Advanced tips for behavioral interviews
Holly Watson, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Amazon Web ServicesPublished: February 23, 2022
Storytelling is a craft and doesn’t come natural or easy for everyone – especially when interviewing. So far in this guide we have covered “Story Selection” and “Story Structuring” so that you have a clear framework to follow for choosing what experiences to highlight during your interview and how to best articulate and summarize your experiences in a logical order. In this section, we’ll tie “Story Selection” and “Story Structuring” together and emphasize how to position your stories so they can be molded to fit more than one behavioral question asked during your interview.
Behavioral interview fundamentals
To begin, let’s start with some interview fundamentals that are key when responding to questions. First, the interview is about you. This might be an obvious statement, but it is very common for pronouns like “we”, “us”, and “the team” to unconsciously slip into responses – especially when telling a story about a project that involved multiple stakeholders and colleagues. It is hard to use the singular pronouns like “I”, “me”, and “my”, but interviewing is about you. When you mix the terms “we” and “us” into a story about the time you demonstrated leadership or overcame a challenge, the interviewer has a harder time distinguishing between what you did versus what the team accomplished. In the interview, the interviewer wants to know exactly what you did so she can best assess your skills. If this makes you uncomfortable or makes you feel like you’re taking too much credit, then it’s important to work on your stories even more. It is okay to set the stage when you first start your story to clearly state you were part of a larger team effort. This is the “S” in the STAR method – “Situation”. But when you get into the details, I highly recommend you become comfortable using those singular pronouns. This includes making clear statements like, “I identified the gap and took the initiative to….”, or “…when my team experienced this challenge, my approach was…”, or “My leadership team looked to me for my strategic advice.”. The use of singular pronouns when interviewing drives clarity. They better highlight your contributions directly, and they are worth articulating.
Second, the stories you choose should be influenced by the person’s role conducting the interview. For example, if you’re interviewing for a role as a Senior Product Marketing Manager, the response to a question like, “Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership.” might be different when you’re speaking to a fellow product marketing manager versus when you’re speaking to a stakeholder in sales or digital marketing. When speaking to a future team member, you can lean into the common language of your role and department to emphasize how you overcame common challenges often shared in that particular job. However, when you’re speaking to a stakeholder outside of your direct role, you’ll want to pull a story from your Story Library that highlights how you’ve worked with that department specifically. For example, if you’re interviewing for that Product Marketing role, but speaking to a future colleague in Sales, your responses should involve how you’ve worked with or assisted other sales experts. Considering the role your interviewer holds and applying that knowledge to your interview responses helps personalize and tailor your responses to what that interviewer cares about.
Next, let us discuss the use of your Story Library discussed in the “Story Selection” section. In that section, it’s suggested to prepare a list of your career highlights and rank order this list. The ranking of your stories helps to ensure that your top stories are not missed as you progress through the interview. It is not read, or referenced, from top to bottom as you progress through an interview. More specifically, you might consider saving, or summarizing, your top one or two stories for when you speak to the hiring manager versus using your top story during the phone screen with the recruiter. Doing so ensures you’re showing your breadth of experiences throughout the interview process. It’s not uncommon for all parties involved in the interview to share notes or join a group call to discuss the candidate. Discussing the same experience with everyone in your interview loop could raise questions of the depth of your experience or qualifications. The ranking of your stories helps ensure that you are choosing among your most valuable experiences, as related to the position, throughout the entire interview process.
In this manner, I begin to picture the classic rolodex used in the late 1950s, early 1960s. For those unfamiliar with a rolodex, it was most often used as a contact management system before the digital age stored all phone numbers on your smartphone or database. You would systematically turn a spinning dial to have the contact cards flip to the contact you were in search of. In my analogy, I reference the use of a rolodex not to manage contacts, but to manage your Story Library. The experiences you’ve curated now live on this imaginary rolodex that turns and settles on the best example for the interview question asked. This analogy serves as a powerful tool for responding to behavioral interview questions. Instead of training and memorizing responses to hundreds of behavioral interview questions, you are now sorting through your Story Library to find the best project to highlight. Then guiding yourself through the STAR or SCARL method to construct your response. What this does is create an easy-to-follow framework that allows you to be adaptable, conversational, and responsive to the person sitting across the table – or Zoom meeting – from you.
Framing answers using the STAR interview method
For example, let’s assume you’re interviewing for a senior product marketing role. During your first interview, you’re scheduled to speak with the hiring manager and you’re asked, “Tell me about a time you took the lead on a project. What was the project, your role, and the outcome?” You want to tell about the time you lead the launch of a new product using a go-to-market (GTM) strategy you created, but you know this is also an ideal example when you engage with the hiring manager for other questions including, “Tell me about a time you collaborated with Product?”, “Tell me when you handled ambiguity?”, or even, “Tell me about a time you managed a project that ran for multiple months?”. Here is an example of two of these questions using the same story:
Example behavioral interview question #1: Tell me about a time you took the lead on a project?
- Situation: I was the point Product Marketer on a suite of solutions called Acme. The roadmap indicated a new product launch scheduled for September, and an “STeam” or senior leadership team, goal assigned to it. This launch involved multiple moving pieces, a new SKU, and required collaboration across multiple teams.
- Task: I took the lead of the launch so the primary Product manager could focus on his partnership with Engineering and the early, beta customers trialing the solution through various builds. I wanted to ensure we could divide and conquer our tasks and deliver the launch on time.
- Action: I knew the timeline was short, so I quickly identified my key stakeholders across six departments 1/Product, 2/Sales, 3/Finance, 4/Marketing, 5/Customer Success. I knew I needed to collaborate with these teams so that the rollout of education, training, and collateral could be done by these leads I identified.
- Result: I delivered the launch on time with great partnerships from each team. The launch was a success across all departments with an internal NPS score of 5 from both Finance and Sales. They claimed they had never been so well prepared for a new product offering such as this.
Example behavioral interview question #2: Tell me about a time you handled ambiguity?
- Situation: I was the point Product Marketer on a suite of solutions called Acme. The roadmap indicated a new product launch scheduled for September with a leadership goal assigned to that date. But there was not a clear MVP, minimal viable product, truly identified.
- Task: I knew without a clear MVP, and the size of this launch, there was a risk of not hitting our launch date or delivering a product that would be adopted. This ambiguity as to the first offering of this product had to be cleared-up immediately,…
- Action: …so I quickly aligned with the lead Product and Engineer to understand what was and was not possible to deliver with the remaining build cycles. Together, we decided to map out the early feedback we were getting from our beta customers, compared that to the competitive research I had of similar offerings already in the market, and chose the most critical items that would make up the components of our launch offering.
- Result: I delivered the launch on time with great partnerships from each team. The launch was a success across all departments with an internal NPS score of 5 from both Finance and Sales. They claimed they had never been so well prepared for a new product offering such as this, and pointed to the clarity in the initial offering.
In the example above you can see how the same experience can be picked apart and used to answer more than one question. The first response with the hiring manager demonstrated your leadership skills. The second response demonstrates your bias for action when confronted with ambiguity. When preparing for your interview, try referencing your Story Library and modifying your stories ever so slightly to custom fit the role of the individual sitting across from you. This type of agility and adaptability in your storytelling will set you up for success. You’ll be more conversational and personable while still delivering a well-constructed response. I encourage you to try this approach before your next interview.