In the pressure cooker atmosphere of an interview, it is all too easy to fall back on empty claims without any justification. If you use the STAR interview method, this won’t happen
“I work well under pressure” might sound impressive and you may even say it with some conviction, but unless you offer an example of when you lived this skill, these empty words will not register with an interviewer who is expecting a convincing sales pitch.
Showing initiative, dealing with stress, reacting to a mistake, influencing other people and resolving a conflict are just a few other behaviors that you will likely need to demonstrate in detail rather than mention in passing.
The STAR interview method is the textbook technique to answer a behavioral interview question. It is a method that you can rely on whenever you need to demonstrate any behavioral competency.
In this blog we explore the most impactful technique in your interview toolkit:
- What is the STAR method?
- How to use the STAR interview technique
- Why do interviewers ask behavioral questions?
- Four behavioral questions with STAR response examples
If you use the STAR method, your responses will be clear, concise and powerful, leaving the interviewer with no choice but to tick the mental box and move on to the next question. It is factual, evidence-based and avoids any semblance of arrogance.
What is the difference between behavioral and situational interview questions? The STAR interview method is used to answer behavioral questions – when the interviewer wants to learn about how you handled an event in the past. Situational questions are theoretical explorations of how you might act in a situation in the future. “Tell me about a time when….” Is a typical start of a behavioral question that you might answer with the STAR interview method. “How would you act if….” is the start of a situational question.
What is the STAR interview method?
It is normal for your heartbeat to quicken when you are asked to give a specific behavioral example from your past career. Once you have chosen an example, how do you pick out the best bits without rambling? The STAR interview method might seem simplistic and mechanical, but it is the best way of communicating everything that an interviewer wants to hear in the shortest possible time frame. The STAR technique is a methodical approach with four parts:
Situation: Share the nature of the event, project or challenge.
Task: Describe your specific responsibility in the process.
Action: Steps undertaken to move towards an outcome
Result: End results of your individual involvement.
This structure is easy to follow, simple to remember and offers a potted response that should satisfy all but the most curious of interviewers. After all, if they want to ask a follow up question to clarify any aspects of your story, that is always an option.
Let’s get into the details of how to use this STAR method in the context of an interview.
How do you select the right examples for a STAR method response? You might well have a long list of achievements that you wish to share, but you need to consider whether they are genuinely relevant for the role in question. Think about the typical behavioral questions from the hiring manager’s point of view. What kind of STAR method interview answer would they want to hear?
How to use the STAR interview technique
When the questions begin with the following opening gambits, you know that a behavioral question is on the way:
- Tell me about a time when….
- Have you ever….
- Give me an example of….
- Describe when you….
- When do you do when….
The interviewer wants to understand your specific role in the situation and how you made a difference to the result. They are asking about a specific event in your past, not some imaginary event.
Think about a time when it was your action that made a difference rather than the efforts of those around you. Here is a more detailed exploration of how the STAR method can help you to do that.
The following sections will break down an example of how to use the STAR method to answer this behavioral question:
Tell me about a time when you introduced a new service into the marketplace?
Describe an occasion when this specific behavior helped to make a difference. Ideally it should be a situation in the sort of work context that you will come across in your future role. Relevance is essential in as much of your career story as possible if you are to get the job.
Offer an insight into the complexities, but don’t spend too long setting the scene. One or two concise sentences will be fine. The impact of your contribution is more important.
“My company was launching a new HR consultancy service, mainly targeting our current B2B client base, but also looking to leverage it for new business development.”
Before you get into exactly what you did, it is important to outline the responsibilities and objectives that were set for your part in the task. Most achievements at work also involve the efforts of others, so highlight the expectations and targets for your personal input.
Ideally share the goal of the task - why it was important for you and the employer. Context makes a difference and allows your future boss to compare it to any challenges that they may have for you. Again, keep it brief, and choose a task that others may struggle to do well.
“As the marketing manager, my role was to ensure 80% awareness among current clients and to increase our total client base by 25%. We had a social spend budget of $20k, so much of the marketing activity needed to be organic.”
Now is the time to shine. If you are sharing a relevant situation and task from your industry, your interviewer will likely understand what it takes to complete, so offer some unique specifics about how you went about surpassing expectations.
What steps did you take and how did your actions contribute to those around you? Try to share the sorts of things that few of your fellow candidates (competitors) will be able to boast. Consider using an action verb to elevate the accomplishment to a different level.
“I signed up 5% of the current client base on favorable terms and created a marketing campaign that followed their consultancy journeys in real time. We created a hashtag campaign on social media and involved every client to help spread the word, tying in the social engagement with future discounts on services.”
The final part of the STAR technique is to share the result of your actions. At this point it is vital to use financial numbers, percentage improvements and industry context wherever possible.
Only pick examples where the result is genuinely impressive – you need to end the STAR method story with a wow moment. Have a long think about the realities of your future employer and the sorts of things that will impress them. Include what you learned from the challenge and how you developed from the experience.
“We retained 90% of the original clients, ensured 95% client awareness of the service, and signed up half of the other existing clients. The social campaign reached over 5m people, and we doubled our client base. 35% of the new clients said that they would consider another service with us.”
Are there other similar approaches to the STAR method? The CAR method stands for context / action / result. It is the same as the STAR method, but the context part takes into account both the situation and task, and it can be harder to remember than STAR.
PAR is sometimes also used – problem / action / result. With all these methods, it goes without saying that you do not need to mention each part specifically when you are telling your story. Starting each behavioral story with: “This is the situation” is not a compelling storytelling technique. Ensure that your career tales are as natural as possible.
Why do interviewers ask behavioral questions?
Interviewers are there to make a tough decision. To find out whether you are a leader or a lemon, they need to ascertain concrete and relevant facts about the nature of your previous achievements and the behaviors that led to your success.
Saying “I secured a $1.2m cost saving” is impressive, but not enough. What specific role did you play in the achievement? Were you overdelivering against the task that was set? What would this result translate to in the context of your new role?
Translating your previous behaviors into what they might mean for your future employer lies at the very heart of any interview process. Behavioral questions and STAR method answers will play a significant part in every successful interview. It is like a recruitment dance of discovery. How impressively can you tell your story of success?
Make your behavioral STAR responses all about you. There is no place for modesty in the STAR method. Talk about yourself using the first-person pronoun “I” as much as you like. There is a time and a place in an interview to mention the contribution of the team around you, but when it comes to a behavioral question, your future employer wants to understand your input and yours only.
Four behavioral interview questions with STAR response examples
There is a long list of behavioral questions that might be good candidates to explore, but the most revealing (and therefore difficult to answer) revolve around when you turned a situation from a negative to a positive place.
Anyone can “perform” in the good times. It is when things start to go wrong that talented employees come to the rescue with a solution. Here are a few STAR method examples:
1. Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and learned from it.
Situation: “I took over the order tracking process to cover a colleague’s maternity leave, during which time we experienced a 140% uplift in demand for a series of products.”
Task: “I need to ensure a 98.5% OTIF rate and make sure that our top 10 customers were consistently at 100% stock levels.”
Action: “I did not understand that the order process was different with our biggest customer (I didn’t think to check), and five delivery slots were missed, resulting in a 3% stock discrepancy. I took responsibility and created a new communication process for those taking maternity leave so that business continuity wouldn’t be harmed as it was in my case.”
Result: “My new process was commended by senior management, and it has been replicated across our global network of offices. Handovers are the last thing you are thinking about when you go on maternity leave, so they need to be efficient and thorough.”
2. Describe a time when you were under a lot of pressure at work?
Situation: “I was promoted two times over the space of three years - the first time due to merit and the second time due to a hiring freeze when my boss left. I went from managing a team of three to managing an extended team of forty.”
Task: “I had to manage two underperforming team leaders out of the business and create a slimmed down organizational structure, promoting some of the younger talent to their own managerial positions.”
Action: “I organized redundancy packages for the affected staff and created a new (and flatter) management structure for my new team. We went on weekend management training for six months and worked out a strategy to take the business forward.”
Result: “A year later, our team was working at a record net profitability of 7.8% and enjoyed staff retention numbers of 95% as opposed to the previous 58%. I then worked with those very same team leaders for another three successful and enjoyable years.”
3. Give me an example of when you showed initiative on the job.
Situation: “I met a provider of innovative recruitment software at an HR show and although my role does not cover recruitment, I felt that they could add value to our company.”
Task: “Our recruitment department was old fashioned and had not changed their technology base for a decade, so my job was to persuade them to investigate.”
Action: “We arranged a meeting, I helped the potential new supplier to draw up a business plan that focused on our needs and (after 9 months of persistence), we made the change.”
Result: “The recruitment team not only enjoyed 25% more productivity, their time to hire was reduced by 10 days. Other departments across the business took note and a company-wide technology strategy group was set up to understand the impact of other changes.”
4. Have you ever disagreed and resolved a conflict with your boss?
Situation: “My boss joined from another company and decided that we needed to change the way we organized our customer promotional schedule.”
Task: “I knew that our customer bases were vastly different and that the proposed changes would result in significant overstocks and missed sales opportunities. Much as they wanted to make changes, I had to persuade my new boss to stay with our original plans.”
Action: “I sat down with them and agreed that there were three main priorities for positive change, but that promotions were not amongst them. I presented some customer research that they had not yet read and collated the thoughts of a few colleagues on the matter.”
Result: “Our promotions sales participation continued to grow by healthy double digits, because we focused on the marketing support around the offer rather than changing the promotional schedule itself.”
These examples might seem like a lot of text, but it is usually the case that you will get the chance to tell your story in full before the interviewer comments and in fact this will only take up around a minute of your interview time. This is the sort of interview content that hiring managers love to hear.
Don’t forget to use the STAR interview method in your cover letter. The STAR interview method is perfect for the more story-oriented prose of your cover letter. Resumes are more factual and bullet-point oriented, but a cover letter allows you to take your future hiring manager on more of a journey. Start influencing them from the first word. Describe the situation, tell them that task that you faced, what action you took, and which results you achieved.
- The STAR interview method can help reduce stress in an interview situation and give the employer the answers they are looking for.
- The STAR method will allow any candidate to structure how they tell their story and interviewers will be able to follow the flow of their achievements.
- Rushed and ill-thought through responses just create confusion and require further questions.
- The STAR method can be a great technique to incorporate on your cover letter.