This blog post is part of a series about the STAR Interview Method. Check out all the posts below:
- Part 1: Use The STAR Interview Method to Nail Any Tech Interview
- Part 2: The STAR Interview Brain Dump
- Part 3: How to Nail the "Situation" using the STAR Method
- Part 4: How to Nail the "Task" using the STAR Method
- Part 5: How to Nail the "Action" using the STAR Method
- Part 6: How to Nail the "Result" using the STAR Method
Behavioral Interviews and the STAR Method
Over 80% of tech companies, ranging from Fortune 500s to top FAANGs like Amazon and Google to smaller startups ask behavioral interview questions during the interview process (‘tell me about a time when’…). In my conversations with hiring managers and HR directors at Amazon, they specifically recommend using the STAR Method to prepare for these types of behavioral interview questions. Google famously uses a combination of behavioral questions and cognitive assessments to determine if a candidate is a good fit. Many other companies recommend using the STAR method, too, or some version of STAR that allows you to structure your answer in a coherent and concise way.
STAR stands for:
- Situation – What was the situation you faced?
- Task – What tasks were involved in that situation?
- Action – What actions did you take?
- Results – What were the results of those actions?
A common frustration of tech companies who interview engineers and candidates with a technical background aren’t their technical skills — they often pass those tech assessments with flying colors — but it’s their inability to express themselves effectively in the interview setting. They struggle to showcase their problem-solving skills, communication skills, and that they’ve been in previous situations that are now relevant to the role at hand. Lots of people fail the interview for this reason. But you don’t have to.
I’ve coached hundreds of people on the STAR method, and including similar feedback from many career coaches on Carrus.io, and I’ve come to a simple conclusion: There’s no substitute for practice. You have to put in the work to brainstorm examples, dig up details from your past employers, and practice telling those stories until you’ve got them nailed down. While this isn’t the only part of the interview, it's a big part. The interview process can include all sorts of questions, from behavioral, hypothetical, technical, role-specific scenarios, estimation questions, case studies and more. It all depends, and you should prepare for all of these where relevant. And while behavioral interview questions by themselves aren’t the only type you’ll encounter, they often take up the bulk (at least 50%) of the conversation. Open-ended questions make it hard to know what the ‘right’ answer is, and make it easier to either talk too much or talk too little. It’s worth spending a good chunk of time preparing, refining and practicing this part of the interview.
The first part of this guide will explain the basics of how storytelling works in an interview setting. The goal is to set a foundation for understanding the STAR method, and how to frame your stories, history and experiences. In the next sections I’ll take you step by step through a brainstorming technique and break down each part of STAR - situation, task, action, result - and lastly provide several examples of real stories shared by job seekers.
First, a cheesy story.
A Caveman Recounts his Day
Once upon a time, on a starry night, a caveman sat around a bonfire with his family and neighbours, and in his native dialect, grunted the events of the day. In other words, he told a story.
And the story went a little something like this:
My son and I were on our weekly hunt for wild boar, roughly four hundred steps from our village, toward the river. It had been several days since our last meal, and we were famished and eager to catch some fresh game. The heat of the sun pounded on us mercilessly.
Suddenly, we came face-to-face with a vicious, red-eyed lion, frothing at the mouth. I froze, paralyzed.
I could tell it, too, had not eaten for several days. It was thirsty for our blood. I felt my heartbeat pounding through my chest and sweat dripping from my forehead. I glanced over at my son, who was terrified. I knew it was my responsibility to protect us. This was not the first time I had come across a lion, so I kept my composure, and mentally analyzed our options.
- Option 1: Remain motionless until the lion went away. However, I wasn’t sure if we could both remain calm in this situation.
- Option 2: We could use our slingshots to scare off the lion. This would require good aim, which would prove very challenging, given my trembling hands. Of course, there was a good chance that I would miss, and just make the lion mad. Then he would definitely attack us.
- Option 3: I could wrestle the lion with my bare hands. But even if I gathered enough courage to do so, I would most likely get my hand bitten off. Or worse.
- Option 4: We could run to a nearby tree and climb out of the lion’s reach. This seemed like the most reasonable option because the lion had not made a move yet, and the tree was less than a stone’s throw away from us.
Alternatively, there was also a combination of these four options — but we didn’t have much time to decide. I did a quick calculation of the distance between us and the tree and how fast the lion could bridge the gap. It was a rough estimate based on my previous experience of watching lions chase gazelles.
It was time for a decision. I decided we should go with the element of surprise, and shoot our slingshots at the lion. This might give us enough time to run to the tree, even if I only stunned the lion momentarily.
I signaled to my son. We aimed our slingshots —BAM! Smack in the center of the lion’s head.
The lion was stunned. We raced to the trees and climbed to the top — safely! After the momentary shock wore off, the lion ran to the tree. But by that time we were high up in the branches and safe from the lion’s sharp claws.
We waited until nightfall for the lion to go away and climbed back down the tree, returning to the village.
I learned that we should be more careful hunting wild boar during this time of day and this area because there were many lions around. It was an experience I certainly don’t want to have again.
I also learned to always carry my slingshot.
Okay, that was pretty cheesy. But it got your attention, right? :)
Let’s say our caveman friend was asked during an interview, “tell me about a time when you faced a difficult situation.”
I think we can agree that he has a compelling and appropriate story (at least in the context of Bronze Age nomadic tribes).
It’s descriptive, raw, and logical. It has a beginning, middle and end. It’s not too verbose. He set the scene well. He describes the characters involved. We get the feeling that he can think on his feet and take action quickly. He mapped out his strategy, and shared the options he was considering.
He didn’t give a lame one sentence answer like, “we came across a scary lion and ran for our lives and then used a slingshot to distract it and ran up a tree,” even though that would also be an accurate, albeit a much less satisfying answer. He also didn’t spend two minutes over-describing the features of the lion’s tail or his distressed emotional state. Rather, we understand exactly what he did, his decision-making process, and how he analyzed and broke down a problem. It had a good level of detail while staying concise.
Perhaps he embellished it a little bit to make it more entertaining for the crowd. For example, using descriptive words like “vicious”, and describing the hunger in the lion’s eyes, perhaps adding a few grunting sounds and gestures. This gives the listener a better understanding of the environment and situation he faced. It is his story, after all, and he can choose to tell it in any way he likes. If the audience were different, perhaps from a different tribe, he might tell the story differently.
There’s even a lesson learned, which shows that our ancestor was not only brave but also self-reflective. It doesn’t have to be a grand epiphany, but at least it shows that he’ll probably face the situation similarly or be even more prepared next time. It’s more emotionally stimulating than it is intellectual, but it sure as heck puts us in the shoes of the caveman. Which is sort of the whole point, isn’t it?
I bet you if our caveman was applying for a job as “Chief Security Officer” at a nearby village (or whatever equivalent in his day and age), we would be pretty confident that he would be invited to the next round of interviews.
Here’s how it would look like using the STAR method
Question: Tell me about a time when you had to show your leadership ability.
- Situation: My son and I were hunting wild boars and suddenly came across a lion. Our lives were in danger.
- Task: The goal was to find a way to escape. I analyzed one of 4 options. As the elder, it was my duty to save us. I needed to act fast.
- Action: We decided to shoot the lion with a sling shot as a diversion and make a run for the tree.
- Result: We survived to live another day. I learned that we should be more careful to hunt in that area, and to always carry a slingshot.
The above STAR outline would be a little bit short to use in the actual telling of the story, as it’s just a few sentences. But the point of mapping it out like this is to provide some initial structure to help tell the story. You don’t need to have all the details written down for starters (or a simplified version painted on some cave wall, perhaps), but at least have the events and reasons mapped out. From there, you can fill in the details.
As a listener of this story, I could poke and prod him to go deeper on certain areas. I might ask him why he chose that specific location for hunting. I might ask if he considered the fact that lions can climb up trees, and why he took the risk anyways. I could ask for more specific details about his slingshot technique. If he knows his story well, he would be able to dive deep into the nitty gritty and share more context (and if he didn’t, I would question weather Mr. Caveman really encountered a lion or was BSing me to gain brownie points in the tribe)
Fortunately for him, our caveman friend never had to participate in an actual interview. He simply retold a true story based on events that happened to him, and went about his day gathering berries and hunting buffalo.
Enter Storytelling 101
Fast forward a few thousand years.
It doesn’t matter if you are a caveman sharing a story about escaping a lion, a marketing manager talking about your most successful marketing campaign, or a product manager explaining how you convinced multiple stakeholders to choose idea A over idea B. The STAR Method is industry/role neutral and can be used to frame all of your examples to make them more structured and compelling.
The difference between our caveman and your interview today, apart from your choice of attire and hygiene (at least I hope, for everyone’s sake), is what’s at stake. The listener isn’t just some friend, but an interviewer who quite literally holds the fate of your future career in his or her hands. This is kind of scary, considering that so many hiring managers aren’t even that great at conducting interviews. Not to mention the countless biases you’ve probably heard of, like interviewers being more grumpy/less favorable in their scoring right before lunch or being the subject of subconscious stereotypes based on your names/appearance/sex.
How can you increase your chances of being selected for a job when interviewers use different criteria for judgment? When they are slaves to their own unconscious prejudices? When they haven’t clearly defined the job description? And when you’re competing with hundreds or thousands of other candidates?
There is no silver bullet approach. You can’t avoid all of these, nor can you really know what all of these biases could possibly be in any given interview. When you google “job interview advice” you will get 23,743,112 results. You’ll need more than a couple of lifetimes to read all of that. Let me spare you the inconvenience.
The best answer lies in creating a consistent framework that we can apply to all interviews, no matter what, that will maximize our chances of presenting ourselves as well as possible despite inherent biases.
When we are able to cover most of our bases (in a sort of 80/20 approach), then we increase the likelihood of being understood. How do we do that? How can we make sure that we are heard in an interview and that we explain all of the relevant skills necessary for the job in a manner which is concise, compelling and thorough?
Yup, you guessed it. We tell stories.
When you tell detailed stories with precision and relevance, you increase our chances of being selected for the job, based on our own experience. Even if you are a little bit nervous or awkward, if you can effectively communicate how you earned your previous company X amount of dollars, people are going to listen.
The interviewer might not like your haircut or maybe your handshake was kind of limp (it happens) or maybe is a bit annoyed of your dog barking in the background. But if you can provide enough relevant information to show that you can do the job, you can change that perception.
By painting a great picture of events while including a subjective storyline and objective facts, you minimize the external biases that can get in the way of your evaluation. Even if the interviewer is not impressed by your wardrobe, he can see your thought process, and understand how and why you took certain actions. In fact, he can literally connect with you on the same wavelength.
When you tell a story, anything that you experience, you can get other people to ‘experience’ as well. In neuroscience this is referred to as neural coupling and it means that the listener’s brain activity closely mirrors the speaker's brain activity. You’re literally communicating on the same wavelength.
In one landmark neurological study, scientists found that:
Communication is a shared activity resulting in a transfer of information across brains. The findings shown here indicate that during successful communication, speakers’ and listeners’ brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns ([...] Interestingly, some of these extralinguistic areas are known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful communication, including, among others, the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires, and goals of others.
You are literally in sync
This has huge implications for how we present ourselves in an interview. If we can become good storytellers, then we can become good at influencing, convincing and persuading.
When we can tell a good story, you can connect with people on a logical and emotional level. Winning the hearts and minds of the interview panel is literally the best thing you can do.
The Behavioral Interview
A behavioral interview is a type of interview which tries to assess your past behavior in order to predict your fit for the job. It means they want to hear stories about your past, which might indicate your ability to do the job you are interviewing for. All of these companies are essentially saying one thing:
Please, oh please, tell us a good story!
Thus the importance of being able to tell a story in relation to what you might be doing on the job, is one of the best ways to show them you are capable. You might have specific experience or achievement written on your resume that indicates, “Yes, I’ve done this before.” However, it’s unlikely that all of the details are spelled out on your resume, so greater context is necessary in order to explain the relevance. This is where your story telling powers come in.
With a good story you will be able to answer questions like the following real questions that have been asked in Fortune 500 companies:
- What was your biggest achievement?
- Was there a decision you made that wasn’t popular? What did you do?
- What was your greatest achievement as a leader? What were you most proud of?
- Tell me a time when you helped build a more inclusive working environment. What problems were you trying to address?
- Can you tell me about a time when you convinced a reluctant customer to make a purchase? How did you do it?
- Can you describe a time when you had a conflict with someone at work? What did you do?
- How do you balance focusing on your day to day tasks without losing track of the long term vision?
- What was your biggest hiring mistake? What did you learn from it? How do you earn trust from new employees?
- Tell me about a time you worked on a project that had impact beyond your immediate client/customer/organization. How did you approach the potential downstream impact of this work?
Like any good story, you will need to start by painting a picture of what happened, where you were, and the people involved. This is the situation. There will likely be something that is required or expected of you to be done. You have to identify what this is and describe it clearly. This is the task. Once you’ve decided the goal or outcome you would like to achieve, you need to take steps to get there. What steps did you take and why did you take them? That’s the action. After moving forward with your plan, what happened? Were you successful, and what did you learn? This is the result.
That’s the basic concept, in a nutshell, and we’ll break down each part of it in the next sections. But just spilling out the facts isn’t always that interesting to the listener — sometimes you need to sprinkle in some more emotion.
The Hero’s Journey
When I was in college I applied for my first sales job. This particular job was very attractive to me and paid very well for a college student, so I spent time crafting a very long cover letter with a good story. When I was a kid I would gather and spray-paint pine cones, then sell them around our neighborhood during Christmas time for a quarter a piece. I linked this story to my creativity, tenacity and sales ability.
Really, I was just a bored kid with lots of pinecones in my backyard. But I was selected for an interview and they specifically commented on my story. I got hired for the job.
You might be thinking, “That’s great, but I don’t have any interesting stories.”
The fact that you are alive on this planet means you have a story to tell. Every experience you’ve ever had, every job you’ve ever done, is packed full of stories. You just have to uncover them, list them out, and polish them up a bit. You can make them interesting.
It can be tricky to talk about your achievements because you’re not used to doing it outside of an interview setting, or it feels like boasting, or some combination of these two. But for the sake of the interview, you are the star of the show. This is the one time where the whole point is to talk about yourself so people can understand who you are (and of course, at times show some humble curiosity about your employer).
I find that often people are good at creating a structure, but lack the emotive element (or vice versa). If you have the STAR structure — the logic— down well, but you still don’t feel like your story flows, it could be missing a heroic element.
Another way to think about this: You (or in some cases, your customer/teammate) are the hero of the journey.
From ancient myths to Star Wars to your marketing experience improving app signups by 47%, the best stories use a narrative arc centered around a hero. These usually have a few elements, but let’s simplify it to the big three:
- Call to adventure: Even if your story is short on lions or elves or fairies, you can still make it gripping. Your hero could be you when you noticed some discrepancies in customer qualitative surveys and how your product actually functions.
Perhaps you could improve your company’s mobile app with some changes…
- Victory over crisis: At first you hesitate to share what you’ve learned. The hero encounters some challenges and struggles to overcome adversity. Finally, you take the stage. You point out your findings but are met with blank stares when you try to convince multiple stakeholders in your company.
You are guided by a wise sage — it’s Yoda in Star Wars, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty, and in your case, it’s Chad from the marketing department who gives you some pointers on how to pitch your idea. The hero survives and triumphs.
- Transformation: The story doesn’t end with you pitching the stakeholders and improving the UX of your mobile app. There’s a bigger change that happens – look for enduring emotions and lasting impact. Through this experience, you are inspired to be more bold in your work. You are less afraid of conflict, sharing your ideas, and moving closer to being your best self at work.
Your interview doesn’t have to be over the top and full of wild gestures, nor does it have to be perfectly delivered (using a mix of well-timed gestures and powerful words can help, but they’re just part of the equation). There will be awkward silences, stare downs, and you might stumble. That’s okay.
The key for storytelling in the context of a job interview is providing the right amount of relevant detail, in a structured format that makes sense. The words you choose matter and the relevance is key. You can add the cherry on top later.
We’re talking about interviews here, not coming up with a Pulitzer prize-winning story.
In fact, this is where problems arise and where hiring mistakes are made. A “convincing” storyteller can BS their way through an interview. They get hired for the job, but then are gone within 6 months. You should be honest about your skills and make sure that the interviewer understands/connects with you.
In sum, in order to tell this type of story you need three things:
- You have to pack your story with highly-relevant information and make sure there’s a logical flow. (the core of STAR).
- At the same time, you want to elicit a neural coupling response so that they connect with you on a deeper level and get the emotional connection (use the Hero’s Journey narrative arch)
- You want to have multiple stories prepared ahead of time (6-7, at least). That way you can pick and choose relevant stories depending on the context. We’ll go over how to do this in the next section.
What the STAR Method is NOT
We are using STAR in the context of behavioral interviewing, “Tell me about your biggest achievement...” It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be the subject of the example, but it’s going to inevitably be about your experience. That’s the whole point.
It’s not going to help you answer a question like “How would you construct a fishing net that can cover the Pacific Ocean?” But honestly, if someone asks you that question, I’m not so sure that it’s really going to predict your job performance anyways (Google found out years ago that these trick questions did very little to predict a candidate’s likelihood of success).
In any case, there are lots of valid hypothetical or case study questions, where you might need to brainstorm a solution to a proposed problem. You can use elements of STAR to structure your response, or to think about a similar problem you have solved in the past. But unless it’s something you’ve done before, then a story format is not going to make sense — you need to problem-solve.
What the STAR Method will do is allow you to answer most questions in an interview in a compelling way. Here’s a list of other methods you can use to answer different types of questions.
Alternatives to the STAR Method
- The PARADE method — problem, anticipated consequence, role, action, decision making rationale, end result. This is particularly useful for case study questions that may require more in depth analysis of your reasoning.
- The CAR method — challenge, action, result. This is basically the same as STAR, with a shorter acronym, that combines the situation and the task into one.
- The PAR Method — problem, action, result. This is just another way to think about STAR. It’s a simpler version of STAR that centers less around giving context and more about jumping to the heart of the issue. Useful if the interviewer already has a lot of context/information.
- GICF method — goal, impact, challenges, finding. Useful for data science interviews or describing a science/research based project example. (more here)
- STAR/AR — STAR + ‘additional result.’ In addition to your story, share how a different action might have produced an alternative result. (more here)