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Storytelling Tips’ The Best Replies To ‘talk About A Time When’ Interview Questions

David Law

Thu, 16 May, 2019

  • Reading Time:
    ~ 4 minutes

You go into the interview confidently. You’ve pumped yourself up, practised your elevator pitch endlessly, you know exactly why you want this position and you’re ready to prove it. So why do you start feeling agitated when the interviewer starts delving into those behavioural questions?


It is a common phenomenon: amazing, certainly qualified candidates wreck their own chances by answering behavioural questions wrong. Why does this happen?


Of course, in order to answer behavioural interview questions, you’ve gotta have some experience under your belt, but this isn’t just about having the raw material from which to draw your answer. It’s about framing and telling your story in a way that is compelling and backs your application.


What are behavioural interview questions?


Let’s start with the basics: what are behavioural questions, what is their objective, and what you should focus on to bolster your claims.


Behavioural interview questions are meant to get you talking— you’ll probably get any number of variants of ‘Tell me about a time when…’. They are designed to assess how you act in diverse real-life scenarios and whether your past experiences make you the best candidate to fill this position.


Where should your focus be when answering behavioural or storytelling questions? Simple: the planning and actions you took to solve a situation, what you learned from the results, and how your actions tied into the business’ success.


Got it? Time to get beyond the basics— here’s what you should do to present thoughtful and effective answers to behavioural interview questions.


Find the right stories.


If you wait until the interview itself to think about what your answers will be, you’re in trouble. Coming up with the right stories on the spot can be tricky, and often results in fumbling and awkward silences.


But how do you prepare your replies to behavioural questions if you don’t know what those are going to be? It’s not as hard as it seems! Start by looking at the job description for the role— what are the soft skills that show up? Maybe it’s ‘Ability to learn from mistakes and constructive criticism’, or ‘solid problem-solving skills’. Make a separate list with them.


The next step is to come up with the story. Pick a trait and think of a time when you clearly showed the required skill. Practice telling the story with a strong focus on this particular trait.


The good news is these anecdotes are flexible— you don’t have to come up with a different story for each and every skill on the list. Take the story you already have and try spinning it a little differently without changing the facts. How many of the traits on your list can you use the story for? It’s probably more than you initially believe!


If you practice this technique, you’ll find you don’t run into that ‘candidate’s block’ whenever your interviewer throws a behavioural question at you.


Note: You also need to be prepared to answer questions about weak spots in your CV (such as time gaps or lack of experience in a particular field) as well as about seemingly negative situations (how you handle things like conflict and disagreement might be crucial to this particular team).


Define the moral of the story.


You’re the storyteller here, so you have a chance to define the meaning of your story before anyone else does. This is crucial: if you don’t do it convincingly, a story you thought bolstered your claims might actually come back to bite you.


For example, if you explain how you took over a failing project and turned it around via your leadership skills, your interviewer might question why you didn’t act or speak up sooner. Instead of helping you, the story is now hurting your chances.


In order to make sure you’re conveying the right information, you’ve got to frame your story. You need a defining statement to guide your interviewer’s interpretation. What’s that? The first phrase of your story should highlight the traits you are attempting to demonstrate. For the example above, a good statement is: ‘In my professional experience, I’ve found that leading by example can motivate your team to turn around even the direst situations’.


Instead of jumping into the narrative haphazardly, you are now directing attention to the strong points of your anecdote and what you learnt from it. Effective and simple storytelling.


Wrap it up neatly.


As the saying goes, ‘All’s well as ends well’. And, by extension, what finishes on a weak point will leave a poor impression in your interviewer’s mind. How do you make sure your story ends on a (positive) memorable note?


Just like the opening general statement we’ve already explored, the last statement is a pivotal one. Ideally, you’d tie the two together and bring the narrative to a coherent conclusion. Hot tip: use this last moment to remind your interviewer that you have the company’s best interests at heart. Prove that the quality you just demonstrated is useful to the business’ current goals and situation.


Another compelling reason to focus on a strong ending: delivering information neatly and succinctly shows off your communication skills— always a good idea.


What storytelling interview questions are really about.


Ultimately, this kind of ‘Tell me about a time when…’ questions isn’t about the particular story itself. It’s really about conveying the right message: who are you as a professional? Are you good at learning from experience? Can you back up your abilities with real-world examples?


This is the best way to answer story-style interview questions: pick the right stories to tell, frame them with a purposeful statement that directs the interviewer’s interpretation, and finish on a high note. Now go rock that interview prep!


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