[Guest Post] “Show, Don’t Tell”: The Best Advice My Career Coach Gave Me

Job hunting is all about selling yourself, right? From cover letter to CV to interview, it’s all a marketing campaign featuring … YOU.

Of course, you want to highlight your best qualities and stand out from the crowd. But how do you do that without sounding bland?

I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of listing our best on-the-job qualities:

“I am proactive, results driven, a strong problem solver and team player”.


Even if you’re the most proactive-results-driven-problem-solving-team-player on earth, simply listing your best qualities doesn’t prove anything.

The secret? Show, Don’t Tell.

My career coach taught me a simple process that can be used for:
• Getting your CV and cover letter prepped (especially if the job ad says “demonstrated experience in…”
• Psyching yourself up for an interview (knowing how to answer those tricky questions)
• Boosting your self esteem (which can get particularly low when job hunting, especially if you’re going through a quiet patch)

“Skills can be taught, but character can’t be!”
As interviewers get more savvy about hiring people who will fit into the company culture, it’s your personality and character traits that they’re most interested about.

Job interviews these days use lots of behavioural interviewing techniques. Have you ever had an interviewer ask:
“When was a time you showed teamwork?”
“Tell us an example of when things didn’t go according to plan, and what you did instead”.

These are examples of behavioural interview techniques.

Homework from my career coach
At first I groaned when my career coach gave me this homework. Now when I look back, it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done.

I recommend you take 15 minutes to do it (even if you’re not looking for a job at the moment) — it’s a great self-esteem boost! 🙂

The Homework (before you groan, pick up pen and paper, or open a blank page on your computer):

Brainstorm 5-10 example from work (or beyond) when you:
• Did your job well
• Went beyond the call of duty
• Thought outside the box
• Did your job with a spark of your personality or in a different way

Often we don’t think of our strengths as anything extraordinary. When someone is impressed with what you do, a common response is “Oh, that’s nothing special” or “I was just doing my job” or “I’m always like that”. Have you ever felt that? If so, those sort of anecdotes are particularly gold! Not only do they show that others are impressed by it, but it shows that it comes truly naturally to you.

Dig through your memory for examples
Most people don’t have these stories front-of-mind.
• A customer got their tricky problem solved
• A client was surprised by your follow-up service
• Your boss thanked you for going out of your way
• You went home at the end of the day feeling good about yourself, like you were making a difference
• Your colleagues gave you a compliment (or maybe a farewell card from a previous job)

1. Helped an angry customer whose order got mixed up
2. Showed patience with the customer who didn’t speak much English, and found a way to communicate without using translation app
3. Introduced my colleague to a guy in my network and that resulted in great new project for our team
4. Did some research for my manager and was asked to share it with the CEO

A good story has a beginning, middle and end

The secret to good storytelling is having a structure.

Effective storytellers know that the key to being memorable is painting a vivid picture. Not only with great descriptions, but putting things in the right order for maximum impact.

Here is the SPAR formula my career coach gave to me.. It’s a great way to structure your stories.

With each of the 5-10 examples that you gathered above, answer these questions.

Situation: What’s the context? When and where were you?
Problem: What was the challenge?
Action: What action did you take?
Results: What happened as a result of your actions?

An example of SPAR
“When I worked in customer service in retail [situation], a customer came in saying there was something wrong with his order. He was making a scene in front of other customers [problem]. I knew that it would take time to solve his situation, so I called extra staff to the counter, and took him to one side so we could look at his issue [action]. It took time to sort everything for him, but we got there! By the end, he explained how grateful he was that I treated him like a human being and didn’t just recite our policy over and over again. He ended up becoming one of our best customers.[result].”

The above 4 questions (SPAR – Situation, Problem, Action, Results) describe the “what” you did.

I’ve added a 5th letter to SPAR
I felt something was missing from the SPAR formula, so I added it. It’s C – which stands for Character. This is the “so what”. As in, “so what does this mean about your character” and “what does this mean for an employer”.

This is where you state which character trait you showed — was it flexibility? patience? initiative? courage? empathy? integrity? For a full list of character qualities that are valued in the workplace, click here.

Finding out your character is actually the motive behind behavioural interviewing — your future employer is curious about your character in action. When they hear a story, in their mind they’re thinking “OK, if this person can show empathy when it comes to helping customers, they’ll probably be able to get along well with team mates” or “Wow, if this person has integrity, it probably means they’ll be trustworthy in other ways too”.

When to use the SPAR(C) formula

The SPAR(C) formula is most helpful for preparing for job interviews. Practise storytelling your 5-10 anecdotes using the Situation-Problem-Action-Result-Character approach.

You can also weave in short SPARC examples into your cover letter and/or CV as bulletpoints. Keep it brief, focusing mainly on Action and Results.

Next time you’re tempted to write a long list of qualities like this “I am proactive, results driven, a strong problem solver and team player”, ask yourself if you have concrete stories as proof to back it up.

Remember, “Show, don’t tell!”

In the comments below, feel free to share one of your SPAR(C) anecdotes. If you want more inspiration, you can read some of my own SPAR(C) stories by clicking on “Character Strengths” here.

Photo credit: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner via Flickr