There’s an adage in writing: Show, don’t tell.
When showing, you provide examples and share stories. When telling, you describe something with adjectives. Showing is almost always more powerful than telling.
Here’s the difference:
Telling: Jesse was a nice man.
Showing: Jesse was so docile he managed to befriend a wild squirrel. The squirrel grew to trust Jesse so much that he sat in Jesse’s lap and ate from Jesse’s hand.
Hopefully, you can already see the difference. I’ll share the rest of the story with you:
This unusual friendship didn’t happen overnight. It took time for Jesse and the squirrel to become pals.
It all started when Jesse noticed a unique squirrel foraging in his backyard every day. Jesse named him “Stumpy” because the squirrel had a short tail that was only an inch or two long.
Each day, when he saw Stumpy, Jesse sat quietly on the back porch. Jesse gently tossed some food toward the squirrel. The squirrel cautiously approached Jesse, then eagerly ate the food.
Gradually, Jesse tossed the food a little closer to where he sat, eventually dropping the food at his feet. Stumpy hesitated, then approached Jesse and ate at his feet. A few days later, Jesse was able to feed the squirrel from his hand. Finally, Stumpy jumped into Jesse’s lap and ate directly from his hand.
That’s a heartwarming story that shows you just how resilient, kind, and docile Jesse was.
By the way, Jesse was my grandfather.
The Power of Story
As humans, we’re drawn to stories. We captivate each other through stories. Stories usually persuade us more than facts and data alone.
“A story is a fact wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take action.”
– The Elements of Persuasion by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman
We can harness the power of stories in very personal ways as I did with the story above. We can also use stories in our design work and throughout our career journeys.
When interviewing for a job, you can make yourself shine by telling stories about your best design work. Hiring managers love hearing stories during an interview.
Stories show them how you put your skills to work. Telling a hiring manager what skills you have is usually less convincing.
Anyone can say to a hiring manager, “I can do X.” Telling them a story about how you did X provides evidence that you can actually do X.
For example, during an interview, you could simply tell a hiring manager, “I know how to run usability tests.” Or, by sharing a well-crafted story about how you moderated a usability test, you show the hiring manager that you know how to do it.
Techniques I Learned from My Students
I’m a faculty member at Center Centre, the UX design school. During the Preparing for Your Job Search course, students learn interviewing skills. The course curriculum is thorough. It takes a deep dive into interviewing skills — so deep I even learn new skills as my students learn them.
I recently led an activity where students practiced interviewing. Afterward, I asked the students to reflect on the most important interviewing skills they learned. The reflections resonated with me so much I decided to share three of them here.
1. Scope Your Story Before the Interview
A story should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. You want to tell the hiring manager enough detail to hold their interest and get the point across — but not so much detail your story loses focus.
To find the right length of your story, determine the goal of the story. Then, practice telling the story so it meets that goal without giving extra details.
For example, let’s say you want to demonstrate your ability to moderate usability tests. Talk about a time you moderated usability tests for a research study. Focus on the usability testing portion of the project. Don’t focus on the information architecture phase or the prototyping phase. You can mention those stages to show how usability testing fit into the larger project. But don’t go into too much detail about tangential work.
Here’s another example. Let’s say you want to tell a story that shows you can work on a project from start to finish. The scope of your story will be much broader. You may want to talk about the project as a whole, focusing on how you contributed to specific phases and how your contribution moved the project forward.
Maybe you organized a large information collection during the information architecture phase, which prepared your team for prototyping. Then, you recruited participants for a usability study of that prototype. After your colleague moderated the usability sessions, you led the analysis, which helped the team synthesize the research data and make changes to the design.
Scoping your story helps you showcase the right skills while holding the hiring manager’s interest.
2. Lead with the Bottom Line Up Front
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is similar to the reverse pyramid model in journalism. When using BLUF, you start with a brief, concise, and engaging summary of what you’re about to say. Then, you go into detail.
For example, you might use BLUF to begin your story like this: “I moderated six usability sessions during a design sprint. We used the findings to validate our design idea, and then we moved forward with building the new feature.”
When a hiring manager hears a strongly-worded BLUF like the one above, they have context for the story you’re about to share. You’ve piqued their interest, and they’re now ready to hear more. That’s when you go into detail and tell the story.
3. Explain Results, Not Just Actions
It’s one thing to tell a story about how you moderated usability tests. It’s another thing to show what outcome you achieved for the project by moderating the tests.
While moderating the usability tests, maybe you asked thoughtful follow-up questions to help a participant articulate their frustration with the design. Perhaps you uncovered a critical usability issue the team didn’t know about before testing. Maybe you moderated five sessions in one marathon day to meet a tight deadline.
When telling your story, go beyond explaining what you did. Illustrate how you helped your team, your organization, and your users.
Stories are a Vehicle for Sharing Your Best Work
Selling yourself in an interview involves more than just telling the hiring manager what you can do. It involves sharing evidence of the work you’ve done. Great stories show an interviewer that you have the skills you say you have.
Before your next UX job interview, consider using stories to showcase your skills. Decide what stories you’ll tell and practice them beforehand. Those stories can help you land a UX job that’s an excellent fit for your skills and your experience.
Thanks to Upma Singh for her help with this article.