The Unspoken Truth of an Interview: How Personal Narrative Dictates Your Success

We’ve all been there, hunched over our desk, peering at our computer screen, searching for some inkling of a job. The job hunt: it’s an exhausting and often endless feat. For anyone in tech, at some point in their job hunt they’ll end up across the table talking to a recruiter. It’s certainly an unnerving process.

They hold a lot of sway in the process that in the past would’ve been in the hiring manager or VP’s hand. But technical recruiters in today’s market are sizing you up from the start and can decide whether you end up at Google or out of job.

Fortunately for me this conversation with a recruiter was less focused around my job perspectives and more about recent grads and shaping narrative. Speaking with Matt, a recruiter at a sizable design startup in New York, we were able to dive deep into what so often went unsaid in the job hunt.

Unsurprisingly Matt couldn’t resist asking upfront “How’s the job going, are you happy at your current place?”. But once we were able to move past that we were able to talk on perhaps the most overlooked part of the job hunt, shaping your personal narrative.

First Impressions and Narratives

Contrary to what most people assume, an interview, and your narrative, really starts the moment you walk into the office. Everything shapes the first impression you make with the interviewer, from how organized you are to how you talk to the receptionist.

By the time you walk into the office your focus should be on the people in the room instead of the anxiety in your head. Once you’re in the office the time to plan out your talking points has passed. Psychologist Nicholas Rule described the science of first impression as a situation that happens almost instantly. Everything from trustworthiness, sexuality and even likeliness of promotion happens within a moment.

 One tip that’s always helped me is to visualize before I’m even in the office. Think over the papers you’ll have in your hand, the clothes you’ll be wearing, how you want to introduce yourself. If you practice this simple visualization trick before you walk into the office you’ll be better prepared to react to those around you rather than being insular or introverted.

This doesn't have to be blending


People often assume that a personal story means how you stand out or what makes you different, and that’s certainly part of it. But a huge overlooked part of a person’s story is how you fit into the hiring manager’s narrative for their team and where the company is going. This is where blending comes into the picture.

Before we dive into what it means from a psychological or mental standpoint let’s look at it from the physical. Blending really starts with how you look. When he sees an applicant attend an interview dressed in business attire (i.e. a suit), Matt said he is immediately put off.

Not a good look

He says such an outfit instantly creates an awkward air for the rest of the interview, for such a professional getup lacks the intimacy factor he is looking for in a potential team member. Unless a suit is the common attire for the rest of the staff, I would opt against wearing your nicest tie to that next interview.

“This happens so quickly — just a small fraction of a second — that what we see can sometimes dominate what we know.”
-Nicholas Rule

Blending in Culturally

How we look is far from the only aspect of blending though. Matt continued to digress on the need to fit in from a psychological standpoint as well, a controversial topic for our current times. But what Matt was getting at is the need to create a mental image. Within the hour given for the interview, you have to convince the recruiter that you’re the ideal candidate to work with 40 hours a week for the next couple of years. Lets dive more into what that means.

“Your brand is a story, it’s a story that helps people tell themselves about you. Most of the stories are unfair, prejudice, lack of information and fear… They are never true, nobody knows you as well as you do.”
-Seth Godin

It’s up to you to shape that story. Remind them of their friend, a nerd they’ve met at a conference, a loud chatty guy they used to be friends with. Whatever it is, the story you present should blend into the atmosphere and be vaguely familiar. Nostalgia is a surefire way to make bonds with anyone.

For my job hunt, I can recall numerous times this helped me invaluably. With my first job out of college it probably served me the most. When I was graduating undergrad, like most millennials I lacked much experience. But I wanted a prestigious job, so I applied for the World Bank.

I told myself if that didn’t go well, I would take the factory approach and just send hundreds of emails and pray for the best. Before coming to the interview, I did my homework though. I’d known that most of the staff was international with experience in overseas projects and largely a European crowd. Everything I’d heard from people who knew the place was that there was this cavalier adventurous spirit to the people who worked in the World Bank, akin to the Peace Corps or the Foreign Service.

I knew to stand out, even as an engineer, I needed to mold my story closely to that. Unfortunately, I hadn’t gone to Uganda or saved children in South America, but I had lived overseas in England as a kid and had the chance to travel. I made sure throughout my interview to sprinkle that in and to speak on my plans to travel in the future. I’m convinced to this day that’s what separated me from the many other engineers who’d applied for the same project.

By this time you’ve done the visualization technique where you’ve seen yourself in the interview. You’ve done the research to understand the culture and mood of the office. You’re a qualified candidate so you know how to dress. You’re probably pretty qualified to tell your story and if you left off at this point you’d be ahead of most candidates. But if you want to really have mastery over your narrative, remember less is more.

Less is More Sometimes…

A study recently done by Michael Norton at the Harvard Business School really proved this point. Before they started the study, of rating people, participants were asked whether having more information about a person would make them more open to liking someone new. Unsurprisingly, 88% of people suggested the more information they had prior, the more likely they would like someone new. But the data showed something very different.

The more the participants knew of these perspective people, the lower they rated them. The researchers tried this same study over and over again, even doing one where the participants were allowed to write down traits about themselves. From the pool of traits, which were overwhelmingly positive, they were divided into groups describing hypothetical people.

Even in this circumstance where the traits used to describe people were almost all positive ones, people who had a shorter list were generally more liked. What this study really implies is that when you leave something up to people’s imagination and leave some mystery in your story you’re more likely to leave a positive impression. Of course you want to expand on your story, but leave more to be desired and you’ll find that employers feel the need to call you back.

Much of the story around getting a job is described as a series of disparate tips about formatting letters, eye contact, cover letter customizations and other aspects that appear contradictory. Some pundits might say write a short email, another one suggests you should write an essay. But the importance of narrative is something that’s timeless advice.


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