There are a few select phrases that no job seeker wants to hear in an interview. “Go ahead and see yourself out,” is one of them. “Did you know that your fly is down?” or “Please, stop crying,” are likely others. But—let’s face it—those aren’t exactly commonplace (at least, I certainly hope not).
However, there’s one dreaded set of words that’s sure to crop up in any job interview. Words so terrifying that they immediately cause your leg to twitch and a nauseous feeling to wiggle its way up from your stomach to your throat.
“Oh, crap,” you think to yourself. You were more than prepared to spin your weaknesses into strengths and talk about why you’re the best fit for the open position. Heck, you can even recite the company’s mission statement from memory—in three different languages.
But, this? This part you’re not adequately prepared for.
Let’s face it—having to think of specific examples from your professional history is already challenging. Add in the element of needing to transform them into captivating and relevant stories to engage and impress your interviewer? Well, suddenly you’re tempted to just stand up and walk out.
Not so fast! These inevitable behavioral interview questions are definitely nerve-wracking. But, they’re nothing you can’t handle.
The first step is to make sure that you already have a few key interview stories queued up and ready in your back pocket. Once you have a solid roster of examples ready to go, it’s time to polish up your delivery. Here are the five key elements you’ll want to incorporate: Put them to good use, and you’ll be sure to save yourself the embarrassment of rambling on without a point or purpose.
1. Answer First
Yes, being prompted to tell a story in an interview is enough to send you spiraling into panic mode. But, there’s one important thing you need to remember here: These prompts are called behavioral interview questions. Emphasis on the word questions. This means you need to provide an answer to something specific, and not just launch into a long-winded explanation about something that’s completely irrelevant.
The best way to ensure that you drill down to the meat and potatoes and give the interviewer exactly what he’s looking for is to start your story with a concise, one-sentence response, before elaborating on those nitty-gritty details. While you’re telling a story, you don’t need to weave in tension and suspense the way an award-winning author would. Your main concern should be answering the question.
For the sake of example, let’s assume that your interviewer asked you to talk about a time when you made a mistake.
What This Looks Like
“A professional mistake that still sticks in my memory is when I mixed up the date for a large meeting my department was hosting.”
2. Provide Context
Now that you’ve given a brief answer, it’s time to expand and provide some background information. After all, a one-sentence response won’t be enough to satisfy your interviewer. She’ll be left wondering exactly how you managed to goof up that date. What was the fallout from your blunder? What did you do to fix it?
So, it’s time to give the context of the situation. Don’t get so bogged down in minor details here. Your interviewer doesn’t need to know that it happened on a rainy Tuesday or that you were feeling particularly groggy from that huge burrito you ate for lunch. Instead, zone in on what’s important and actually helps to provide some clarity to the situation.
What This Looks Like
“My department was coordinating a training session that our entire company was set to attend in order to learn about a new process we were implementing. We had tentatively scheduled the large meeting for the middle of May. But, when we changed the date to a week earlier, I neglected to make that change in my own calendar. The meeting was a week sooner than I thought, forcing me to scramble to get things pulled together in time.”
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3. Explain Your Role
You’ve laid the groundwork and explained the problem. However, remember that these questions were designed to find out how you handle certain situations. So, you need to make sure to emphasize the role you played.
Think about what specific duties you were responsible for, and then elaborate on those. One key thing to keep in mind when describing your role is that you shouldn’t make any attempt to make excuses or shift blame—particularly if you’ve been prompted to discuss something like a mistake, failure, or a conflict. So, don’t even bother explaining that you weren’t included on the email about the date change or that your co-worker forgot to loop you in. Instead, take ownership.
What This Looks Like
“I was responsible for creating the slide deck that would be presented at the meeting and walk our entire staff through the new changes. I had wanted to take my time with the presentation, making sure that I hit the right details and explained things in a simple and efficient way. But, when I managed to goof up the date, I had to speed through the presentation creation—meaning it wasn’t quite as polished as I would’ve liked.”
4. Share the Results
This is the part when you need to start to wrap things up. Every story has a resolution where you tie loose ends together—unless you’re writing a sequel, which I wouldn’t recommend in an interview situation.
You always want to highlight results in your interview. So, the best way to pull together the ending of your story is to explain the outcome of the example you chose. What happened in the end? How did this all play out for you?
What This Looks Like
“Although I had higher standards for the presentation than how it turned out, everyone was happy with it in the end. It taught my colleagues a lot. So, despite the all-nighters and moments of sheer panic that resulted from my date screw up, I was glad the presentation ended with everyone’s approval.”
5. Make the Lesson Clear
Think of any classic children’s story, and you’ll identify one thing they all have in common: a lesson. The tortoise taught us that slow and steady wins the race. The ugly duckling showed us to always be kind to others. To really make sure your story has a lasting impact, end by talking about what the experience taught you.
Even when you’re asked to share an example of something negative in your professional history, it’s important to remember that your goal is still to present yourself as a qualified and accomplished candidate. So, don’t just stop after you’ve explained your failure or mistake. Instead, go on to elaborate on how this experience inspired you to improve in those areas and made you an all-around better employee.
What This Looks Like
“While I definitely didn’t enjoy that frantic mad dash to reach the finish line, making this mistake illustrated the importance of keeping a close eye on my calendar. Now, I make a point each week to sit down and look through all of my scheduled commitments to make sure I’m not missing anything important.”
I get it—being prompted to tell a story in an interview is enough to make you want to hightail it right out of that meeting room. However, these questions are inevitable. You might as well accept that fact and work on delivering as polished and powerful of a tale as you can.
So, when you’re asked to provide a personal example, remember to structure your approach using these five crucial story elements. Incorporate those key pieces, and you’re sure to end up with an impressed interviewer—and maybe even the job!
Photo of interview courtesy of Shutterstock.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. In addition to writing for The Muse, she's also the Career Editor for The Everygirl, a columnist for Inc., and a contributor all over the web. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her rescued terrier mutt or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author