The Behavioral Interview “Story”: Structure, Details, and a Hero (You)

climbing-clip-art-2013_vbs_climber-boy-BLACKA lot of talk in the business school classroom, the boardroom, and on the job search is about “telling your story”–making your ideas, your concerns, and your accomplishments a compelling narrative though the use of classic story-telling structure, rich in relevant detail. Focusing on such topics as leadership, overcoming obstacles, failure, teamwork, and communication, the behavioral interview as part of the job application process rests upon the premise that your past actions and behaviors offer a pretty good window into your future professional performance; consequently, it is critical that you as a job searcher communicate that slice of your professional past in a brief (90 seconds or so), compelling, and clearly structured “story”.

Of the many graduate business students and business professionals that I have worked with, it is surprising how many  1) know what a good story is when they hear it, yet 2) don’t necessarily apply good storytelling techniques when responding to behavioral interview questions.

For example, in a recent management communication class, one student responded to my interview question about leadership under pressure by telling a story about a Boy Scout hike down a mountain under a freak electrical storm as an example of leadership under pressure. The “story” as first delivered went something like this:  “We made a tough climb with a lot of younger kids to the top of a mountain, a storm started, and we made it down.”   The event clearly contained potential as  a solid behavioral interview response–but unfortunately, this student failed to follow the first and well, pretty much only rule of good storytelling: Create a believable, vivid narrative through the strategic use of details hung on a structure that provides context, introduces the conflict, and demonstrates actions that the story’s protagonist takes to solve the conflict.

By answering questions thrown to him by his classmates, this student was able to fill in important gaps in his story:  WHAT was your role?  (leader of the expedition); WHEN and WHERE did this happen? (when the candidate was an undergraduate; in the Adirondack Mountains); WHO else was with you (3 junior leaders and 15 10-13 year olds); WHAT were the greatest dangers and threats? (possibility of being struck by lightning, potential for slipping and falling on rain-slicked path); HOW did you manage a safe and quick descent from the mountain? (the candidate identified an additional tier of leadership among the hikers…those who could be counted on to be sure-footed and to work with the troop leadership to calm the younger boys as each led a small group of hikers steadily down the mountain).

…And perhaps most critical:  WHY did you get caught in that storm, anyway? (This answer’s going to HAVE to be that no weather models predicted this freak storm; otherwise this candidate’s going to lose some points on risk management!)

Apply the same questions to test your stories for adequate structure, color, and details–whether these stories involve mountain hikes or IPO’s, or both!  And remember that each of these stories must have a moral to tell your specific listener–about you, as the hero of your own story, behaving professionally and strategically–no matter what the weather!