“So, tell me how you overcome an obstacle,” says the interviewer with a smile. You in turn smile back, though nervously, and quickly explain that you analyze the situation and then apply the best tool to get the job done in a quick one-sentence answer.
What a missed opportunity! If you have done this then don’t feel bad. This is one of the biggest missed opportunities in interviews. Most job seekers do this. But while it might seem like it was the answer to their question, it doesn’t answer it in a way that shows you know what you’re talking about nor how skilled and qualified you are. Giving quick, one-sentence, logical answers aren’t exactly memorable either.
So what is the right way to respond to this and other behavioral questions? With a story. The interviewer wants to get a sense of who you are and what you really want, beyond what it says on the resume and cover letter. They want to feel assured of hiring you, which is more of an emotion than a logical decision. Instead of reciting facts, use this question as an opportunity to tell a brief impressive story that conveys why you are the ideal person for the job.
The Power of Storytelling
Since stories communicate emotions, they give you an opportunity to nurture an emotional rapport with your interviewer. Those emotions also tend to stick in a person’s memory even when the facts are long forgotten. So if you tell the right story, the interviewer will remember that they feel good about you regardless of the number of candidates he or she interviews.
Fate Favors the Prepared
The first step in preparing your stories is to pick the right ones to share. To do this you’ll want to prepare for the kind of interview questions you may be asked, and answer them in a way that speaks to your qualifications as a candidate. Look up common interview questions, review the job description, research the needs of the hiring firm, and, whenever possible, finding out about the career and background of your interviewer. Then, think of experiences you could tell a story about that will leave the desired impression.
Now you plan how to tell the story. It will start with a brief setup which will entail three elements: 1) the person who is about to do something (that is you in this context), 2) a place where the action happens, and 3) a time that anchors your story to the real world. This adds memorability to your story.
Next comes the plot consisting of four elements: 1) a goal that has to be achieved, 2) an obstacle hindering the goal from being achieved, 3) a decision or idea that creates the possibility of achieving the goal, and finally 4) the conclusion which is all about the result of acting on the decision or idea.
For instance, if you are telling a story intended to highlight your excellent communication skills, the goal can be a big sale. The obstacle can be a difficult client while the decision can be what you did to help the client make the decision to buy. Consequently, the result can be a larger order than your original goal. The intent of the story is not to make you appear like a superhero. Rather, the intent is to show your ability to meet goals, overcome obstacles, or solve problems as a result of your strengths and character.
Write out how you will tell each story and practice telling them ahead of time. That way when the opportunity arises in the interview to share your experience you’ll already have an experience on the top of your mind to share and you’ll share all the important details.
Story Sharing Tips
Share a story when it makes sense. When you are asked a question and you have a story that shows your proficiency in a skill they are seeking, even if you are not prompted to share a story, share it.
Signal when you are going to tell a story. If you haven’t been prompted to share an experience (aka story), a great way to put the interviewer’s mind into a receptive state is to ask them if they would like to hear about an experience you had about that. Saying something as simple as, “I had an interesting experience about that. Would you like to hear it?” or “Can I share an experience that answers that question?” By giving the interviewer an opt-out of hearing about your experience you are showing that you respect them. When they agree to listen they will be more receptive. In most cases the interviewer will want to hear it, but if they don’t then quickly answer their question and let them move on to their other questions.
Answer the question. This is the most important part. While telling an interesting story will make you memorable, if you don’t answer their question they will get frustrated and may even dismiss the story you told as a whole. Whenever you share a story make sure it answers their question.
Provide context. Your story should be more than one sentence. A one-sentence response to most questions is simply not going to suffice. Expand and share vital information. Give enough context so that the interviewer understands how your skills will benefit their company.
Keep it short and sweet. Ensure that you include enough detail to make it visceral and real, but do not share the nitty-gritty details unless prompted to. Short and sweet (but longer than a sentence!) is the way to go. Zone in on what is vital to the story that shows you are capable of the job.
Aim for the sweet spot. Aim to share your story in 30 seconds, while ensuring you cover all the elements of your story setup and plot, and don’t share for longer than two minutes. Interviewers have a lot of other things to do and questions to ask. A story longer than two minutes can also start to bore the interviewer. So aim for the sweet spot.
Share what you did. Behavioral questions are designed to determine how well you handle certain situations. The way to show your skills then is to share what you did to solve a problem, accomplish a task, or create a new opportunity.
Don’t shift blame. When describing your role, avoid making excuses or shifting the blame especially if you have been prompted to discuss a conflict, failure, or mistake. Take ownership of the mistake and how you overcame it, what you learned from it, or how you made sure no one else would make the same mistake as you by creating a system that prevented it.
Include the results or outcomes. An excellent story has a resolution where all the loose ends get tied together. Always highlight the results of your decisions and actions. You want to answer the question, “What happened?” The conclusion to your story will highlight your strengths and skills in a positive light that shows you have what it takes to do the job.
Share lessons learned. Every classic story has one thing in common: a lesson. This is especially true for experiences about failures and mistakes. Make a lasting impression by ending with an explanation that the experience taught you. Do not just explain the failure or mistake but rather describe how the experience inspired you to improve and become an all-round better employee. By framing the experience as a learning one, you show you are a competent and skillful candidate.