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“I can’t answer behavioral interview questions!”

Is this you? “I can’t answer behavioral interview questions because:

  • I have only a few stories (or none).
  • My last relevant job was a while back and I can’t remember what I did.
  • I have stories but I ramble and don’t tell them well.
  • I have no stories because I have no experience. I’m looking for my first job.

It’s true that behavioral interview questions require stories. When you’re asked “Tell me about a time when you …. (blah blah)” or “Describe a situation in which you … (yada yada)”, it’s not enough to reply with generalities about how you would handle the situation. You’re going to have to narrate a specific situation.

If you think you don’t have stories, you’re not alone. Your issue is more common than you think, and more solvable.

“I don’t have enough interview stories (or none).”

If you’ve been interviewing, you may have noticed that having three or four good stories isn’t enough; you end up having to refer to them over and over even in a single interview, let alone the all-day processes common these days. I recommend having at least a dozen stories, preferably 20 or more. Before you throw up your hands in defeat, read on.

One great method to come up with interview stories is to go through job postings and ask yourself “When have I had a good success in doing this task they’ve mentioned?” and “When have I particularly demonstrated this trait or skill?” You don’t need a good answer every time, but when you do, give that story a unique title and jot down a few notes about it. Build your stories list and save it in an easy-to-find place, preferably in a file on your computer, for use as you prepare for your interviews.

Another technique is to google up some lists of behavioral interviews questions, the more the merrier, then think carefully about one after another.  Any time you can answer one of them, add that story to your list. Don’t get upset if you don’t have a story to answer the first question you read. Give it a minute and then move on. Keep going. If reading 200 behavioral questions only leads to 10-20 good answers, no sweat, you’ve got a good list right there!

Your resume, LinkedIn profile and recommendations, and any kudos or letters of recommendation you’ve ever received are additional places to look for stories.

Recently I provided interview coaching for a client who thought he only had about four stories because all of his work has revolved around a few large, mission-critical projects. So I pointed out that each of those projects had many phases. I asked him, was there a story in the beginning phrase? A problem he solved cleverly in the middle? Something that almost went wrong toward the end but he fixed it? It turned out those four stories were hiding many smaller ones that were quite meaty enough to stand on their own.

You may also want to read my post How to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions for Managers.

“My last relevant job was a while back and I can’t remember what I did.”

If you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, or if your goal is to return to a previous occupation, you may have this issue. You may need to spend some time hanging out on memory lane, so to speak. Maybe have lunch with an old colleague and pool your memories. Look through any notes, performance reviews (never throw these out!) or kudos (ditto!) you may have received.

Or just tell your stories with less detail. “A time I closed a complex deal? Yes, we were a small operation and I did close about half the deals. Some of the complexities included . . . and although I’m having trouble thinking of any one particular deal, I know that the way I managed those was . . . And I know I was successful because I was getting regular raises and bonuses up until the time I resigned. In fact, they offered me a generous raise if I would stay.”

You can also supplement your less-detailed old work stories with stories from volunteer work, education, travel or personal projects you kept busy with between jobs. (And there’s another reason to keep busy between jobs.)

Just don’t make anything up. Experienced interviewers know how to ask follow-up questions and compare one answer to another. Don’t weave any tangled webs! As a last resort, you can admit that you don’t recall the situation they’re asking about, but you can describe how you would handle it now and why you’re confident you would succeed.

I have stories but I ramble and don’t tell them well.

Rambling is an extremely common issue but it can be solved! For one thing, make sure you’re organizing your stories by using a framework like PAR, STAR or SOAR. Also, take a look at my post How to Be Concise in Job Interviews.

“I have no stories because I’m looking for my first job.”

Even if you have never had a job, an internship or even a lemonade stand, you still have experience: life experience, and probably educational experience as well. You can answer a question like “Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult person” with an example from a team project in school or a home improvement project with a roommate. You have worked with others in your life, and at least one of those others must have been at least a little bit hard to work with!

Sometimes “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If you can’t find a perfect story, pick any good one, or pick an only-okay one and tell it really well.

Don’t say “I can’t answer behavioral interview questions” until you’ve given these tips a try. It may take hours of diligent work over a period of many days, but you’ll build that list a little at a time–and the interviewer will never know how long it took!

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