Ace Interviews and Tell Better Stories

Interview skills are the single highest-payoff capability anyone can develop. Learning how to sell yourself will change your life

It’s impossible to know what questions you’ll be asked during your next behavioral interview, but there’s an approach to handle anything and land the offer. This article introduces practice questions, a response framework to ace them, and a “storyboard” to organize your experience.

Behavioral interviews are grounded in theory. They flow from a belief that the way you’ve reacted to situations in the past can predict how you’ll react to similar situations in the future. These questions are selected to determine how suitable you are for roles in the hiring organization.

Thorough employers often conduct resume reviews and behavioral interviews by phone before candidates are scheduled for in-person interviews. These interviews usually consist of ten to twenty behavioral questions ranging from “tell me about a time when you worked for a difficult boss” to “give me an example where you had to influence a peer.” When questions are open-ended successful candidates deliver concise, relevant stories that describe their role in similar situations. Rambling answers that miss key points will knock you out of consideration so preparation counts.

Real questions from real interviews:

Experience suggests that even the most structured behavioral interviews include traditional questions and candidates must be prepared to answer both. Over the years I’ve asked workshop participants to  write down three common questions and the ones they fear most. Another exercise gave them a chance to work through responses together to develop strategies that target their weakest areas and present solutions to the rest of the group. It’s an effective way to form automatic responses that keep your answers on track and on time. Here’s the list:

Icebreakers designed to “get to know you:”

  1. Tell me about yourself?
  2. What did you do to prepare for this interview?
  3. Tell me about your education?
  4. You have college experience on your resume, did you earn a degree?
  5. Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
  6. How does this position fit into your career plans?

Traditional questions:

  1. Why should we hire you?
  2. Why do you want the job?
  3. Describe yourself in one word?
  4. Tell me about your career plans?
  5. Tell me something about yourself that no one in this room would know about you?
  6. Give me three words that each person would use to describe you: Supervisor; Peer; Direct Report?
  7. Why are you better than the other candidates in this pool/panel?
  8. Why do you think you are ready for this job?
  9. If you could lead your current department/division/company for one day what would you change?
  10. What is your most significant accomplishment?
  11. What is your greatest weakness?
  12. How would you determine if we should begin service in a particular market?
  13. If you were a tree what kind would you be?
  14. What kind of animal do you identify with?
  15. What is the greatest misconception people have about you?
  16. What’s your greatest weakness?
  17. What’s your greatest strength?
  18. What would your manager say about you that you need to change?
  19. If you could go back in time what period of your life would you relive and why?
  20. What the last book you read?
  21. If you were on the cover of a magazine, which one would it be and what would the story be about?

Opinion questions:

  1. What do you think about our ad campaign?
  2. What did you think about our latest earnings release?
  3. What do you think about our initiatives for next year?
  4. How do you feel about sick time?
  5. How would you change this company?

Behavioral questions:

  1. Describe an experience that helped you get ready for this?
  2. Tell me about a difficult co-worker?  How did you handle him/her?
  3. Tell me about a difficult supervisor?  How did you handle him/her?
  4. Tell me about a time when your supervisor asked you to lead a task you were uncomfortable with?
  5. Tell me about a stressful experience at work?
  6. Tell me about your biggest failure?
  7. Tell me about a time you used your strengths and what happened?
  8. Tell me about a time when you walked away from a sale?
  9. Have you ever fired a customer?  Tell me about it?

Case questions to evaluate problem solving skills:

  1. How many golf balls will fit in a Boeing 777?
  2. If an airplane takes-off at 130 mph on a 72 degree day using 4,500′ of runway, how much runway is required on a 100 degree day?
  3. How many tickets did the Rolling Stones sell on their last world tour?
  4. How much water did the city of Dallas use in the summer of 2015?
  5. How much energy does a satellite launch from Sea Launch save? Sea Launch is a towable marine-based platform that carries rockets to the equator for liftoff.

A Response framework for Behavioral questions – the STAR format

“Tell me about a time when…” is a powerful clue that you’re facing a behavioral question.

Behavioral questions and traditional questions demand preparation – it’s very easy to spend five, six, or ten minutes recapping endless details about a particular situation. When your question begins “tell me about a time when…” your story should be delivered thoughtfully, and contain several predictable elements. This framework will keep your answer on track and organizes your response.

Keep these principles in mind. Your response should provide background, details about your work, a challenge or specific result you were asked about, and a conclusion. All of this should be well-organized, delivered seamlessly, and in three-minutes or less. The interviewer is looking for a relevant, concise story, that fills-in enough detail to verify you’re experience met their criteria. Apply the STAR format to guarantee credit:

  1. Situation.
  2. Task.
  3. Action.
  4. Results.

Combine the first two steps. Spend 30 seconds setting up the “Situation” and “Task” – usually something like this: “When I worked as a budget analyst for Acme Corporation, I was responsible for my department’s sales forecast.”

Next deliver your “Actions.” Provide details about the task and challenge, and how you handled it. This is the meat of your answer, spend two minutes on it. It will sound like this: “Each month I sent worksheets to managers in the department and scheduled a follow-up conference call to review results and capture information about variances to plan, and build an up-to-date pipeline report. I also used the calls to cross-pollinate best practices within the department and ensure leaders were focused on their targets.”

Then conclude with “Results” – take thirty seconds to wrap-up. “Because I developed a pipeline report to identify where each opportunity was in our sales pipeline my forecasts were always within 1% of actual results.”

Plan to succeed – it works.

Pick a good story from your storyboard:

Mastering the STAR format is actually more important than the “Right” story. Each candidate will bring different experience to a role – by definition every response will be different – interviewers spend very little energy or attention to decide if your story was the “Best” from your experience – something that is unknowable to them.

Create instant recall by developing a grid to capture information about your previous roles and experience. Put jobs or assignments in different rows, and qualities, characteristics, and outcomes in the columns. Populate the cells with a story title, to aid your memory, and summarize actions and results. It should look like this:


There’s one more thing your practice should include – how to decline to answer a question. Most interviewers have a list of questions to choose from – if they ask you a question that forces you to select a poor fit, or worse, ended in failure – don’t answer. Pause for four seconds, and then say, “I don’t recall an experience like that – I’d like to pass on this one.” You can pass or decline in infinite ways although practice is always helpful to get you comfortable for the next time when you need a gracious answer.


You’ll be amazed how quickly you can capture deep insights and catalog life experience to share during your next interviews and meetings. You don’t need 72 stories, but the more you remind yourself the better the fit and you’ll be well-prepared for any interview. This approach offers flexibility and adds diversity to your responses; it gives you a fighting chance to highlight relevant experience from different roles and situations.

Rock your next interview, ace behavioral interviews, and own your story. A thorough storyboard, along with practice responses to the questions listed here using the STAR format will dramatically improve your results.

For more detail about the STAR technique study this excellent post by Nagesh Belludi at his “Right Attitudes” blog. And for information about frameworks not covered here – specifically related to “case questions” review Marc Cosentino’s website or his book, Case in point.