The Role of Storytelling in Effective Structured Job Interviews

Topic(s): interviewing, selection
Publication: Journal of Business and Psychology
Article: Storytelling in the selection interview? How applicants respond to past behavior questions
Authors: A. Bangerter, P. Corvalan, & C. Cavin
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

It’s no surprise that I-O psychologists recommend using structured job interviews when selecting someone for a position. This is because structured interviews are far better predictors of performance than are informal, unstructured interviews. As part of a structured interview, two types of questions may be asked – situational questions (e.g., “What would you do if you disagreed with your supervisor?”) or behavioral questions (e.g., “Tell me about a time that you disagreed with your supervisor”).


Storytelling is an important aspect of answering behavioral interview questions because the interviewee needs to be able to tell a story about what happened. But how good are applicants at telling stories? Are there any general characteristics that make some people better storytellers than others? And does skill in storytelling impact interview outcomes? In a recent study, Bangerter, Corvalan, and Cavin (2014) set out to answer these questions.


A typical conversation has a collaborative aspect (or at least it should). Even if one person is telling a story, the other person will usually nod or give some sort of verbal acknowledgement. However, in a job interview, storytelling will differ somewhat from storytelling in a normal conversation. There isn’t the back-and-forth of a typical conversation, and the reactions from the interviewer may change the course of the story. If the interviewer seems bored or judgmental, that could change the applicant’s storytelling. Likewise, if the interviewer is smiling and engaged, that could also encourage the applicant. The reactions of the interviewer could therefore even have implications for reliability, or the extent to which the interview is capable of consistently assessing applicants. In addition, people have differing levels of storytelling skill. Apart from work experience, applicants have different amounts of experience with storytelling; the more behavioral interviews an applicant has participated in, the more experience s/he will have with telling stories in an interview situation.


To answer their questions about storytelling in the job interview, the researchers analyzed transcripts from 72 actual job interviews. Applicants answered four behavioral questions that assessed communication, persuasion, organization, and stress management. The most frequent type of a response was a pseudo-story, which is more general and abstract than a story. A pseudo-story describes a generic situation or set of similar situations, as opposed to one specific event. Less than one in four applicants told an actual story. Applicants also talked more about situations than about tasks, actions they took, or results. Applicants with higher intelligence told more pseudo-stories, applicants who were more conscientious voiced their values and opinions more, and men told proportionally more stories than women did. Men, extraverted people, and those who told more stories and pseudo-stories received more hiring recommendations. On the opposite side, applicants who told more self-descriptions (e.g., “I’m good at managing my stress”) were less likely to get a hiring recommendation.


If you’re a job applicant, try to give detailed stories during a job interview. Before going into the interview, think about ways that you can frame some events from your past as stories that you can talk about. If you are an interviewer, try to elicit stories from applicants. Encourage them to provide more details, and be aware that applicants might not naturally provide the kind of stories you’re looking for. Implementing these interview tips will help ensure that job interviews remain fair and effective.