We’ve all been there–sitting in an interview you thought you were prepared for when the dreaded words, “Tell me about a time when . . . ” come out of the interviewer’s mouth.
Suddenly your memory fails you and you can’t think of a single impressive story to tell this person who is basically deciding your fate. You may have even prepared for behavior-based questions, but you simply can’t think of a story that fits their particular question.
When caught off guard by a behavior-based question, most people either (hopefully unintentionally) tell a story sprinkled with some half-truths or simply panic, or can’t come up with an answer at all. Neither option is ideal, right? So when I learned about the “story circle” method, I started teaching it to every client that came to me for interview coaching.
The concept of story circles was developed by my brilliant colleague, Linda Ashworth, who was in career development at a university for 12 years prior to retirement. After seeing student after student fall on their face during behavior-based interviews, she developed a method that allows you to memorize just seven to 10 stories while being prepared for 35-50 different behavior-based questions. I know . . . amazing, right? Follow these steps to make your own story circles:
1. Begin with practice questions
A behavior-based question asks you to tell a story about something you’ve done in the past. Start by thinking of a common behavior-based question for your field. A simple Google search will usually give you a great start, but here are some quick examples:
- Project manager: “Tell us about a time you improved a process or system. How did you go about this and what was the result?”
- Graphic designer/videographer: “Tell us about a time you worked with a client that had unreasonable expectations for turnaround time. How did you manage the situation?”
- Nurse: “Give us an example of a time you had a hostile patient. How did you handle this situation and what was the result?”
2. Be a STAR
Develop your story using the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result).
The STAR method works well because it gives the interviewer everything she needs to know–the context of the story, what was required of you, the specific steps you took, and the result of your actions. After working with hundreds of clients, I’ve noticed that most people naturally tell a story using the first three letters, but even after I tell them repeatedly to give me a result, they still forget or struggle to do so.
It’s unnatural for us to give a result because it feels like bragging. An experienced interviewer, however, will be looking for the result in your story. If you want more info on how to tell an effective story using the STAR method, we walk you through it here. Here’s an example of what a STAR answer might look like:
- Situation: “The internship application process I was managing had too many steps and I was receiving complaints from students and faculty members.”
- Task: “I needed to reduce the number of steps.”
- Action: “I created a process map, identified steps that could be combined or eliminated, created a proposal, and asked for feedback from my team. We then implemented the changes.”
- Result: “I received feedback from students and faculty that this new process was a great improvement, and cut our admin’s time spent on applications down by 70%.”
This is a short version of the story, just to give you a bit of context for your own STAR method. I encourage you to elaborate more than this in an interview!
3. Create your story circle
You can create a story circle in three simple steps. First, come up with a name for your story that will jog your memory, and put it in a circle like this:
Then, put lines around your story and think of all the different types of behavior-based questions that this one story could answer. If your story can’t answer at least four behavior-based questions, get rid of it or rework it.
And lastly, flesh it out. Think through how you might emphasize different parts of the story depending on the question. The “project manager” question under No. 1 asked about process improvement. In response to this question, I might spend more time explaining the process map and the combination/elimination of steps, whereas a question about leadership would cause me to further explain how I created a team, delegated tasks, and asked for feedback.
4. Write more stories
The more stories you can come up with, the better (but not so many that you can’t remember them). My best advice? Read through the job description multiple times and identify questions you think may be asked based not only on the requirements, but the duties as well. For example, if the duties section includes a point about a lot of tight deadlines but the requirements/qualifications section doesn’t mention it, you should still be prepared for a question about your time and stress management.
Make sure each story can answer different types of questions than your other stories. It won’t be helpful for you if all of your anecdotes answer the same questions and show the same strengths. You want to be able to show that you’re a well-rounded employee who can excel in diverse situations.
Don’t memorize your stories word for word. If you do, they will become robotic, and you won’t be able to adjust them as required by the question. Focus on remembering the story name and the general idea, and practice them out loud a few times. You can even write down the names of your stories (but just the names!) in a notepad and quickly reference them during the interview. Check in with yourself as you practice–did you give a clear result?
If you can successfully think of 10 stories that each answer five different behavior-based questions, you’ve just prepared for 50 different questions! Now next time you get a “Tell me about a time . . . ” question, you can look a little less like a deer in headlights and a little more like the confident person you are.