No matter what side of the table you’re on during a job interview, you know the question is coming: “Tell me about a time when…” Either you’ll need to come up with a story on the fly, or you’re hoping that your interviewee has an excellent example of a situation that’s helpful. As a result, there will likely be awkward moments of silence while they wrack their brains for something relevant.

Interviewers ask for stories because they want evidence you know who you are, what you bring to your position, and how you can add value to the company. Good storytelling allows you to share detail and insight through a specific example, creating an emotional connection with the interviewer or company values. So how can you prepare yourself if you never know what the interviewer will ask?

Meet the STAR method, a strategy Terry Smith shared during his Mulberry Conversations webinar. Terry is a senior leader in Human Resources and change management, specializing in strategic and operational management, and he’s a certified coach and facilitator. Read on to learn how to use this formula for storytelling and uncover details during interviews.

What is the STAR method?

STAR model is an acronym that stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. It seeks to determine the relationship between the work they need and your work in the past. The interviewer is looking to assess your answer to see if you can take the initiative and action if similar situations occur. 

Situation

What did you have to do? What were your responsibilities or your assignments relative to the situation?

Task

What were the steps you took or the procedures you engaged to either relieve or rectify the situation?

Action

What happened because of the steps you took? 

Result

What was the result of your actions? 

It follows a pattern of thinking throughout the entire question and answer. Here was the situation I faced. There was the task that was in front of me. Here are the actions I took.

Answering these questions can be very difficult because you’re being asked on the spot to connect the dots between something that you did before and what you might do now. So it’s important to choose specific situations that might relate to the role you’re interviewing for, and if you’re making a career change, that can be especially hard. 

Why STAR Storytelling Works

Some cues that you’re being asked to tell a STAR story might sound like: “Give me an example of a challenge or a project…” or “Have you ever encountered a situation such as…” or “Describe an instance when you’ve had to….” When interviewers use a STAR-based model, they’re looking to see how well you performed under pressure, handle conflict, or operate in a situation where you may have made a mistake. 

The secret to STAR storytelling is to prepare and practice several different stories to have answers for various situations that might come up in the position you want. Terry shared that he has about 20 or 25 of them that he continues to refer back to in conversation. Using this model helps him tell these stories effectively from start to finish, every time.

If you’re the interviewer, the STAR method is a tool you can use to keep a conversation on track and get the details and insights you need. Before talking to candidates, identify your organization’s expectations for the specific roles you’re filling and determine what situations allow those qualities to shine through. Then, return to the Situation, Task, Action, and Result components to ask follow-up and clarifying questions and flesh out the story with the details you need.

Writing Your STAR Stories

When somebody asks you a STAR question, they ask you to provide an example of a particular event, a project, or a challenge you dealt with in the past. Give yourself 10-15 minutes to brainstorm all the situations you can think of that fit these criteria, regardless of the outcome. You’ll also have to research the company where you’re interviewing. Based on what you know about them and the role, look at your list and find connections between your stories and what your research has revealed about company values and culture. It can be hard to identify the most interesting or impactful stories to others. If you are having trouble finding stories, talk with some of your coworkers to see from a different point of view. 

Once you’ve compiled your list of situations that might be relevant, think through the acronym for each one. You can use a spreadsheet or fold a piece of paper to create four columns with one row per answer. Keep each part of the answer relatively short so that you can tell a complete and concise story within 60 to 90 seconds. Leave room for follow-ups. 

STAR stories are really about understanding how you behave and how you operate. It’s okay to talk about mistakes you’ve made if you can show what you’ve learned and what you might do differently next time around. If you can make these connections effectively for the interviewer, you’ll make an impressive presentation. 

Pro Tips for STAR Storytellers and Interviewers

  • Answer interview questions from the perspective of I, as opposed to the perspective of we. Interviewers want to know what you did and what you created, and what your impact was instead of what the team accomplished.
  • When it comes to the STAR method, preparation is key. Some of us are good storytellers. Some are not as strong at telling stories. This format or structure is one you can follow for any story you want to tell about any aspect of the work that you’ve done.
  • For job seekers, you can also design several STAR questions for the point in the interview when they ask if you have any questions. Remember that there are specific reasons why this role exists and why it’s open. Try to uncover those reasons and why you might be an excellent candidate. 
  • Practice telling your stories with friends or colleagues. When you’re in an interview situation, you want to have a few different stories at the ready that are relevant to the role. And practicing also gives you more of a sense of comfort with the format, so if you do come up with something on the fly that is more specifically aligned to the role, you can follow the acronym instinctively. 
  • Have a selection of different stories to tell for situations with multiple interviewers.

You can get the storytelling edge you need for your next interview in just a couple of brainstorming and practice sessions. Watch the recording of our conversation with Terry for more insights on using the STAR formula, and if you need someone to practice with, don’t hesitate to contact us!