How to Nail the "Situation" using the STAR Method (Part 3 of 6)

How to Nail the "Situation" using the STAR Method (Part 3 of 6)

April 10, 2022
Table of Contents

This blog post is part of a series about the STAR Interview Method. Check out all the posts below:

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Describe a specific event or situation that you were in. Be sure to provide enough context and detail for the listener to understand. Never assume. The situation can be from a previous job, volunteer experience, internship, something you were involved with while studying. Really any relevant scenario that displays the trait or abilities you’re looking to convey. 

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”-Ken Kesey 

Refining the “Situation” part of your story

The situation is where you start to paint a picture and set the tone for the rest of the story. It doesn't have to be juicy or feel like you’re about to share something groundbreaking. It just has to be straightforward and to the point. It’s best to assume that your interviewers aren’t always going to make the process super easy for you. Imagine you’re telling this story to a panel that’s seen 10 candidates already today, is a little low on attention and possibly a bit cranky. How do you offer them a clear, easy to follow narrative that hits all the important points, but doesn’t get bogged down by too many details that don’t add value. 

In the previous section, you did a Brain Dump where you listed all the elements of the example you’re using in a ton of detail. It’s probably pretty long, so let’s spend some time refining the start of your story. Pull out the situation part of the story and shorten it to 6-7 sentences. 

Your situation should include the following :

  • Where was it
  • When was it
  • Why did it happen
  • What happened
  • Who was involved
  • Macro/Micro climate
  • What you were feeling 

The best place to start is a simple, declarative statement explaining where you were, in what context the scenario takes place and where this story sits on your timeline. Depending on the complexity of the question, your entire STAR story shouldn’t be more than 2-5 minutes. That leaves roughly thirty seconds to one minute to describe the situation (or a bit less, since you don’t want to spend all that precious time just fleshing out the situation). This should be plenty of time to answer something like, “what was your biggest achievement?” A great way to start telling this story would go along the lines of “It was the time I worked at x company during X time as a marketing manager. My task was to..” And you’re already off into the task in just under a few seconds.

Let’s put this into practice. Here’s an example situation about a big achievement during university that has not been refined: 

I’ve always been very active in extracurricular school activities back in college. I was a PoliSci major at the University of Oregon and enjoyed debates/discussions, reading news, and sports. I was a straight-A student…most of the time. The one subject that I hated, and always underperformed in, was math. It just wasn’t fun for me. Maybe I never had a great teacher, or it just didn’t come naturally to me, I don’t know. Anyway, it was my final year of university, and I still had to complete one trig class to graduate, so as you can imagine, I was quite stressed. If I didn’t pass, I would have to take a summer course and delay my graduation date.

Let’s cut out the fluff and make it more concise.

I was a PoliSci major at the University of Oregon and always had straight A’s, except in math. It was my final year of university, and I still had to complete one trig class to graduate. As you can imagine, I was quite stressed! If I didn’t pass, I would have to take a summer course and delay my graduation. 

Better, right? The point you want to make is that you’re not great at math/don’t like it, and you had one more math class to pass. The context about other activities you did doesn’t add value to this example, so you can cut it out. And that’s it. It probably takes about 10-15 seconds to set the context, and you can imagine where we’re going with the story (set a goal to pass the class, how you got a tutor, stayed up late nights to get better, passed the course, etc.). 

Remember, STAR is just a way to structure your stories. The stories can range across an experience at school, an internship, part-time work, an impactful life event, and career related examples from your first entry level role right to an executive position.

Here’s another, longer and slightly more complicated example in its raw, unedited form. 

Back in 2015, I was working as head of healthcare products at Walmart. It was a week before our GTM Launch for Walmart healthcare product V1.0, and we had a Leadership demo meeting workshop with key stakeholders, including the heads of the legal team. While doing a demo of the product, our legal head mentioned that there was a new requirement from the HL7 (health Level 7) organization where we needed to implement something like 10 features in order to be HIPAA compliant. To meet the deadline, we had to deliver this regulation immediately in a week's time. But there was one little problem: the effort required to build these features was no small feat, and we needed a minimum of ~ 4 weeks. These 10 features were a completely ad-hoc set of requirements that were coming from the legal team. They weren’t part of the current roadmap. But we were in a bind: the legal team clearly announced that we can’t launch without implementing these features to be HIPAA compliant. 

Given the complexity of what’s going on, it’s important to set the stage to properly describe the context of the problem and why it arose. We can imagine that the action is going to have multiple variables to consider like figuring out a way to meet deadlines, juggling resources, conversations with legal, pushing back to stakeholders, managing engineering, product, and marketing teams, coming up with a creative solution, analyzing data etc. This story will probably need to be on the longer side of the recommended 2-5 minutes, but it can still be trimmed down for maximum impact: 

Back in 2015, I was working as head of healthcare products at Walmart. It was a week before our launch for a healthcare product V1.0, and our legal head flagged a critical issue. Basically, in order to be HIPAA compliant, we needed to implement something like 10 features. There was one little problem: launch was in 1 week, and I estimated the requirements would take at least 4 weeks to complete. These features weren’t part of the current roadmap, but legal wouldn’t let us launch without implementing them to be HIPAA compliant. 

This version conveys the same message and retains all the important details but gets to the point far more clearly and concisely. You can imagine the follow-up questions from the interviewer, like “how many stakeholders were involved in the launch of this product?” or perhaps, more critically, “why was this issue flagged so late in the process and not weeks or months earlier?” *Cough,* Good question! 

Context is Key

Let’s say for the past 5 years you’ve been living in Indonesia and working at an e-commerce company called GoJek. Now you’re interviewing for a job at Meta in the U.S. and explaining how you built a marketing strategy for one of your new products.

Without providing a lot of context from the start, you risk losing the interviewer or missing a big opportunity to win from the beginning. The interviewer might not fully understand the size of your company, for example. They might not know that GoJek is like the Uber of Indonesia, competes with Apple Pay, and has grown by 500% in the past two years.

It doesn’t matter if you know your interviewer has heard of your company, or even if they seem to know a fair amount about it. I don’t care if it’s a household name like Microsoft or Google that you work for (au contraire, because these companies are huge, you should pinpoint product/department size and scope). It’s important to share relevant context so that the scope of your example is crystal clear. 

“While Microsoft is a large company, I was actually working in the Xbox division before we launched, so it was basically a startup operation.”

If it’s not a huge, well known, company,it’s even more critical that you share details about the business. How big is the headcount? What were their revenue figures? What was the culture like? What was your position?

After taking all these points into account, here’s what my opening description of a situation would look like:

I was working as a cyber security manager at Skynet, which is the only company in the world that produces flying cybernetic robots capable of time-travel for military use. We had about 2,000 employees around the world and did 5 billion USD in revenue last year. It was a very organized and top-down structured business.

On Christmas day, we detected a critical breach of the system — the biggest DDoS attack I’ve ever seen. My role was to manage a team of network engineers, and our mission was to make sure our internal network remained impenetrable to attack. It was the end of the year and my 40-person team was off on holiday, so I had to spring into action immediately and figure something out despite limited resources.

If you’ve watched The Terminator, then I wouldn’t have to tell you much about my fictitious company, Skynet. But I would opt to take the safe route and explain the business anyway, just in case you’ve been living under a rock all these years.

Bad Examples

John, tell me about the time you handled a challenge.

“When we found a really big bug in our software, I coordinated the team which managed to get the schedule back on track. We were able to successfully troubleshoot the issues and solve the problems, within a very short period, and without completely burning out our team…”

When describing your situation, the above example is going to be a good summary that you can use to remind yourself of the example — at best. You could even start off this way, if you’d like, and then jump into the start of the story to shed light on the details. But only saying the above as a response ain't' gonna cut it. It’s too nondescript, vague, and lacks any real substance. Generic answers will give you generic results.

The interviewer will inevitably follow up by asking,

What was the product? What was the company? How big was the team? Most importantly, why did development stall?! What was the bug all about? What was your position? What was the timeline to launch?

When they ask these questions, you’ll end up re-telling the story again. And if you don’t have the answers to these basic details, then you’re in big trouble. You need to make sure you include the specifics that make it clear why this story showcases your abilities. Details such as timelines, data, facts, numbers and causes. This doesn’t mean that you need to give a much longer description. Too much irrelevant detail only distracts your audience from the skills and achievements you’re looking to convey. 
Here’s a better way to start the story:

“Three years ago I was working as an engineering manager at a startup, ScheduleNow, a SaaS platform that provides flexible calendar solutions for businesses. We had a small engineering team of five people. Right after a big release, we discovered a critical bug that was messing with people’s time zones, causing them to display incorrectly. This impacted over 70% of our client base, and it was mission-critical that we fixed it as soon as possible...”

This would be enough context to set the scene for this story — one you might choose to use in response to a question like “give me an example of a time-sensitive problem you had to solve with few resources.”

How long should your answer be? 

You don’t need to spend 2-3 minutes painting a scenario. You’ll risk sounding verbose and possibly get lost in your description, forgetting your point. I’ve seen this happen many times. Sometimes the interviewer will stop you, but other times they will let you ramble on. You don’t get the job, and the real feedback is “they couldn’t get to the point” but because companies are intentionally vague about their feedback, they probably won’t tell you that, and you’re left with a rejection email wondering what you did wrong. 

 This can be easily avoided. You’re talking about what makes sense contextually in that specific meeting. For example, if you are interviewing for a startup company you might want to emphasize the entrepreneurial nature of your greatest achievement or how you took on several responsibilities with little supervision. Because that’s what it’s like at a startup. And maybe you don’t emphasize the fact that you have three bosses and 10,000 employees.

 Using the above guidelines, here are a few simple tricks to start refining your STAR answer and tailoring it to each specific interview situation/company that you will face

  • Cut down the fat. First, you want to write down as many details as possible when you’re preparing your STAR stories because our minds work by association (our brain dump: link here). When one neuron fires closely to other neurons that are connected to an idea or sensation from an experience, you refresh your memory of the event and the details you’ll need to tell an impactful story will spring back to mind. You’ll be able to answer the “whys” or the inevitable questions around specific details.

To refine our situation, keep in mind the size of the company, type of business, and macro/micro factors that could be relevant. Ask yourself, “how will this be relevant in the job I’m interviewing for? Is it similar in any way to what the job description says?”

  • Ask them. There’s no way to know for certain what they are thinking, but before diving into your STAR story, you can give a tiny snippet of what you are going to discuss. “Oh sure, I have a good story about a deadline I had to meet in my previous job about ten years ago during my time as a marketing associate. Would that be along the lines of what you’re looking for?” Their response might be “yes, that sounds good”, or they might ask for a more recent example during your time as a manager in the last 5 years. The point is, you don’t know until you ask.
  • …And then ask them some more! There is no rule that your STAR story has to be a monologue. In fact, it should be more like a conversation. Try to intermittently elicit small responses from your interviewer to keep them feeling engaged. Simply stop during your story and ask them. In describing an example to hit a tight deadline during your time at a big media company, you might quickly ask “Are you familiar with the content creation workflow in the media industry?” If the interviewer is very familiar, then you can summarize and move on, but if they’re not, you’ll have to lay things out for them in more detail.  
  • Facial gestures and body language. This is a more practical interview tip. I would hope that people aren’t as rude as glancing at their watches to indicate their boredom. (Do people do that?) Maybe, but usually, they’re more subtle. They might just nod their head, give you a blank stare, or indicate slight impatience with “Yep, yep, I see.” If you notice this, then the interviewer is either a jerk, or you might need to speed up

Don’t Assume Anything

In my previous recruitment job, when we would close a deal and record the information on our CRM system, we would internally refer to this as “popping.” If someone were to walk into our office at the end of the month, you’d overhear people saying things like, “when are you going to pop her?” and “Excited to pop today!”

Scandalous. 

Every industry comes with lots of jargon and you may be accustomed to talking a certain way. Catch yourself when you do this and provide context or else you’ll be left with blank stares, or even worse, they’ll just pretend to understand what you said as you continue to talk, which will only leave your interviewers more confused and completely missing the impact of your story. 

Three Ways to be Concise

  1. Skip unnecessary details. When first crafting the situation part of your STAR story, you should write down as much detail as possible. This will help make sure that you don’t leave out key pieces of information. Once you have this covered, you can eliminate all the unnecessary details depending on the context of the question and who you’re speaking to.
  2. Don’t think out loud. Before starting your example, using words like “umm” and “hmm” and “yeah, let’s see…” is going to make it seem like you’re uncertain, might not have prepared, or that you don’t have a good example. There is nothing wrong with taking a couple of minutes to gather your thoughts. Instead of thinking out loud you can say, “Sure, give me a second to think of a good example.” 
  3. The rule of 3’s. When answering any question that has several possible responses, like “what were the key factors to your success in the project?” or “What do you think makes a good manager based on your experience?” I recommend using the rule of 3s, that is, listing three things that qualify you. No more and no less. Thomas Jefferson and Steve Jobs used this technique. For some reason, our minds gravitate towards this number. Having two reasons doesn’t seem like enough, and having four or five reasons seems like overkill. If you can squeeze it down to three reasons or three points, it’ll sound like you know your stuff. Like this section, it has 3 points. Coincidence? I think not. 

PRACTICE

Now we have the basic framework to continue refining your situation.

We are sticking with the question of “biggest achievement” for now but if you want to write about other examples (how you met a deadline, handled pressure, etc.) then go for it, but go back to the start of this chapter and start with the brain dump 

Now let’s do the following: 

  1. Look at the notes in your Brain Dump. Start writing down everything you can remember about the situation in as much detail as possible. Use the google document that you made.
  2. Use the “Context is Key” guide in this article to help prompt more details.
  3. Ask yourself the question “why” at least five times for the situation until you cannot answer any longer. Why did this situation happen? Why did I feel that way? Why was it an issue? Why did I have to take care of it? Why did x happen and not y?
  4. Now shorten it. Get your situation down to 30 seconds or less. Take out any unnecessary filler words and make it more concise. I recommend using your phone timer or stopwatch. Make sure you’re rehearsing at a relaxed and comfortable pace — it can be easy to rush when you’re nervous and just want to get the story out
  5. Practice it out loud. Many times and in many different settings. By yourself, with a friend, and with an interview coach

WINNING STAR EXAMPLE

Describe a time when you took a big risk and it paid off. [real example from someone who landed the job at a Fortune 500)

Situation:

During my time as a marketing manager at Marriott Hotels in 2017, my 8 person marketing team received an unexpected increase in budget due to a reorg. I was given 3 weeks to create a plan to spend it. And I had to figure out how we were going to use less teammates to accomplish more. 

Task:

My initial instinct was to put it in the highest performing channel and confirm that my VP approved. However, it wasn’t that simple. 

  • Historically we didn’t spend around year’s end so there were no previous year results to make direct comparisons to.  
  • I knew that upping the workload of my cross functional partners wouldn’t help their morale 
Action: 
  • I saw this time as a blank slate and opportunity to take a risk. Taking a risk to me meant 1. Making the most of this unique time - having an excess budget in a different time of year, 2. Getting the partners involved, 3. Getting a return from this investment 
  • The possibilities of how to invest were endless so I knew I needed to leverage my biggest resource - my cross functional partners, agency partners, and platform account managers. However, I needed to confirm that they had the capacity to do more work. 
  • I also saw this as an opportunity to have some fun with my cross functional partners and strengthen the relationship I had with them. I scheduled a “pitch session” and gave the teams the opportunity to recommend what they would do with more budget that would be an exciting test or differentiating factor. 
  • I opened the session by focusing on the high level goal and asking them to think out of the box and high return within their channel. They were energized by the opportunity to show off their subject matter expertise but also made sure to convey what they could handle clearly.   
Result: 
  • Trying to find a new and engaging way to invest this budget paid off. I was able to craft a plan by the deadline. I invested the money into different tactics that brought the holiday inn brand to life in credible, but new ways. My cross functional partners were so empowered and engaged we were ready to ship some creative assets and targeting plans ahead of schedule. Some of these tests went so well that we’re reinvesting in 2019 with double the budget. We got to do some beta tests that drove some solid returns!

Part 4: How to Nail the "Task" using the STAR Method

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