The 3 Key Formulas To Answer Any Interview Question

Interviews can be tough. No matter how much you prepare, you just can’t ever predict exactly what questions you’ll be asked.

That’s why it’s always interesting to debrief with my clients after they have completed an #interview. Honestly, just when I think I’ve heard it all, someone hits me with a doozy. The questions I hear range from the bizarre management consulting firm sort of curveball like, “How many golf balls fit into an airplane?” to the mundane, “What was the highest level math class you’ve ever taken?”

After years of this, I can usually find out what they are going for, whether it be testing someone’s brain for logic and quick thinking, or sometimes just seeing how you react to being out of your comfort zone. You may not always know the exact content of the questions going into an interview, but you can often predict the why behind the question.

Despite all these curveballs, one of the biggest heartbreakers I see is when someone misses the mark on what is otherwise a very common interview question they could have easily prepared for. In fact, I’ve written quite a bit about how to prepare for different common interview questions.

In an interview, you don’t have all the time in the world to gather your thoughts and come up with your best version of an answer, especially when you consider that nearly 60% of decisions  are made by interviewers in the first 15 minutes. That being said, never forget that you have the right to say, “Great question—let me think about that!” and from there, take a minute to write your thoughts down on a notepad and re-collect yourself. That awkward moment of silence isn’t as awkward as blurting out an odd answer.

Take the minute to reflect mid-interview if you absolutely need it.

All of this said, it’s important to have some formulas locked and loaded to hit the mark for any questions that might come your way. Here are three of my favorites:

Approach No. 1: S.T.A.R.

If you’ve ever been asked a question that starts with “Describe a time when—” or “Tell me about the last time that you—” chances are you’ve been part of a behavioral interview, which is just “HR speak” for the kind of interview that gives a candidate an opportunity to express their skills and expertise through questions and answers that speak to how they behave in the workplace.

S.T.A.R. is a great formula for answering behavioral questions in this type of interview framework. I wish I could take credit for this one, but the S.T.A.R. acronym was developed at DDI, a longstanding leadership consulting firm.

The point of S.T.A.R. is to give you a quick and effective model for how to convey your experience and the ways in which you solve problems and execute tasks in the workplace.

Let me break it down for you, because the S.T.A.R. formula is actually very simple, which is part of its magic:

Situation: Think of this as setting the scene of the anecdote that you want to share. It is the context, the glue that will hold your whole answer together. You want to be specific here, within reason, while keeping your response concise and cogent. As a great starting point of your answer, the “S” might sound like:

  • “About a year ago, my team and I were invited to present at a regional conference.”
  • “I was meeting with an old client who had expressed the desire to leave for a competitor.”
  • “My previous firm was confronted with a data breach.”

Task: “Task” goes hand in hand with “Situation.” The “Task” is also a space to describe the context, situation, or conflict—specifically your role within it. Think of the “Situation” as the setting and scene, and the “Task” as the specific directions for your character within that scene. To follow our earlier examples:

  • “When we realized that our presentation file had been corrupted, I was tasked with preparing an alternate presentation while my colleagues connected with potential clients.”
  • “My manager asked me to meet with the client based on our prior relationship.”
  • “As the accounts manager, I felt personally responsible to make things right with our customers.”

Action: If, “S” and “T” were about setting up the scene and the character, “A” for “Action” picks up when the camera rolls. In this section, it is your goal to convey what action or actions you took to address the conflict, remedy the problem or take control of the situation. Whatever the question demands, this is your chance to show your initiative and problem-solving skills. Here goes:

  • “I quickly reached out to our engineers, who were able to render a Beta version of the software. I ran through it and prepared prompts so that our CFO could showcase the various aspects of the product.”
  • “I pulled all of our clients’ past invoices, as well as past data on their firms’ performance and correspondence illustrating the ways in which our service has gone above and beyond to meet their needs.”
  • “I reached out personally to each customer to tell them directly that some of their information had been compromised. I shared with them the steps we were taking not only to create greater security in the future, but to identify the perpetrators of the breach.”

Result: “R” is where you bring it all together. This is your chance to show that you are results-oriented, and that the choices you make in your work will be effective. While “S,” “T,” and “A,” are about providing the specifics of a certain situation, “R” offers you the chance to zoom out and show the outcome of your performance. You want to show concrete results, and yet, you also have a unique opportunity to put them in context of your broader career, or the overall success you’ve had in a particular professional setting. Try something like this:

  • “Our #CFO was able to give a strong presentation that actually felt more conversational and relatable than when he had presented from our original slide show. Because we demonstrated a working version of our software ahead of its expected release date, we signed a number of clients that day, and created a good amount of industry buzz that ultimately led to this software being our best-selling product.”
  • “After I had the chance to show our client that we were invested and committed to keeping their business, and that we had a strong understanding and ability to anticipate their needs, they decided to stay with their original contract with us. I maintained a close relationship with this client and they even referred some other business to our company.”
  • “While many customers were understandably upset that their information had been compromised, many expressed gratitude to have been contacted personally, when the industry standard was a mass email. I was able to maintain 90% of my customers, a higher percentage than any other account manager during that quarter.”

That may seem like a lot to remember, but really, it’s simple. I’ll illustrate it one more time.

Situation: Set the scene.

Task: What’s your role in it?

Action: What did you do to fix an issue or improve the situation?

Result: What was the outcome?

S.T.A.R. works great if you are hoping to nail a question about a certain specific part of your #job history, or a certain adversity you faced or overcame, in your prior work experience.

Approach No. 2: The Elevator Pitch Formula

What about the more general interview questions, like “Tell me about yourself”? It can be so difficult to know what interviewers are looking for with these types of questions.

Where do I start? Do I talk about my education first? Do they need to know the names of all of the pets I’ve owned? Just kidding on that last one—unless you are in the veterinary field, you should probably leave your furry friends out of the interview.

But jokes aside, here is my foolproof formula for answering a more general question like “Tell me about yourself” or “Describe your work experience.”

  • Tell a story.

When entering an interview, it’s important to remember that you may be up against a lot of candidates with similar skills and experience. Interviewers are often met with answers that can sound like a laundry list of professional accomplishments and skills. Instead of something that is essentially a verbal regurgitation of your #resume, distinguish yourself by telling your story, one that links who you are innately to the career path you’re pursuing.

The goal here is to connect the job you are interviewing for not just to your past career experience, but to you, your soul. You want to share with the interviewer that you are not just looking for a job in your given field, but for a job that complements closely who you are as a person, and what you are truly passionate about.

Remember: your interviewer is human, and if you made it to the interview, your #resume got you there. Now, in the conversation itself, it’s time to connect more deeply as a way to be authentic and memorable.

In fact, 75% of hiring managers value emotional intelligence over IQ. Sharing a story that shows your emotional intelligence and authentic connection to your work creates connection with the hiring manager, and that will definitely give you an advantage. So choose a story that connects an impactful experience of your life to your chosen career path.

Here’s an anecdote that a new client recently shared with me that I think would fit perfectly into this part of the formula.

“When I was a junior in college, I got an internship in New York City with a new startup. On the evening of a big deadline, we all stayed late. The CEO of the company arrived at 9 p.m. with pizza for everyone. Being overly polite and nervous as the only intern, I stayed behind.  Noticing I wasn’t eating, the CEO brought me a slice, saying ‘Come on, you’re part of the family now.’ I knew right then that I wanted to work at a startup, and to feel that unmistakable sense of comradery and shared purpose.”

Bonus points if you can go even further back in time, referencing your childhood (e.g. “As a kid, I spent time reading poetry books on my parents’ hammock, and now it’s really no surprise that I’m a writer and author”).

  • Highlight a skill.

If you’ve been effective in telling your story, you’ll likely have your interviewer’s close attention.

Now it’s time to share your relevant skills. But again, let’s not go into autopilot rattling off bullet points from your resume. Instead, highlight an important skill. Better yet, highlight the important skill—the one the hiring manager knows that their company needs more than anything else.

When it comes to this part of the formula, research is your friend. You’ll need to know the company well enough to understand how to address their needs. Stronger still is the ability to provide a skill that will help solve a problem you’d be hired to solve within your role.

You can also take a closer look at the job description to parse out the most key skill for the role.

One more thing to consider in answering this question is that it is ideal to share your key skill in the form of a compliment someone else has given you. Instead of saying “I have a knack for research,” you’d be better off saying “my boss tells me I’m great at research, and I’d be so excited to bring this to the table in my next step.” This will showcase self-awareness and modesty, but still do a good job of conveying that you’ve got the tools to get the job done. And of course, don’t lie! But if you have gotten a compliment, use it.

  • Share your goal.

So, you’ve connected to the hiring manager with a personal story, and you’ve given the 411 that you have exactly the skills that they are looking for in a candidate. Now, it’s time to take it to the “big picture.”

You want to connect the role to which you are applying and the company to the broader vision that you see for your #career.

If you’re sitting in the interview room, your goal should be to #getthejob. So, show them you want it, and why you want it with them. It is so key to tie who you are and what your skills are, to an inspiration you have for the company itself. You could talk about the company mission, client roster or more… But be sure to draw a link between your goals and the inspiration you feel for their specific brand.

The more you are able to learn about the company, the better you will be able to fit the narrative of your career hopes and passions into the role and the company that you are hoping to be a part of.

The point here is to prove to the hiring manager that you don’t just want job, you want this job. There is no other position that would be a better fit for you, nor any other candidate who would be more aligned with the role.

Approach No. 3: K.I.S.S.

Now, this one is an old standby. I’m sure you’ve heard it everywhere from band class in high school to your SAT writing tutor.

But seriously, it’s oldie, but very goodie. And I like to give it my own twist:





You may have heard it a different way, ending in “stupid”, but I’m simply not here for any kind of negative self-talk, even if it’s in a humorous acronym. Talking negatively to yourself can actually have some very serious consequences. And it’s the last thing you want to be doing during an interview.

I’m here to turn this phrase on its head. Considering it the traditional way, it sounds like you are scolding yourself, being critical and chastising your own brain.

I want to turn this into an affirmation. After all, this one isn’t really a formula for answering a question, as much as a mantra.

Do you ever start to answer a question, or respond in a conversation and find your words getting away from faster than you can reign them in? I know that this certainly happens to me.  Sometimes we get so caught up in how we are trying to convey an idea that we lose sight of the meaning behind our words.

This can be especially toxic in the context of an interview. You’re answering a crucial question and you start to wonder if you are rambling on? This thought certainly doesn’t help, and before you know it, you’re stumbling over your words, and seconds away from asking the dreaded, “What was the question?”

Before you get ahead of yourself, remember “K.I.S.S.” To me, this is like a mental deep breath. Remind yourself to take it easy, and keep it simple.

Remember: don’t be afraid to take a pause to gather your thoughts. Research shows that pausing while you are speaking publicly can actually help your audience digest the information that you are trying to convey. It can even help with making you seem more genuine and credible.

So take a breath, think for a moment and deliver your sentiment in a way that is simple. We may instinctively feel that delivering our thoughts in a complex way, with lots of vocab that would earn us huge scores in Scrabble, will convince someone how smart we are. But sometimes simplicity does the best job of highlighting our intelligence. In fact, we live in a world where it’s easy to be complicated, right? Simplicity takes talent.

There are few things in our adult lives that can give us the butterflies quite like the anticipation of a job interview. Try to relax, and take a shot at a few of these formulas to see if any of them feel right for you. You may just find that they make your interviews a lot more manageable and help your answer feel more natural. Knock ’em dead!

Mar 16, 2021,09:00am EDT

Ashley Stahl


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