the First ‘Earth Day,’” The Daily Journalist, May 3, 2014.) I’m just going to choose one quote from UC Davis Professor Kenneth Watt, an ecologist, who said,

“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

And, for the record, this was support by Newsweek which reported, “One theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.”

Ironically, Earth Day, was a success despite the fanatics. It had bi-partisan political support. The key result was President Nixon establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.

Again, these fanatics are supposedly intelligent people not con artists. But, here’s the funny thing. Eventually, they lost all credibility. Facts take over for fantasy and reason for emotion. They had temporary short-term success. But some of their environmental counterparts have had permanent success because they followed proper scientific procedures and simply told the facts.

And facts can, of course, be used to convince. When the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, real scientists, using proper scientific methods, not only showed the world the hole but explained the cause and the solution. No one objected to getting rid of aerosol cans. When scientists, using proper scientific methods, showed that standard light bulbs used too much energy and polluted, everyone was happy to welcome CFL bulbs into their lives. And when it became clear that building construction was a serious environmental problem, LEED construction was embraced as a sensible economic and environmental solution.

Here’s another example:  Remember when cars were deemed as the number one cause of global warming?  Well, electric vehicles were not the solution.  There is no infrastructure so, if you’ll pardon the analogy, it was like putting the cart before the horse.  If you can’t conveniently charge your car, it’s just not going to work.  But with all the talk of vehicular pollution, it became known that a worse producer of green house gases is livestock.  In fact, 18% of all greenhouse emission, which is more than all transportation combined – according to the UN, comes from livestock.  One enterprising entrepreneur has therefore started what appears to be a successful business.  Beyond Meat produces chicken and beef and looks, feels and tastes like chicken and beef even though they are 100% vegetarian.  Problem identified; solution found.  (See Jonathan Ringen, “Carnivores May Never Know the Difference,” Fast Company, October 2014, p. 108.)

Persons suffering from confirmation bias don’t need or want facts, the rest of us do. So for the former you need emotion and a story. For the latter, you need facts but wrapped in a compelling narrative.

As noted, research is key to a successful presentation. You should know enough about your audience, to know what they value. What is important to them? Why are they interested in what they are doing? Why do they want to meet with you?

So now we get to the art of storytelling. How do we actually tell a story?

First, we ask our audience what they want or need and then we listen. Next, we relate facts that prove our knowledge of the subject matter. In other words, we establish our credentials. But then we tell the prospect what they want to here. And what they always want to hear is that we can solve their problem. What they don’t want to hear is bragging. Saying you can solve their problem isn’t credible. You have to prove it. And the best way is by telling them about a current or previous client who had a similar situation to theirs and how you dealt with it.

As a general rule of thumb, in the for-profit sector, it’s logic and reason that will win the day. But in the non-profit sector, it’s emotion. In either case, you have to create a bond with the prospective donor so that they know that you understand them. But there is a wrinkle. Even more than in the case of for-profit prospects, prospective non-profit donors have to be comfortable. You can’t get this wrong!

When I worked at a nursing home and tried to raise money for our Alzheimer’s program, I failed miserably. No one wanted to hear about Alzheimer’s. It was too close. It was too personal. It was too scary. Then, totally by accident, instead of talking about the patient or nursing home resident, I started talking about the caregiver. The money started to flow. It was easier to hear about an adult child having to adult-proof their home so that their mother would not run away than hearing about mothers, waking up at 2:00 AM thinking it was 7:00 AM and thirty years earlier, running away because they thought they had to get to work.

So to recap, you have to know what your audience is interested in. Then you have to establish your credentials and determine the proper story to tell. Then, in telling it, you have to make certain that your audience is comfortable and that your body language and tone of voice do not contradict your words. Finally, you have to determine the right proportion of facts vs. emotions that is required to meet your goal which is always the same: To convince your audience that you have what they want or need.

But beware of humor. Telling jokes can be dangerous. You never know what someone will view as offensive. Telling a funny story, especially self-deprecating, is a different matter.

For example, in response to the question, What are your weaknesses? I always say that I have no sense of direction; I can literally get lost going around a circle. Someone usually claims to be worse at navigation that I. When that happens, I put up my hand, tell them not to waste their time and quickly tell them the story of when I was taken to my destination by a blind man and his dog. I win the argument! But I always like to end with a lesson learned.

Before moving on, I ask the question, If you had seen the three of us walking, what would you have thought? You would have thought that I was such a nice guy helping a blind person and his dog get safely to where they were going. But the truth of the matter was, they were being nice. Just because you see something does not mean you understand it!

One word of warning: don’t preach. No one likes to be lectured to. Just be sincere. If you have the courage of your convictions, if you honestly believe what you are saying, you’ll be a successful story teller. Simply stated, it will come across in your tone of voice.

The question career counseling clients ask me the most is how they should respond when they are asked, Tell me about yourself. Nine times out of ten candidates summarize their resumes. Funny thing is, nine times out of ten when a business owner or employee is asked the same question about their company or non-profit, they summarize their website or brochure.

That’s a big mistake. The “Tell me about yourself” question is your opportunity to shine. Now is your chance to show your values, morals and principles. (Remember the restaurant owner?) And it is your chance to close the deal quickly because it’s one of the first things you will be asked.

If you have done your research, you should know what will resonate with the interviewer or prospect. When I’m asked the question, I always change it and respond, “I’m going to tell you about my best day.” My goal is to let them know what is not on my resume or, now, on my website. I want them to know about me. So I tell them this story and, so far, it has never failed me because it’s true and it resonates, especially with non-profits.   Plus it’s unexpected because it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my accomplishments, which is what they expect to hear about. And, it has a surprise ending:

This was my best day:

Years ago, I was the assistant director of a Jewish Federation in New Jersey. We had a YM-YWHA. The program directors had an idea. They want to have a community fair for Hanukah. It would not be a fundraiser (my responsibility) but simply a “thank-you” type of event. A fun day where we would sell tickets for games, sell some food, and if we broke even we would be happy.

At the meeting we had to discuss their idea, the directors, all young women, looked at me and said that they needed a volunteer to dress up as a cartoon character. I realized I had no choice in the matter, saw no point in arguing, and, frankly, I wanted to do it. So I agreed.

I did, however, have one condition. I told them, “It has to be a manly character.” They chose Barney!

If you need to lose eight pounds in four hours, I know how to do it! The costume was huge. There was so much foam rubber I could barely fit through my office door – sideways.

We thought it was a great idea. At the time Barney was very popular. All the kids had little Barneys at home. So when I walked in to the gymnasium where the Fair was being held, we all expected the children to go nuts. And they did…but not the way we expected.

The smaller children were scared stiff and went running to their mothers. (The older kids pulled my tail!) The little ones, who we were doing this for, wanted nothing to do with me. I was a seven-foot tall monster, not the Barney they knew and loved.

It was a failure. But it was only a failure in choice, not concept. The following year we did it again only this time I was Big Bird.

Big Bird, by definition, is supposed to be big. It’s in his name! This time, when I entered the gym the kids went nuts the right way. They were beside themselves with excitement. Especially one little girl who ran up to me, grabbed my leg and hugged with all her might. After a few minutes I had to pry her off because she was cutting off the flow of blood! So we held hands. For four hours we held hands. When I had to take a break her father would take her from me. When I returned, she would be waiting by the door and we would go walking around hand-in-hand or with her hugging my leg.

At the end of the Fair I whispered to her father that I wanted to give her a hug. I explained that I could not bend over to pick her up because the costume head would fall off. So he picked her up and she gave me a hug.

There are three hugs children give: There’s the nice-to-see-you/welcome-home-now-I’m–going-back-to-play-my-video-game hug. There’s the thank-you-for-the-birthday-present-now-I’m-going-to-play-with-it hug. And then there’s the nightmare hug. That’s the hug where they are scared and hold on for dear life because they know you will protect them. That’s the hug I got!

Don’t get me wrong; she was not scared. I was not protecting her from anyone. She simply loved Big Bird and game me the passionate hug. And, again, I had to signal to her father to pull her off of me.

When he put her on the floor, she took a couple of steps back. This was the first time that I actually saw her. All the other times she was on my side and, because of the costume head, I had no peripheral vision. She was about six- or seven-years old. I waved at her; she waved at me and said, “Bye-bye Big Bird.” I waved to everyone and went to my office.

I got out of the costume and looked like something a cat dragged in. My clothes were all wrinkled and I was covered in perspiration. With a bottle of water in my hand, I went into the lobby and noticed the little girl’s mother. I went over to her and said, “I have to tell you, no one has ever hugged me the way your daughter did.”

She looked at me like I was the biggest pervert on the planet. I had assumed she knew who I was. I immediately introduced myself,

“I’m Bruce Hurwitz. I’m the Federation’s assistant director. I was Big Bird.”

Her expression immediately changed. She got all misty-eyed, looked at me and said,

“Bruce, my daughter has autistic tendencies. When she said ‘Bye-bye Big Bird’ to you it was the first time she ever spoke to anyone outside of the immediate family or her teacher.” And then she thanked me.

And that was my best day!

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The 5 Steps to Writing an Effective Thank-You E-mail

It is expected, and therefore required, to send a thank-you e-mail to each person who interviews a candidate for a job opening. You have no choice; you have to do it.

A good thank-you e-mail can save a bad interview. On the other hand, a bad thank-you can destroy a good interview. I have seen both. So how do you write an effective thank-you e-mail, one that will get you a follow-up interview or the job offer?

First, writing the e-mail begins with the interview. You have to get the contact information for everyone with whom you meet.

Second, take notes during the interview. Assume that the first question that everyone asks is the issue that is most important to them. Of course, if you are meeting individually with interviewers, they may all ask you the same questions so as to compare notes and see if your answers are consistent. So note a few and, most importantly, which of your answers produced the most intense feedback from the interviewer. It’s a safe bet that that’s the question they really care about.

Third, when it is your turn to ask questions begin with, “If I should get this job, how would I be able to make your life easier?” You may be able to use their responses in your thank-you e-mail. (This question also serves to show that you see your job as helping colleagues, something everyone wants to believe is a characteristic of a new hire.)

Fourth, when you get home, review the questions you were asked and the answers to your “life easier” question. If the interviewers all asked different questions, then focus on their questions. If they were similar, then either pick one for each interviewer or use their answer to your “life easier” question. That will be the focus of the second paragraph of your e-mail.

Fifth, in the first paragraph thank the interviewer for interviewing you.  In the second, as noted, reiterate your answer to their most important question or confirm your understanding of their answer to your “life easier” question.  Next, clarify, confirm or correct anything you may want to change that you said during the interview.  It’s not that you lied, you may simply misspoke or, on your way home, you may have thought of a better answer to a question you had been asked.  This is all perfectly innocent and natural as most people are at least a little nervous during a job interview.  Next, thank them again for interviewing you, reconfirm your interest in the job and tell them that you look forward to hearing from them.

The key is to make certain that each e-mail is different. The interviewers will compare your thank-you e-mails. If they are all identical, that sends the message that you have no imagination, did not listen well during the interview(s), and are average at best. No one hires “average.” While the first and concluding paragraphs will be very similar (after all, how many ways are there to say “thank you?”), not “personalizing” the letter by relating to their questions or answers, means your thank-you e-mail is nothing more than a form letter. No one has ever been offered a job because they sent a form letter.

(And, in case it has to be said, keep it relatively short and proof read it a few times before pressing “Send!”)

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse: http://linkd.in/ZxS2lb

The Seven Ways to Deal with the Worst Job Interview Question

Interviewer: Why is there a 10-year gap on your resume?

Job Applicant: I was in jail for drug smuggling, this is what I learned and this is what makes me a great candidate and employee for your company.

That’s how you answer any negative question: Tell the truth, explain what you learned, and why the employer should hire you.

Of course, most candidates with something to hide will try to avoid the question and answer. And some may get away with it – especially if the employer doesn’t ask the right questions or perform a background check. But one individual was proactive.

I recently came across an ad I had photocopied from the February 23, 2001 issue of the National Post, published in Toronto. It appeared on the front page of the classified under the category, “Employment Wanted.” At the time, it was very popular. But, given that so many years have passed, no doubt many current job seekers don’t know the story.

It was the only ad in the category. That was probably a good thing because who would want to follow this:

 Former Marijuana Smuggler

Having successfully completed a ten year sentence, incident-free, for importing 75 tons of marijuana into the United States, I am now seeking a legal and legitimate means to support myself and my family.

Business Experience – Owned and operated a successful fishing business – multi-vessel, one airplane, one island and processing facility. Simultaneously owned and operated a fleet of tractor-trailer trucks conducting business in the western United States. During this time I also co-owned and participated in the executive level management of 120 people worldwide in a successful pot smuggling venture with revenues in excess of US$100 million annually. I took responsibility for my own actions, and received a ten year sentence in the United States while others walked free for their cooperation.

Attributes – I am an expert in all levels of security. I have extensive computer skills, am personable, outgoing, well-educated, reliable, clean and sober. I have spoken in schools to thousands of kids and parent groups over the past ten years on “the consequences of choice”, and received public recognition from the RCMP for community service. I am well-traveled and speak English, French and Spanish. References available from friends, family, the U.S. District Attorney, etc.

Please direct replies to…

If memory serves, this individual was invited to be on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and had job offers within a week.

All kidding aside, look at what he did:

First, he made his incarceration into a positive – “incident-free.”

Second, he makes himself “human” by saying that he wants to support himself and his family.

Third, he quantifies his “business” successes. (I would have liked to have learned about the “island,” and don’t you just love the references to supervisory experience and revenue?)

Fourth, he notes that he “took responsibility” for his actions – albeit while sounding bitter that others got off for, apparently, turning on him (which, of course, begs the question whether or not he had any choice but to “take responsibility”).

Fifth, he answers the employer’s question before it is asked: He is “clean and sober.”

Sixth, he has made amends by doing public service.

And, seventh, he has references from the RCMP (who, apparently, do “always get their man!”), the US District Attorney, and whoever “etc.” is!

You have to give him credit for going public which, obviously, is why he was successful in getting a job so quickly.  I guess chutzpah counts in a job search.  Who knew?

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse: http://linkd.in/1tvEEfz.

Questions You Should Ask In An Interview

Years ago I was at a job fair for veterans. During a lull, I asked a recruiter from an aerospace company what was his favorite candidate question. He said, “What do you do here?”

I laughed, but he said he was totally serious. As he explained it, for him that question meant that the candidate was an “idiot,” (to be honest, he used an adjective as well as the noun…), not worth his time, and he could then end the interview and move on to a worthy applicant.

So, excluding questions that pertain specifically to the job for which you are applying, here is a list of the questions you should ask. But first, an explanation and a little advice:

An interview is a two-way process. If the employer does not give you an opportunity to ask questions, you don’t want to work for her. (Now she’s the …idiot!) Second, take notes using a pen and paper, not an electronic device. You don’t want the interviewer to think you are checking your e-mail or playing games (it happens!). Third, you want the answers to your questions so that you will be able to personalize your thank-you e-mails to the interviewer(s). If there are multiple interviewers you can assume that they will compare e-mails. If they are all identical, they’ll know you have limited writing skills, if any. If you ask the following question, it will definitely provide you with the answer you need to write an effective thank-you e-mail. And here it is:

If I get the job, how will I be able to make your life easier?

This question, given to me by a friend who used to work at the City University of New York, is the perfect way for an interviewee to begin an interview. No matter who is interviewing you, HR, a program director, your future supervisor, the owner, you want everyone to know that you view your job as making life easier for your colleagues. Now, by asking the question, you have told them and, as just noted, they have provided you with the focus of your thank-you e-mail to them.

Why is this position available?

            Actually, this is a terrible question to ask. But it is important. The problem with wording it this way is that it sounds gossipy. It’s none of your business what happened to the last person? So ask it in a way that shows professionalism and maturity: What did the last person who held the position do that you want to see continued and what would you like to see done differently?

If it is a new position, beware! Often employers create a position without thinking it through. You don’t want to lose your job after a few months because of bad planning. So ask questions about budget, reporting relationships, and insist on speaking with colleagues with whom you will be interacting. Ask them how they feel about the new position. And don’t believe a word them tell you, believe their body language. New positions do not always work and failure is almost always the result of budgetary issues or office politics. Beware!

What have your results been?

            It was once suggested that I apply for a senior position at a local New York City college in their Career Counseling Department. The idea intrigued me. I made an appointment with the director and, a few hours before the interview was to take place, he had his assistant phone to tell me that he had to rush home and that the interview would be over the telephone. Not the end of the world, but he let it slip, during the telephone interview, that he was waiting for a package to be delivered. Not what I would call an emergency or, for that matter, very professional.

In any case, when my turn came to ask questions the first was, “What percentage of your graduates are employed on graduation, within 3, 6, 9 or 12 months?” He said he did not know and that they really should start tracking that data. He complained that the Alumni Affairs Department wasn’t very cooperative.

For me, that ended the interview. When an employer does not have basic knowledge, and when he blames someone else for what is clearly his responsibility, you don’t want to work for him. (The same, of course, is true if they won’t answer your questions! There is a caveat: You have no right to know confidential or proprietary information and they are not required to provide it.)

What are your turnover rate and average tenure?

            You can’t very well ask, Is this a nice place to work? What are they going to say, no? But by asking about turnover rate, and how long employees stay on the job, you’ll get your answer.

Do you promote from within?

            Both this, and the previous question, you may have already been able to determine from LinkedIn profiles. If not, they are legitimate questions to ask. And they send the message that you are looking for a long-term relationship and professional growth.

(If you have the answer then, when they ask you, “Why do you want to work here?” you can respond, “Because I know your employees remain for a long-time and you promote from within.”)

What was your Tylenol moment?

If you are being interviewed by an older business owner/professional, they should understand.   If not, ask it this way: Give me an example of a time that you based a decision on corporate values and not just the bottom line. By asking this question, you show the interviewer that morals, values and ethics are important to you.

(For those of you unacquainted with what happened, in 1982 someone tampered with a bottle of Tylenol. This was before safety packaging and caplets. Someone inserted cyanide into the pills. This only happened in one store in Chicago. Seven people died. Johnson & Johnson’s CEO decided, instead of launching a PR campaign to prove that their product was safe, to take all of their Tylenol products off the shelves, at a cost of $100 million, until tamper-proof replacements could be manufactured. This decision, for which he was universally praised, was based on J&J’s Credo – their mission statement.)

Why do you like working here?

Make it personal. You want to get to know the interviewers as much as they want to get to know you. In fact it’s not a want but a need. So find out what gets them out of bed every morning.

Show your research skills.

            Regardless of what you ask, you want your questions to send the clear message that you prepare very well for meetings. So dig deep. Find out about decisions that the company made years ago and ask what the results were.   Learn what you can about the interviewer and ask business related professional questions, such as, I know you volunteer for XYZ. Is that something that the company supports? Is it encouraged? Don’t worry, they won’t think you are stalking them. It’s call “preparation” and “due diligence.”

How should I follow-up?

The final thing you should do, after thanking the interviewer for having interviewed you, is to express interest in the job and then to ask about follow-up. Whatever they tell you is what you do. “We’ll call in two weeks.” Wait two weeks. “Call us in two weeks.” Call them in two weeks.

If they don’t call you, or if they don’t return or take your call, you have your answer. My advice: Wait another week then send them a letter, not an e-mail which could end up in SPAM. Write something like this: I wanted to thank you again for interviewing me for the whatever position. While I am disappointed that you probably have gone with another candidate, I appreciate the opportunity and look forward to meeting with you in the future.

This letter will be your third written communication with them since the interview. The first was the e-mail thank-you you sent immediately after the interview. The second was a hand-written thank-you note that you should have mailed. Now they are getting this one and the key word is “probably.” They actually may not have made a decision. Their timetable may have been thrown off. Things happen! So you have politely reminded them of your interest.

Or, they may have made a decision to go with someone else. But, receiving this letter, they might want to reconsider you, assuming they have yet to make an offer.

Or, they may have made an offer. But don’t distress. I know of two individuals who received job offers as a result of this “thank-you rejection letter.” It’s an nice touch. It’s classy and professional. When a new position became available, someone at the company asked the question, “Who was it who sent us that thank-you letter when we rejected them? Maybe they’d be good for this job.” And they were.

One final piece of advice: Never ask about benefits until they have made an offer. It always sounds terrible and will probably cost you the job offer.

This post is based on Chapter 9 of my book A Hooker’s Guide to Getting a Job: Parables from the Real World of Career Counseling and Executive Recruiting, and Chapter 11 of Success! As Employee or Entrepreneur.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141012192901-2335221-questions-you-should-ask-in-an-interview?trk=mp-reader-card.

The Interviewer was Mean to Me!

Have you ever been interviewed by a really rude person? Did you thank him? Why not? Don’t you value honesty?

Think about it. The interviewer is a rude person. Instead of trying to hide his rudeness, he makes you abundantly aware of it. (Of course I am assuming he’s aware of it!) So now you know what you will be getting yourself into if you decide to work for the guy (even if he’s not aware of it!). That’s honesty!

But what if he’s not rude? What if he’s actually quite smart? What if he just wants to see how you deal with criticism? That should be your assumption.

Interviewer’s Question: How did you accomplish Plan X?

Your Answer: Whatever it is….

Interviewer’s Response: Well why in the world did you do it that way? Why didn’t you…?

Your Answer:

Here is your opportunity to show how you deal with criticism. Don’t take it personally. Don’t become defensive. Think for a few seconds and respond, “You know, we never thought of that. It might actually have worked. But let’s think it through…”

Now ask questions. Explain about issues that arose and how the interviewer’s approach may have solved, avoided or exacerbated them. Let the interviewer see your thought process in action.

After all, he might not be a very rude boss, he might be a very smart one! And that you’ll be able to gauge from his reaction to your answer.

For more detailed information on interviewing, see Chapters 11 and 20 of my book, Success! As Employee or Entrepreneur.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141010195041-2335221-the-interviewer-was-mean-to-me?trk=mp-reader-card

No one will hire me, I’m too old!

Some time ago I was doing a search for an IT systems administrator. Despite receiving resumes from scores of candidates, I only had two who I felt comfortable submitting to my client.

The first, a young guy with a one-page resume, was concerned that he did not have enough experience. The second, an older guy with a seven-page resume, was concerned that he was too old and could not compete with younger candidates. The former was preferred by the department head, the latter by the owner. The former’s references were awful; the latter’s were stellar. The old guy got the job.

I tell this story probably once a month to “older” clients who come to me concerned that because of their age they won’t be able to get a job. I put “older” in quotation marks because clients in their forties, fifties and sixties all consider themselves “old.”

This is a problem of attitude. Yes, there is some basis for it in fact, but mainly it’s a problem of marketing and branding. The older clients don’t know how to “package” themselves.

Let’s begin with a little honesty. If an employer is going to discriminate against you based on your age, they are going to discriminate against you based on your age and you will never be able to prove it. So why go through the process, wasting your time, and keeping you from the employers who are going to realize your worth? Why hide your age? They are going to figure it out when they meet you!

My first piece of advice: Don’t hide your age, boast about it. But do it sensibly. Don’t begin your resume stating that you have decades of experience. Begin with a list of five or six accomplishments that will make the employer want to invite you in for an interview.

There’s no law that says you have to list every job you have ever had. Cut your resume off at a logical date. The advice I give is to go back approximately 10 years or to the year 2000. You’re not hiding anything; you’re just choosing a logical cutoff point.

Second, don’t apply for jobs that have as a qualification “3 to 5 years’ experience.” If you have 20, they don’t want you. It’s basically entry level. So why waste your time?

Third, not being seen as tech savvy (ironic given that my first example concerned IT!). This one is easy. At the top of your resume, next to your contact information, aligned with either margin, have a QR code. It could link to your website, LinkedIn profile, e-mail or text. Regardless, it sends the message that you are comfortable with technology. Similarly, include your LinkedIn profile, Twitter handle, or other social media, if relevant to your profession, as part of your contact information.

Fourth, appearance. Surprisingly, this seems to be more of an issue for men than women. Some men dye their hair. Personally, I think it’s silly. You can almost always tell. But if it gives them confidence, that’s a positive. Of course, the employer may react negatively thinking to themselves, What else is he trying to hide?

In any case, health is far more important. You have to look healthy. That means make an effort to lose the extra pounds. Don’t wear tight fitting clothes. Look sharp.

Fifth, let the employer know you are looking for a long-term gig. But do it subtly. Employers will be worried that you will leave after a few years to retire. Let them know you want to stay for the long haul. You can do that in two ways:

When they ask, and they will, why you want to work for them, if you were able to find this out, and LinkedIn profiles are the place to go, tell them that you noticed that most or a large number of their employees have been working for the company for a long time and that they promote from within. That, tell them, is the type of company you want to work for.

Or, in response to a question about a plan they want implemented in, say, three years, answer that you can complete the plan within three years but that you consider that to be only a first phase. The follow-up could take another seven so you see it, in essence, as a 10-year project.

Sixth, competition with the supervisor. If you are an “older” worker, by definition, your new boss will probably be younger than you. You could be their parent or grandparent. They know it; you know it. And they might think that you are after their job. So put them at ease. When they ask you what you like about the job, if it’s true (never lie!) tell them that the most satisfaction you get is seeing colleagues grow. (Give an example to establish credibility.) Explain that you’ve been the center of attention, now you want to help others get that attention. That’s the job satisfaction you are looking for.

Finally, the biggest advantage that “older” workers have is that they have what to say and know how to say it. Unlike younger workers who lack experience, and thus meaningful stories to tell, older workers have them in spades. They can choose the story which will best resonate and thus help get them the job.

But it’s not all that simple. There is an art and science to storytelling. And that will be the subject of an upcoming post. If the topic interests you, and you are in Manhattan on October 28, join me for a talk I am giving for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce on that very subject.

This post is based in part on Chapter Four of my book, A Hooker’s Guide to Getting a Job: Parables from the Real World of Career Counseling and Executive Recruiting.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141010163238-2335221-no-one-will-hire-me-i-m-too-old

How to Answer Easy Job Interview Questions

I do not believe that there is such a thing as “difficult” or “hard” interview questions. If you do your homework, you should know what to expect. If you prepare, you’ll know how to respond. Given that, what are traditionally seen as “difficult” questions, are really quite easy. For example:

Why did you leave your last job?

Simply tell the truth. It is amazing to some people when I relate to them the number of HR professionals I have had as career counseling clients who, when I ask them this question, give the usual responses: It wasn’t a good fit. The company went under. There was no room for growth. In other words, the people who interview candidates have been candidates themselves and have had, or know people who have had, the same experiences as the people they are interviewing. So just tell the truth. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, they won’t. They’ve lived it too!

Of course, if you were fired, that’s a different matter. In that case, look the interviewer straight in the eyes, briefly tell them what happened and then turn a negative into a positive. Tell them what you learned from the experience and why it will make you a better employee.

Some clients come to me especially concerned because they believe they were fired when, technically, they may not have been. As a general rule of thumb, if you are fired your employer will challenge your request to receive Unemployment Insurance. If no such challenge is made, and your employer never said, “You’re fired,” but, rather said something like, “Your services are no longer required,” then you can honestly tell the interviewer that you were let go and no reason was given. If they ask specifically if you were fired, you can then say, “No. If I had been I would not have received Unemployment Insurance. They would have challenged my claim. They never told me I was being fired, only that my services were no longer required.” (This is also why you should refrain from asking why they are letting you go! After all, if they tell you, you’ll have to tell the interviewer.)

Why do you want to work here?

Now is your time to shine. No matter what position you are applying for, you want the interviewers to know that you prepare well for meetings. Employers expect you to sing the praises of their companies. Don’t do it! It will sound phony. Get into the weeds, so to speak. Show off your research skills. Mention, for example, the number of their staff who have received awards for their volunteerism. Then tell them that you want to work for a socially conscientious company, one that is involved with the community. Or, check out the LinkedIn profiles of their staff and, if it’s true, say, “When I was reviewing your staff’s LinkedIn profiles, I noticed that many, perhaps the majority, have been here for a long time and you promote from within. That’s the type of company I want to work for.” No phony praise; just meaningful facts. And the last example has the added advantage of sending the message that you are looking for a long-term engagement, something that is especially important for “older” candidates.

Tell us about yourself.

Don’t summarize your resume. They have read your resume. They know what is there. Tell them what isn’t. Talk about your morals, values and principles. This is your time to differentiate yourself from your competition. The key is to tell them a story about you that will resonate with them and will make them want to hire you.

(Storytelling is both art and science. I will be writing a separate post on it in preparation for a presentation I will be making as part of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Series. If you are interested, here are the details.)

Tell us about your biggest failure.

It is surprising how many people are shy about talking about their failures. They are nothing about which to be ashamed. In fact, you should be proud of them, as long as you learned from the experience and knew when to pull the plug. Most employers, at least the good ones, want risk takers; they just don’t want irresponsible risk takers.

What are your weaknesses?

If you do not have any weaknesses, you won’t get the job. Everyone has weaknesses. Saying you don’t means that you do not recognize your limitations or, worse, you’re a liar. So be honest. Tell them a weakness and how you cope with it. It’s as simple as that. Just make certain it’s a real weakness. “They tell me I work too hard,” is not a weakness, it’s an insult to the intelligence of the interviewer.

Do you have any questions?

If you do not have any questions, it’s a sign that you are not really interested in the job. You have to have questions to ask. They should primarily be based on your research. Without saying so, you want to continually show the interviewers how well you prepare for interviews/meetings. But you also want to show maturity. For example, a popular question is, What happened to the last person who held this position? In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it sounds gossipy. And, frankly, it’s none of your business. So ask what is your business and lets you come across as a consummate professional: What did the last person who held the position do that you want to see continued and what would you like to see done differently?

What are your salary expectations?

I end with THE question, the one I get asked most often, “What do I say when they ask me about salary?” People work themselves up over this to such an extent that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The answer is simple: If you are employed, “I am currently earning X, not including benefits.” If you are recently unemployed, “I was earning X, not including benefits.” If you have been unemployed for a while (your definition), prepare a budget and say, “I need X, not including benefits.” All you are doing is answering a question, you are not negotiating. The negotiations will come later. And “not including benefits” sends the message that you will want to negotiate.

Just remember, the candidates who are the best interviewers and don’t have to fear “tough” questions, are the ones who research the company, research the interviewers, and research the company’s employees. They know everything they can about them and, of course, are prepared to talk candidly about themselves.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140930160554-2335221-how-to-answer-easy-job-interview-questions?trk=mp-reader-card

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