Ace Your Phone Screen By Telling Your Story, Pt. 1
Sometimes getting through the interview process can feel like trying to find your way through a maze. Scratch that, a labyrinth. One with a bunch of traps and scary parts. (It’s not a perfect metaphor, but work with me here.) There are almost always some predictable stages in the process, though, and one of these is the recruiter phone screen. This is where the recruiter gets a sense of who you are as a candidate and whether you’re worth moving along to the next step. So you can think of the recruiter as the gatekeeper to the labyrinth. You need to get past them in order to get further into the maze, so that you can find your way through, so that you can get to the end, which is of course the amazing job offer.
To get past this recruiter gatekeeper, you need to have a Story. Not just a story, but a Story. Your Story must be a cohesive narrative that describes your professional path. Your Story will be personal to you, of course, because it’s yours, but the recruiter will be looking for certain cues in your Story that indicate to them whether you’d be a good fit for the role and for the company. If the recruiter doesn’t hear what they need to hear, chances are you won’t be making it to the next, more technical parts of the interview process. So while it’s tempting to dismiss the recruiter phone screen as a mere formality, in reality it’s hugely important. Because without it, you’re done.
Make it cohesive
Create a narrative that helps recruiters understand your professional path. In a lot of ways, this narrative is similar to your personal elevator pitch — just with a lot more detail. Most people aren’t great with coming up with this sort of thing on the fly, which is why it’s important to prepare your Story ahead of time.
Cover your bases
Your Story should cover your education, your professional history, any personal history that might impact your professional history, and your professional skills. (What do I mean by personal history that impacts your professional history? Think things like: A cross-country move for a partner that resulted in a few months where you were looking for work.) You want the recruiter to get a really good sense of who you are professionally — where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you’d like to go. It’s fine to sprinkle in a few personal details like your hobbies, but keep these brief.
Your career path, including any pit stops and pivots, needs to make sense to the recruiter. Even if something isn’t part of a plan, you will be able to work it into the narrative. Framing is everything. For example, if you got laid off from your sales job and then decided to switch careers and become a developer, you can frame that layoff as the best thing that ever happened to you because it gave you the chance to pursue your real passion. It would also be a great chance to talk about any sales skills that make you a strong developer (great communicator, good at working in distributed teams, etc.) List out your work history. If a piece of it doesn’t flow naturally with the rest, work on framing it so that it makes sense in context.
Be prepared to explain any gaps in your employment, because the recruiter will ask about them. In general, these gaps aren’t worrisome as long as you have a good explanation for them! (A big exception to this is quitting a job without having anything else lined up. The recruiter might take this as a signal that you have trouble sticking with a company.) Taking a sabbatical is fine — just make sure you have a great reason for it. This is another case in which having your Story prepared is key.
Focus on action and impact
Part of crafting your Story is having some stock anecdotes that you can refer to in pretty much any phone screen. Be prepared with a few projects or stories that you can walk the recruiter through. Recruiters want to hear that you can break things down into manageable chunks and explain them. In these anecdotes, focus on action and impact rather than on what your job duties are/were. State of what your impact was, followed by an explanation of the problem you solved and the specific actions you took.
Practice makes perfect
You might feel silly doing it, but it’s absolutely worthwhile to get some help while you’re crafting your Story. Practice in front of friends. They’ll be able to help you clarify your Story or tighten the narrative. It’s also useful to have them pretend to be a recruiter and ask you some questions.
Sometimes it will take a few tries to get your Story right. You should prepare it beforehand, of course, but you may also find that it evolves over the course of a few phone screens into a Story that resonates with recruiters.
Now that you’ve put some serious time and effort into crafting your personal Story, it’s time to put it into action! In Part 2, we’ll talk about how to effectively tell your Story to a recruiter.
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