When you’re telling a story in an interview, there’s an art to keeping the interview team thinking about why you’re the ideal candidate.
Whether you’re telling a story because you’ve been asked to give a specific example, or you’re just livening up an answer, what you include and what you leave out are crucial.
The first mistake candidates make when telling stories is to be boring—to lose the interview team’s interest by getting bogged down in irrelevant details of the story itself.
The interview team doesn’t care about the original situation. They weren’t there—and even if you’re an internal candidate and they were there, it’s over—water under the bridge.
The purpose of a story is to communicate insight about who you are as a leader.
Interviewers don’t ask behavioral (“Tell us about a time when you…”) questions because they want to know if you’ve dealt with that specific situation. They’re asking because they want to learn who you really are—not by having you tell them directly, but by revealing your thinking and character indirectly, by describing your past actions.
The second mistake candidates make is to include distractions in their stories.
Stories can be memorable and powerful, but they can also be distracting—in two ways:
- When the details of the story are boring
- When the details of the story are so emotionally impactful that they take away from your point
The key is to keep the interview team thinking about you and what a great leader you are, but often we don’t do a good job of this when telling stories, due to two powerful psychological effects:
- The primacy effect
- The recency effect
These phenomena are both instances of the serial position effect, which explains that people remember the beginning and end best, but tend to forget what comes in the middle of a story.
Think about the normal structure of a story: beginning, middle, end.
Typically, what you did in response to a given situation is the middle part of the story. The beginning and end are what other people did or experienced—so by default, the interview team will tend to forget your part in the story, and remember details that have nothing to do with your leadership.
This is especially problematic in emotionally intense stories. If a parent is mad at a teacher, and it ends well, the story itself may be memorable, but the leadership you demonstrated in the middle is likely to get lost in all that emotion.
To combat these natural tendencies, you can use the STAR format to craft memorable stories that shine a bright light on your leadership.
Crucially, you must prepare these stories in advance. You won’t be able to think of them on the fly—and if you try, you’ll end up including distracting details.
To prepare, print out the Ascend Leadership Journal, and use the Story Log to start planning your stories using the STAR Framework.
The STAR Framework has four parts:
The mistake most people make is to focus only on the action—on telling the facts of the story.
Even if you’re directly asked to give an example…that’s not really what the interview team wants. They want insight about you, so they can compare you to the other candidates and decide who is the best leader.
The facts of the story appear in the Situation and Action elements, but your leadership shines through in the Tension and Realization elements. Here’s how to master each.
Set the scene: what was the situation? What challenge needed to be addressed? Don’t get bogged down in backstory here—just briefly frame the problem.
Describing the tension is your first big chance to show your chops as a leader and thinker. You’ll reveal your assessment of the key issues at stake in the story, by framing them as a dilemma or tension:
- Was there a tension between the individual student’s needs, and the needs of the rest of the class?
- Was there a tension between tradition and innovation?
- Was there a tension between individual excellence and teamwork?
- Was there a tension between building trust and holding people accountable?
- Was there a tension between listening to the parent’s perspective, and trusting the teacher?
Don’t be afraid to spend some time on the tension. Again, the purpose of telling a story isn’t to relay the facts of an old situation—it’s to shine a light on who you are as a leader.
Next, describe what you did, and what the outcome was. Again, be brief—the story itself isn’t the point, so we’re not going to stop here.
Finally, end your story with your takeaways, such as:
- What you learned about leadership from the experience
- What you learned about human nature
- A change you made in your school as a result
- A change you made in your own practice as a result
Again, the goal here is to show your thinking and character.
If you’d like help workshopping a story, add it to your Google Doc and reach out for support.
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