If you’ve read this site for more than 15 seconds, you know how important it is to nail your “story” (the answer to the “walk me through your resume” question) in interviews.
Give a weak response when the interviewer asks you to walk through your resume, and the remaining 25 minutes of the interview might as well not exist.
Give a strong response, and the interviewer might overlook how you incorrectly stated that WACC would increase when a company raises debt.
It’s not entirely your fault: even professional writers and screenwriters make the same mistakes, in movies ranging from Minority Report to The Dark Knight Rises.
Here are the top 6 mistakes that you’re probably making with your own story right now, examples of movies and characters in movies that have made the same mistakes, and how to fix them (yes, the “presentations department” came through once again):
Click here to view the large version of this infographic and see all the details (you’ll have to click it again to magnify it, or download the image).
In Text Form…
Go watch the story-telling tutorial video for a recap of why this is so important and the proper structure to use – now, for the top mistakes I’ve seen and how to avoid them:
Mistake #1: Too Much Setup
This one is particularly common if you’re a university student – you might mistakenly think that interviewers care about every last detail of your life (hint: they don’t).
It’s a big mistake because too much setup bores the interviewer to tears and makes him/her “zone out” to the rest of your responses.
Think about a movie like Minority Report, where it takes almost 40 minutes before anything actually happens: yes, Spielberg directed it so you still watched it, but it’s not good storytelling.
How to Fix It: Is your “Beginning” more than 2-3 sentences? If so, downsize it.
If you’re saying more than where you’re from, where you went to school, and what work/major you were initially interested in, you’re on the wrong track.
Mistake #2: Non-Specific Spark
Many interviewees give generic “sparks” – your family had a business, so you got interested in finance. Or you read a book and got interested in finance. Or you had a great professor in your finance class, and you learned more based on that.
You want to use a “spark” that’s the opposite of all these examples: specific, personally relevant to you, and something that no one else is going to mention that day.
Think about Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction: how many other crime/revenge stories have a character whose “spark” is narrowly escaping death after asking his victim about Hawaiian burgers and preaching from the Bible?
How to Fix It: Name-drop and find a spark that relates back to your hobbies, interests, or family background.
You followed a sports team that got acquired for a price that was way too low, and you were saddened when your favorite player left afterward under new ownership? Yes, getting warmer now.
Mistake #3: Too Many Transitions and/or “Plot Twists”
Just as some films attempt to be “too clever” and introduce plot twists that make previous story developments meaningless (see: the last 30 minutes of The Dark Knight Rises – way to make Bane into a weak / silly villain!), you too may be introducing too many “plot twists” into your own story.
This one is particularly common among career changers at the MBA-level and beyond: you might feel the need to explain all 5 of your job switches, but the interviewer will get bored / confused once you go beyond 1-2 transitions.
How to Fix It: Leave out minor transitions.
If you started out interested in law, then did marketing, then worked in product development, then did corporate finance, and you’re now in an MBA program looking to move into IB:
- Leave out the part about law.
- Combine marketing and product development into one role.
- Make your story: “Product/marketing person –> Corporate Finance –> Apply Corporate Finance Skills to Large-Scale M&A Deals in IB.”
Mistake #4: Illogical Transitions, or No Transitions At All
Another common mistake is to give a “laundry list” of your experiences, with no real transitions between them.
You worked at a non-profit… then did asset management… then equity research… and now you want to do banking. But why?
Why did you make each move and how did each one bring you closer to IB? If you don’t explain this, the interviewer will assume that you were hopping around randomly, like a hungry rabbit in search of food.
So if your story resembles Memento then you need to re-think your approach.
How to Fix It: For each entry, name something you liked and something that you wanted to change or improve upon with your next work experience. Make sure the “wanted to change or improve” part moves you closer to the role you actually want, e.g. from public markets to deals, or vice versa.
Mistake #5: Too Much “Negativity”
This one is common when you have an old boss or job that you absolutely hated – for some reason, consultants moving into finance seem to make this mistake a lot as well (just read the comments to this article).
Even if it was the worst job imaginable, you do not want to say anything close to that in an interview.
Would you hire Peter Gibbons from Office Space if you interviewed him?
How to Fix It: Are you saying something negative about any of your work experience?
If so, re-frame it and make it more about wanting to do something different in a new role and not what the old position lacked.
Marketing didn’t get “repetitive,” you just wanted to continue working with clients but use both your quantitative and qualitative skills.
Mistake #6: That “Vision” Thing
Let’s just say you don’t want your “payoff” at the end to resemble the ending to the Planet of the Apes re-make.
There’s no such thing as being “too explicit” with your long-term goals; if you just name all your previous roles, the interviewer will not necessarily understand how those all led you in a certain direction.
How to Fix It: At the end, repeat exactly how you’re going to combine skills and experience gained from previous roles and apply them to the new one that you’re interviewing for.
So if you worked as an engineer, then did consulting, and are now in an MBA program, you’re going to take your knowledge of technology, combine it with client and project management skills you gained in consulting plus the finance knowledge from your MBA program, and work on deals involving technology companies, eventually becoming an adviser to executives in the sector.
Your Practice Exercise
What better way to improve your interview skills than to assume the role of the interviewer?
Below are 3 sample stories that suffer from some or all of the problems outlined above.
Your task: Find and fix the mistakes.
NOTE: I have changed around personal details, locations, etc. in these stories to make them anonymous – so they are all modified versions of real stories that have been submitted over the years.
Sample Story #1: Managing Director to Managing Emerging Markets?
The Beginning: Grew up in [Emerging Market], moved to the US in high school, and got curious about the stock market from reading newspapers. Decided to major in economics and finance in college and attended a non-target school due to a generous scholarship. Currently working and going to school and involved in several student groups in leadership positions.
Finance “Spark”: Completed accounting internship at normal company, and became more interested in using financial statement analysis to understand stocks (tying back to the stock market interest).
Growing Interest: Interest in finance led him to asset management, where he valued individual stocks; liked the work, but wanted to work with companies on actual transactions instead of just following them. Got a referral to an investment banker through a friend, and started learning more about the industry and made trip to NYC; the field appealed to him because he could make a big impact on companies.
Why You’re Here Today / Your Future: When he advances to an MD-level or higher position, he wants to return back home to use his finance knowledge to advise companies and spur business growth.
My Comments: There are many issues with this one. But I’ll let you pick just one problem and explain how to would fix it.
Sample Story #2: From Industrial Manufacturing to I-Banking?
The Beginning: From [European Country], grew up there, and did a volunteer internship after high school; then studied abroad in another country, got volunteer legal experience there, and then decided to move to that country for university. Majored in finance and joined several investment-related student groups.
Finance “Spark”: Returned to [European Country] and worked for 6 months in M&A at a local bank.
Growing Interest: But wanted to understand how decisions are made at the company-level, so joined the corporate finance of team of [Industrials Company] and got more exposure to operations… but the work got repetitive after a while, and he wanted to do something on a larger scale, so he became more interested in IB and in advising companies once again.
Why You’re Here Today / Your Future: Wants to work on larger-scale transactions with major companies and [Bank Name] has the most international deals and the biggest network – plus, he likes the culture and everyone he’s met there. Not sure of his exat future plans but he wants to advise companies in the future, using his previous M&A experience plus operational know-how from his time in corporate finance.
My Comments: So there are some challenges here because he started out in M&A, then went to corporate finance, and now wants to go back… how to explain that one?
Sample Story #3: Don Draper to Trusted Adviser?
The Beginning: Originally from [Emerging Market] and raised in [Another Country]. Grew up with a father who owned a successful business, and learned a lot about money/business from him. Went to [Well-Known Undergraduate Business School] and wanted to do finance initially, but due to the market crash could not get into the industry at the time; ended up staying in school to finish another degree.
Finance “Spark”: Got an opportunity to work in advertising at a big agency and worked with a lot of finance and finance-related firms there.
Growing Interest: Helped clients increase sales with marketing campaigns, but the work lacked variety and he wanted to get back to his major and original interest, so he moved into a corporate finance role at a normal company and learned how to think through revenue and expenses in granular detail and do internal reporting. He liked the analytical aspects of that, but wants to get exposed to more companies and work on transactions rather than internal reporting.
Why You’re Here Today / Your Future: Wants to combine the project management, client relationship, and finance skills gained from previous experiences and advise companies on large-scale transactions – IB is the ideal career for him because it would let him do just that and eventually become a trusted adviser to these companies. This bank in particular interests him because of its focus on [Industry That is Huge in Home Country].
My Comments: This one is interesting because he’s doing a few things quite well, but faltering in other areas. But it’s your call – how would you fix this one?
So, get going on the sample stories above and figure out what’s wrong with each of them.
Printing out the infographic and putting it on your wall is optional, but highly recommended – if you want to get some strange looks from visitors…