How to Evoke a Story for Your Business Storytelling

Evoking stories is the deliberate process of sparking specific stories in others that you have a hunch will be beneficial to hear because of the perspective and message they convey and their multiple potential uses. Asking simple questions rarely, if ever, provokes a story.

For example, these are the responses interviewers often receive to questions:

  • What drew you to this organization? I like the fast pace and ability to get things done. I also like how innovative this company is.

  • What situations or circumstances cemented your loyalty to us as a company? When my dad died they gave me extended family leave. I’ll always appreciate my boss and the company for the way they handled my situation.

  • When was the last time you felt that you received exceptional mentoring? When I first came here, I knew very little about the industry. John stepped in and really helped me a lot.

  • How do you stay energized and inspired? By seeing my progress, even the little steps. And by seeing my staff really blossom and get better at what they do.

  • Describe a time when you’ve observed a corporate value in action. One of our values is customer service. One of my staff stayed late and went the extra mile to help a customer overcome a problem they were having that she knew our company could solve.

  • Describe a situation in which you used new ideas to resolve an issue. Our supply of widgets was drying up because a hurricane in the Pacific was holding up our shipment. So one of my staff reached out through a variety of social media and found a supply to keep us going until our regular shipment came in.

Given that the human brain stores memories in the form of story narrative, it’s in your best interest to steer clear of questions and find ways to evoke stories out of people when you want or need to hear the totality of a situation. Story prompts are one way to do this.

Story prompts have two parts: the front end of the statement and the closing to the statement. The front end starts with a phrase such as Tell me about. . . . The word about is key in this statement. If you leave it out, all you’re doing is turning a question into a statement (as in Tell me how you . . . or Tell me what you . . .).

The closing portion of a story prompt is as critical as the front piece of the statement. Avoid being general. Phrase it in such a way that the person recollects only one or a few memories.

Here’s a variation you can also use: Include a sentence before the front end of the statement that adds specificity. For example: I heard you just had a really bad customer experience. Tell me about what happened.

Here’s how you can reword the earlier questions into story prompts.

  • What drew you to this organization? Story prompt: Tell me about a specific event that crystallized your decision to work for this firm.

    Possible response: Oh, I just thought they were like any other company until one day, as I was heading into my second interview . . .

  • What situations or circumstances cemented your loyalty to us as a company? Story prompt: Enlighten me about a time when your loyalty to the company was permanently cemented.

    Possible response: I’d been here about a year, so I was still the newbie. It was a Wednesday and I was in a meeting when my boss’s assistant came in and pulled me out. She had a message that said my dad had just had a stroke.

    I flew home right away and called my boss twice a day with updates. When I learned how much rehab dad needed, the firm worked out a deal for me even though I didn’t have a whole lot of benefits. They . . .

  • When was the last time you felt that you received exceptional mentoring? Story prompt: Paint me the picture of a time when you said to yourself, “Wow. That was the best mentoring I’ve ever experienced.”

    Possible response: I was hired in from a different industry. It seemed like a good fit. Still, I knew very little about our marketplace. I met John from XYZ department and he saw how I was struggling. Without me asking, he stepped in and really helped me get on solid ground by . . .

  • How do you stay energized and inspired? Story prompt: We all need to stay energized and inspired. Tell me about the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself.

    Possible response: Oh, it’s little things. Sometimes I’ll go for a walk; sometimes I’ll give myself a treat for meeting a deadline. But the best time was when I . . .

  • Describe a time when you’ve observed a corporate value in action in action. Story prompt: Pick a corporate value that holds a lot of meaning for you. Enlighten me about a time when you saw it demonstrated in an amazing way.

    Possible response: Customer service. It was the end of the day and I was heading home. As I passed by a bunch of cubicles, I heard my staff talking excitedly on speakerphone with Harold. I asked what was going on, and they said Harold was on his cell phone with the police in Florida.

    Seems robbers had grabbed a woman at an ATM. They were taking her to other ATMs at our branches to get more cash. The police wanted to know if we could predict which machine they’d hit next. We did. The woman was rescued. We were in the office until nine that night.

  • Describe a situation in which you used new ideas to resolve an issue. Story prompt: Tell me about the most memorable time when you came up with a new idea to resolve an immediate issue.

    Possible response: We had two weeks to come up with a name for a new product. Being we were on a shoestring budget, we decided to give it a go ourselves. I did a few hours of research on how to come up with creative ideas and put together a workshop of completely zany things. We did stuff like . . .

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