Many interviews now look for stories from your past: “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example where you…” The idea is that your past successes (or lack thereof) indicate how you can succeed in your job in the future.
This means that in any interview, without warning, you could suddenly be called upon to tell a brilliant story that shows your leadership, or initiative, or creativity, or ability to self-motivate, or be organized, or overcome challenges, or integrate into a new business environment, the list goes on and on. I think that the risk of this style of interview is higher in big corporations that have established rote HR procedures and hiring mechanisms. But it’s becoming more and more common.
How can you cope? It’s unlikely you’ll be told ahead of time what questions to prepare for. And it’s not practical to prepare for every possibility. My personal advice: build up a few great success stories, and then tie any interview question into one of the prepared stories as best you can.
How to prepare your interview stories
First, sit down and make a list of as many success stories as you can. Then pick about 5 stories you really like. Sit there and transform the details of each story into a short, pithy narrative. Then practice it. You want to have the story memorized and ready to deploy: you should be able to quickly establish the situation to your interviewer (who may or may not be a technical person) and then tell a compact story.
The story should demonstrate you doing several things right and you personally causing a major win for your company or project. The story should be just a few minutes long, but on a topic you know well so that you can continue to expand on it or field questions about it when necessary. It should not have any negative aspects or any badmouthing of other people. It’s OK if one or two of the five stories are not related to your current job. (Maybe they are from your personal life, volunteer work, student jobs, past careers, etc.). Ideally the 5 stories should be diverse in topics.
Once you have them memorized, in the interview your job will be to figure out ways you can tie interviewer’s questions to the stories. They will say “tell me about a time when you XXX.” Hopefully from among the stories you’ve thought of, you can pick one that shows XXX.
What if you can’t? For example, suppose you’re worried about the question “Tell me about a time you showed great organization skills?” If none of your stories are that strong on this topic, and you can’t think of anything else to say in the heat of the moment, it is probably best to pick one of your memorized stories where you did at least some organization, and just highlight and puff up the organization aspect while telling the rest of the successes alongside it. So you show yourself doing some organization while sort of slyly changing the topic to your other successes. It’s not the best, but it is way better than sitting with an “uhm…ah…” stuttering out of your mouth for two minutes and then giving up.
Lastly, don’t throw out your master list of additional stories you brainstormed. The list may help you respond to a surprise question in the interview. And you can add to the list as you continue working, or prepare different stories for different positions.