The Consulting Guide

How to sell your story in the fit interview: the art of great storytelling

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: April 27, 2017 | Last updated: May 29, 2019

Once you've picked your stories, it's time to sell it effectively to your interviewer.

It is a common misconception to think that a good story is a good story, period. While there are certainly elements of a good story and that is obviously what the prior section focused on, a good story told well, will shine. That is what you want to aim for!

How to tell a good story

As discussed in the case section, an extremely important part of telling a great personal anecdote is structuring your story. You likely haven't realized how many classic stories you know inside and out follow a very, very similar narrative arc. There is a reason for this - it's effective.

Let's look at a prime example from the masters of storytelling at Pixar: Toy Story (the movie). How is Toy Story structured? Well, it starts by introducing us to the characters, who a group of toys who are the property of a kid Andy, that lead a secretive life when Andy's not playing with them. This is the basic premise of the film.

As the film progresses, we learn that Andy has a birthday coming up, which is significant because it means new toys, basically new people (which are birthday presents to Andy), are going to be added to their community. Obviously, this is a big deal because the group dynamics will change and it puts the current leader at risk - what if someone were to challenge Woody's assumed leadership of the toys? Great, so now we've got the relevant context.

"I just want you to know: even though you tried to terminate me, revenge is something we do not promote on my planet"
Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger

Aware of this risk, Woody is jealous and acts defensively when the new toy, Buzz Lightyear shows up. Woody tries to actively undermine and discredit Buzz to make him look silly, thus cementing his own position as the leader. That's the action Woody takes. This action sets up the central conflict of the movie: a power struggle between Woody and Buzz.

Ultimately, Toy Story is one big story with a bunch of little stories within it, but analyzing the beginning of it higlights good story architecture: 1) describe the situation 2) provide context about why it's important 3) point out the action you took and 4) the overall impact that it had. In fact, the beginning of this movie sets up a central storyline, one of many storylines that will run throughout the movie. You can think of your career to date as a story, and the individual anecdotes you'll share as the key storylines.

The structure of stories

Now, that we've looked at a broad example, let's take a specific career example and walk through it with each of the steps. There are four key steps and we'll walk through each of them and discuss the importance of each.

Context: describe the situation and surrounding details

The key thing to remember when starting a story is to convey the situation. If you just dive into the results, your actions or whatever else, you risk that your audience won't understand why you did was smart, high impact, insightful, etc. Remember that your interviewer likely has never worked in the industry you're describing and thus won't effectively be able to fill in the blanks themselves. The key question you want to answer here for your interviewer is: why are the stakes so high? Why does this situation matter at all? Don't make them work for it, spoon feed them the key details.

Action: explain your actions

This is where you get to the crux of the story. Incidentally, this is where most storytellers start and unsurprisingly, this is why many stories don't have the impact they really should (the audience doesn't understand the situation and the context!). Thankfully, you've cleared that up first and are now going to explain what you specifically did. Remember, specificity is the soul of narrative! Provide the key, salient details about the actions you took.

Impact: highlight the impact

This is the big moment where you get to tie it all together! Now that you've set the situation, provided the context about why this event was so critical, explained your actions, you get to talk about the results. Here, quantify your impact and put it into perspective so the interviewer will understand. Don't be shy or bashful, especially if the results were great. This is where you get to take credit for your actions!

Lesson: what did you learn

Finally, you want to conclude with what you've learned. This is a critical finishing touch because it demonstrates that you're internalizing your actions and learning from them constantly. Consultants value that trait highly because they're often thrown into situations they know little about a priori. Thus, someone that takes action, learns quickly from it and can adjust is very important. For a video re-cap of the above storytelling framework, check out this video mini lesson I put together:

A live storytelling example

It's easier to get a sense of how the following principles work together to really create a memorable story if you see them in action. In the section below, we're going to look at two versions of the same story and evaluate how the techniques aforementioned can make a huge difference. The story is a true story, which comes from my first job out of undergrad at Google. This is a solid example to learn from because it covers the exact type of material you might be discussing in a fit interview anecdote and, in fact, I told this exact story in a (successful!) interview with McKinsey. While this story could be molded to answer many of different fit interview questions, this specific story was told in response to the question: tell me about a time you went outside your official responsibilities to make a significant positive impact. Let's jump in!

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Example A

(Reveal hints)

[CONTEXT] Sure, one example that jumps to mind is from my time at Google, when I was working on a new effort to build a TV advertising platform. I was a product specialist there and working with a big team of about 20 sales people and maybe 40 or so engineers to build this new business.

[ACTION] One of the big things I accomplished on that team was building and disseminating an inventory model in Excel. The model pulled in the raw data from our one of our major, premium network partners and then pulled in additional data from the company's website and then layered in actual impression reporting data from our a large source of set-top box data we had access too.

[CONTEXT] This model was really critical because the sales team didn't really understand or know exactly what premium inventory we had access to and as a result sales deals were falling through. What I was really trying to do was address that sales knowledge gap so they could start winning the deals we needed. Our VP had set an aggressive goal for us to do $100M in annual revenue in year number one so it was critical that our team was able to sell some of our most valuable inventory.

[CONTEXT] While we had a really good pitch which centered around making all TV inventory valuable with better targeting and reporting, we also knew that to get advertisers to believe we needed to bring them onto the platform for the first time and that would require some enticing premium inventory.

[IMPACT] Ultimately, the model I ended up making was a big success and enabled the sales team to sell through that inventory and hit our goals.

Example B

(Reveal hints)

[CONTEXT] Sure, one example that jumps to mind is from my time at Google, when I was working on a new effort to build a TV advertising platform. Specifically, I was tasked with understanding what functionality was required "table stakes" to get early adopter advertisers signed up and, ultimately, help us hit $100M in annual revenue in year one.

[CONTEXT] One of those key "table stakes" was that we must have some attractive anchor inventory (eg big channel like NBC or similar quality, prime time inventory) to sell. While advertisers were amenable to our pitch that our targeting and reporting would increase the value of TV buys across all inventory, we needed some "premium" inventory to unlock deals. Six months into the year, we signed our first "premium" inventory deal. But challenges emerged immediately. We had the right type of inventory now, but the specific timeslots and which shows varied significantly. As a result, our sales team would get their foot in the door but deals were stalling when we got down to brass tacks. Media buyers needed to understand exactly what ad slots they'd be getting so they could plug into their models. Our engineering team needed at least 3 months to integrate with the new partner to provide that in a scalable way.

[ACTION] Although it wasn't part my official role, I started digging around and found that with the help from an engineer, I could get access to raw inventory data files the network had started providing us. In addition, by taking the network's programming schedule from their website and, internal set top box data we already had, I was able to combine all three sources into an excel model that would show the granular level of detail sales needed: eg, we've got 3 ad slots in Friends between 5-6PM Thursday and we expect 20M impressions on it. It was manual data aggregation and modeling - nowhere near as good as an automated forecasting dashboard - but it would un-block them. I committed to refresh my manual model and send it out twice weekly.

[IMPACT] The impact was immediate. We started closing deals and revenue spiked. We ended up selling $25M of that premium inventory, which enabled us to hit our $100M annual goals. I was awarded multiple peer bonuses - from engineers, fellow PMs and sales people - for my work.

Practice storytelling

For confidence, practice telling the story multiple times... there are many ways to do this but the key thing is to make sure you can get some feedback on it. Tell the story to a friend. After you've done so, ask them what they liked about it and what made an impact. Use that feedback to refine it. If you can't practice with a friend, recording yourself giving the answer can also be helpful so you at least see it from a different perspective. If you're interested in more examples of effectively selling your experience, check out my story about how I sold knives door to door one summer. Alternatively, you can see a live storytelling of the above examples here:

A walk in the interviewer's shoes
Until now, we've focused entirely on bringing you up to speed on what consulting firm's do, what the interview processes are like, what skillsets matter and how to convey your value to the firm. But, we haven't focused explicitly on the questions an interviewer will be asking him/herself as they're evaluating you in an interview. Let's fix that. In this next section, we're going to role play and put ourselves in the interviewer's seat.

P.S. Are you preparing for consulting interviews?

Real interview drills. Sample answers from ex-McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants. Plus technique overviews and premium 1-on-1 Expert coaching.