How and Why Veterans Should Tell Stories in a Job Interview

(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Lauren Cobin)

In the military, you were probably used to direct and clear orders, with no fluff in between. In civilian life, clear direction is still important, but you have more latitude to create an emotional connection with your message, enhance the narrative of your communication and showcase your creativity in how you tell a story.

A story has the power to connect people and to make a deeper impact with a message than just reciting cold data points. This is especially true during a job interview.

What Is Storytelling?

When we tell a story, we paint a mental and emotional picture of a situation or event. We bring the listener into the situation with us and help them to understand the essence of our message.

Stories can be playful, funny, shocking, sad, happy or insightful. They're designed to highlight an important message, teach a lesson (moral or otherwise) and illustrate a point we're trying to make. Instead of just sharing data and information, a story helps give the material context, allowing the listener to visualize for themselves the impact or significance of what's being shared.

When Is a Story Needed?

Consider a typical job interview: The interviewer asks a question, and you answer. For example, "Tell me about a career highlight for you?" might lead you to reply by sharing a situation you experienced during a challenging combat mission where stakes were high and outcomes were uncertain.

You highlight your ability to adapt and overcome in that story, and it's more memorable than if you'd just shared where you were, what you were tasked with and how many made it home safely.

Another interviewer question could focus on the results you produced in your role as a field artillery officer. As you frame this story, you could present sheets of data with statistics and numbers and graphs and charts ... or you could tell a story. Yes, you'll need to back up your story with information that supports your response, but the interviewer will remember your story in the context of the response best.

Key Storytelling Ingredients

There are as many formulas for a great story as there are great stories. To get started thinking about the stories you can share, follow these tips:

  • Humanize your message.
    Think of personal, life experiences that can help the listener understand your viewpoint. As you share your story, feel the emotions of the situation you're describing. Always practice these kinds of stories, so you don't inadvertently venture into sharing too personal information.
  • Share someone else's experience.
    If you don't have your own story, or aren't comfortable sharing one yet, share someone else's. Just be sure to give full attribution to the other person, so there's no misunderstanding.
  • Know your audience.
    Consider how the listener may feel about the story. Can they relate to what you went through? Have they had a similar experience? Also think about how much backstory or advance information they might need to understand the story. This may lead you to find a different story altogether.
  • Set the stage.
    Your story's opening should get their attention. You could cite an alarming statistic, share an example that surprised or delighted you, or otherwise frame up the story to bring the listener in to want to know what came next.
  • Focus on the middle.
    The center of the story is where the key points are made. Don't leave these to chance -- craft them with intention and practice delivering them in order.
  • End with impact.
    The story's close is as important as any other part. If you just trail off, you could lose all the momentum you've built. Consider what you want the listener to do with the story: Do you want them to ask you a question, make a decision, consider your request, change their behavior or ...?

Storytelling can become part of all aspects of your career and life. Consider when you have to share an important message, teach someone something new or demonstrate a technique using a story to frame up what you're communicating. You'll see nuances of the story resonate with your listener and likely enjoy the storytelling process!

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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