In my first job interview as a waitress, I thought I did a great job answering each question positively with “Yes, I can do that.” Work evenings? Work late? No problem. I thought I aced the interview, since I got the “right” answers by answering positively to all the questions.
My neighbor got me my first waitress job, and I had never interviewed before. I worked for two years at the first restaurant. A “good” night was when I made $20 in tips, and I was ready to make more money since my college tuition kept going up. I had the relevant experience as a hostess, waitress, cocktail waitress, bus person, and even dishwasher and kitchen prep a few nights. I was confident I could do the job.
Well, I didn’t get the job.
What is a Behavioral Style Interview?
Instead of responding “Yes, I did that or can do that,” the ideal way that interviewers want for you to respond to their questions is to format your answer in the STAR interview story answer format by providing an example of how you handled a situation in the past. Crafting the right STAR story will show how awesome you are in a concise and compelling manner that will will make it clear that you are the most ideal candidate for the job.
The STAR interview answer method is used for behavioral style interviews which is the most common interviewing style. The idea behind behavioral style interviewing is that your past behaviors or how you responded to a situation in the past indicates how you may respond to future situations. Even if the interviewer is unskilled and only asks questions that require a “yes” or “no” answer, give a “yes” plus a STAR story response to set you apart from the other candidates.
Behavioral style interview questions can sound like:
- Tell me about a time when…
- Have you ever…
- Describe a time…
What is the STAR Interview Method and How to Answer STAR Interview Questions
The acronym STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. It gives a structure or framework to your answers, so your story response provides a context, what you did, and why it was important and what happened. Let’s break down each component, so you know how to answer the interview questions.
S = Situation
The situation is a few words to provide context to your answer such as the project or time frame. You want to provide a picture of the importance or complexities of the situation without getting bogged down in the details or too much background. Ideally, you should include the relevant details that would relate to the job you are interviewing for. Examples:
“I was on a new program who was going to be audited by an external ISO organization…”
“When we had three people quit or get sick and a proposal due in a week…”
T = Task
What was your task, role, or responsibility for the situation? Examples:
“I asked to lead the audit effort by ensuring our program was prepared.”
“My role was to ensure all the processes and objective evidence (documentation) were ready.”
“My role on the proposal was to provide input on a new software package they wanted to use as a part of the solution.”
A = Action
Describe the key steps you took to resolve the situation and achieve the result. The action is where you are showcasing your abilities, problem solving, and skills. It is where you are explain your competencies or strengths and helps the interviewer determine if you can do the job you are applying for. Examples:
“As lead, I worked with our Quality Assurance organization, Program Management, and the leads of different areas to ensure our processes and objective evidence were up to date and in-place.”
“I reviewed our 16 processes and objective evidence, our documentation to show we followed our processes. I updated our processes to ensure they were current and took them through the review and approval boards to ensure our documentation was ready before the audit. I ensured over 350 reports were organized and available for the audit.”
“In addition to my own original inputs, I volunteered to finish writing the technical section of the proposal.”
R = Result
This is the most important part of your STAR interview story. The result is normally your success story – the happy ending, the grand finale. It is where you as the hero saved the day by your action to get the deliverable or report done on time, made the customer happy, or save the company time and money or increase sales. You should quantify the hours or dollars and be prepared if someone asks how you came up with the figure. If you can quantify your result, it is always more impressive.
Include why the result was important or helpful to the project or customer or what was the value of what you did. You might have built the next revolutionary app or made the world’s toughest customer happy, but the people talking to you don’t have the background to understand, so you need to make it clear to them.
Sometimes the results in life are not what we want or we made a mistake; it is good to have an example of this to share what you learned from the experience and how you would do it differently in the future. Just make sure your story did not cause a major problem that would cause the interviewer to think, “No way would I hire this person.” A story where you have changed a weakness or problem into a strength and the results you have achieved since changing can be very powerful.
“Our program successfully passed the external ISO audit, and we received our external ISO registration which was important to our business area. I received an award from the Director for my efforts.”
“We were able to submit our proposal on-time which led to a big program win of $1,000,000 for our business.”
Develop STAR Interview Stories to Build Your Brand
Your STAR story answers will show your competence, personality, and communication ability. By developing stories in the key areas below, they create a brand or picture of who you are as a person and how you want to be remembered. Review your resume and think about your experience. Develop STAR stories in the areas below. It is important to have STAR interview stories that highlight:
- competencies or skills – what are your key skills and knowledge? What are the main skills and knowledge that are listed in the jobs you are applying for?
- areas of expertise
- what is something unique about you that sets you apart from other candidates?
- your communication abilities
- communicating with customers
- communicating with management
- communicating and getting along with your co-workers
- situations to how you have dealt with and solved a difficult problem / challenge
- situations how you dealt with a difficult customer
- demonstrate good time management under pressure
- how you have a adapted to a changing situation
- how have you helped the company or project?
- saved the company money?
- Increased revenue
- Improved processes to save time or money?
- what is a time you did not do as well as you would have liked and what did you learn from it?
Write down your responses using the STAR format described below. You can use bullets or a paragraph to start.
Once you create your key STAR story sets, you can re-use them for each interview and not have to think of them on your feet. You can have different STAR story examples for each category, and they can be from the same project but it also good to be able to highlight different companies and jobs and projects, so it doesn’t look like all your experience came from one job.
Think of the STAR interview stories as your key signature stories that establish your brand. Stories are something that are memorable and more easily remembered than just a bunch of facts. The interviewers may not remember the details of your resume, but your STAR interview stories will give them a better picture of who you are as a person, your skills, and if you will be someone they want to work with.
Once you develop your key STAR interview brand stories, determine how well they fit the jobs that you are applying for. Do you need to tweak them and highlight different actions you took?
Practice Creates Confident, Clear, Compelling Answers
You will want to develop these STAR interview story responses and refine them and even practice them with a trusted friend to give you feedback on your response to make sure it is clear and understandable and gives an appropriate “wow” factor. If you don’t have a friend to practice with or just don’t feel comfortable doing it, then you need to practice saying your STAR interview story answer out loud and timing yourself. Your answers should not be longer than two to three minutes. If they are, decide what details to omit and how you can communicate the main points in less words.
It is critical to practice saying the STAR interview story out loud, so you can hear yourself and don’t stumble over the great words you have written down. You also need to practice saying it in a conversational manner, so it does not sound like you are reading a memorized response.
Pro Tip: Add emphasized words as you say it to convey emotion or convey how difficult something in your story. Maybe a few words are spoken louder or a little softer or said with excitement in your voice.
Once you have your STAR key stories, you need to memorize them. If you might be so nervous that your mind goes blank during the interview, write a few bullet points down so you can remember them as you briefly look down at your notes. Do NOT write paragraphs, you should only need a few words to trigger your story.
If You Need More Help
Here are some more interview resources that will help you.
I provide interview coaching and consulting if you want to practice your STAR interview answers or interview skills. As a Toastmaster International award winning speech evaluator, I also listen and watch for communication areas (eye, body, voice, words) that can help you sound more confident and polished in your answers. My schedule does get busy, so it is best to send an e-mail to set up an appointment in advance and provide days and times you are available and if you would like coaching over Zoom, phone, or e-mail.