Google ‘interview prep’ and you’ll find a lot of lists – lists of potential prompts, lists of common mistakes, lists of questions to ask, lists of lists. But not everything can be filtered down into an easy-to-digest checklist. Some things – the most important things, usually – need a little extra detail.
When it comes to interviewing, you don’t want to leave your hiring manager with a superficial catalog of your skills and experience. If 5 years of recruiting has taught me nothing else, it’s that stories are your friend. Focus on core themes, use narrative, and be specific.
The power of specificity will get you far. It can mean the difference between leaving your interviewer with a sense of your competence and aptitude – and leaving them with the feeling that you’re ‘all talk.’
Here’s how I coach my candidates:
1. Craft the story you want to tell.
Start by considering your audience. What do you have to offer to this role, this team, and this company? What are their pressure points, and how can you relieve them? This is a highly personal conversation, and no two answers will be alike. This means your story for a specific role at Company A should not be exactly the same as your story for the same role at Company B.
Taking into consideration the job description, the company goals, and the communications with the hiring manager, choose a story that not only highlights your skills, but that puts them in context.
Need help? Speaking with a recruiter can help you hone in on your strengths and package them into an interview-ready form.
2. Describe yourself in 3 words.
What do you bring to the table?
Take your story and narrow it down to the two or three themes, adjectives, or strengths that you think best exemplify your professional history. If the hiring manager remembers nothing else about you, what words do you want them to associate with your name?
These themes will shape everything from the way you present yourself to the specific examples you choose to offer. They serve as the structure for your story – no matter what you’re discussing at the time, try to bring it back to one of your core themes.
Remember: these themes will run through your entire interview, from the initial ‘tell me about yourself’ to ‘do you have anything else you’d like to add?’ Ideally, your hiring manager should leave with a strong sense of who you are and how you work.
3. Choose strategic examples to support each theme.
Say, for example, you’ve honed in on ‘quick learner.’ You’ve decided on this theme after considering the company’s needs and the role requirements, and you think it matches well with your past history.
But how should you properly present it?
I am a quick learner. For example, I have a facility for systems. We have been using Excel for all of our reporting and we just began using Tableau to help automate some of our executive reporting. Tableau is a great tool as it helps us use the data effectively to share the big picture story of what is going on. I had never used Tableau before but I watched several tutorials online and spent two hours playing with it over the weekend and I built a report that highlighted our Q1 budget to actual forecast for one of our largest business segments (approximately $300M revenue). I am now the “go to” for tableau on my team.
I am a quick learner. I learned tableau fast and do a lot of my reports in Tableau now.
Essentially it comes down to this: the more relevant details you can provide, the more likely you are to grab and retain your hiring manager’s attention. Don’t waste this opportunity!
4. Embrace the STAR method.
For the uninitiated, STAR refers to a structured interview response that helps you showcase your impact in a clear, succinct format. Broken down, STAR means Situation, Task, Action, Result.
For every example you give, you should try to frame your explanation in terms of these four key pillars. Set the stage with the situation, clarify the specific challenge, describe how you acted in response, and emphasize the results.
Still unclear? Here’s an example drawn directly from my experience working with Finance and Accounting professionals:
I am very good at time management
A+ explanation & use of STAR method:
I am strong with time management. In public accounting, I often had 3-5 clients at once, all with different needs and deadlines (SITUATION). For example, I worked on a public retail client in the $300m revenue range in support of the quarterly audit (10-Q) in which I was specifically reviewing fixed assets (TASK). This was fairly complex because they own retail stores globally so I had to work with the global consolidations accounting to review GL entries and reconciliations related to Fixed Assets (ACTION). At the same time, I was also on a public SaaS company which was in the process of implementing the new rev rec standards (ASC 606) which required a lot of technical accounting research. And finally, I was studying for the CPA exam so that I could finish my last exam in time to be promoted to Senior. I was able to do all of this at once by spending time on the weekend scheduling out my week in time blocks based on the deliverables for each client (RESULT). I’ve come to learn that almost anything is manageable if you force yourself to sit down, make a plan and understand expectations upfront so that you can prioritize appropriately.
I am really good at managing my time. In public accounting I work on several clients at one time and have a lot thrown at me at once. I stay organized and have learned to prioritize so that I get everything done on time.
If you follow the STAR method, you won’t have to worry about specificity – it’s automatically built in.
5. Work with a professional.
If you’re not working with a recruiter, you’re missing half of the story.
My experience working with hiring managers gives me a lot of insider information. Take, for example, the one hiring manager who believes interviews should be strictly professional – no talk of personal interests or hobbies allowed. Knowing this, you’ll be better able to navigate your interview and leave him impressed. Interviews are all in the eye of the beholder and if we know the beholder, we can help guide you toward success.
On the flip-side, we gather information on you to help you succeed. When we’re collecting background for a role, we’re not just gathering insights from the hiring manager or company. We’re also calling your references, getting stories about your past successes and your strengths. We use these stories to help you build a ‘highlights reel’ of your professional history.
Interviews are notoriously stressful, but the more you prepare, the better you’ll not only feel – the better you’ll actually perform. I’ve worked with hundreds of candidates and would love to offer some more insights – email me at email@example.com with any questions!
About the author:
Senior Partner, Proven Recruiting
Kelly has been a pillar of Proven Recruiting’s Finance and Accounting division for the past 5 years, during which time she has risen from novice recruiter to Senior Partner. She is consistently ranked among Proven Recruiting’s elite performers.
Kelly specializes in company and candidate relationships, and prides herself on the level of information and strategy that she is able to offer to both parties.
Have a question for Kelly? Ask her in the comments