Oh-kay, here’s the situation
My parents went away on a week’s vacation and
They left the keys to the brand new Porsche
Would they mind?
Umm, well, of course not
I’ll just take it for a little spin
And maybe show it off to a couple of friends
I’ll just cruise it around the neighborhood
Well, maybe I shouldn’t…
Yeah, of course, I should
This is the beginning of the second verse of Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s song — Parents Just Don’t Understand. This song was released in February of 1988 and I am old enough to say I remember it well and the lyrics have been ingrained in my mind ever since.
Why start off an article with rap lyrics. The situation is so clear and memorable that the fifth grader in me can remember it. And why is it memorable, because the situation is clear and easy to understand. This allows me to enjoy the rest of the lyrics of this second verse because I am not asking myself, wait what’s happening?
Ok, I will get to the point. The most common type of interview question asked worldwide at all sorts of companies are behavioral questions. Specifically, questions asking you to provide an example of something that has happened in your past. Why, because past performance predicts future performance.
The best way to create an answer that grabs the attention of our audience, in this case our interviewer, is to create a clear and simple situation in the beginning of your answer. Sounds easy right? 99% of my clients get this part wrong and my best guess is that you are getting it wrong too. And the reason why this is so critical is because when the initial set up is not clear, I will be guessing what is happening throughout the rest of your answer. I might actually tune you out while I try to figure out in my head what is happening. Think about the last movie you watched or book you read, and the beginning was confusing, convoluted, missing details, essentially unclear. You tuned out, you grabbed your phone, maybe you went and grabbed a snack!
Think of the situation like the top slice of bread in a sandwich. You likely eat the sandwich for the meat or veggies inside, but the slices of bread (our situation and results) are the foundation.
So what are two simple tips to crush this part of your behavioral answer?
- Your role and company with context if needed
- What — the company, people (internal/external), product, strategy, technology, etc. and the challenge (this ties back to the question being asked of you)
Your role and company is the absolute foundation of your answer and you should always start here, ALWAYS! Because we need to stop assuming that our audience knows the exact company and role from where we are providing this example. We need to stop assuming that our interviewer has reviewed our resume. These are bad assumptions. In addition, I need context if this is the first time you are introducing this specific role and company to me.
For example, if you tell me you were a Sales Manager for XYZ Corp, this only gives me a sense of your day to day. But if you tell me you were a Sales Manager focused on building new relationships with small and medium sized US based companies for XYC corp, an online cyber security platform, now we are talking! It will take an extra few seconds, but these few extra details help me understand your role and your company better. The good news is you only need to give this context once for this company. If you want to use another example from this company, you simply say to your interviewer, this another example from my time as Sales Manager at XYZ Corp, and they know exactly what you are talking about.
The what, this is the part where candidates add so much detail/background information that is simply not critical to your interviewer. Past performance predicts future performance, this is all in your actions. The what, should be one to two sentences tops. Think like Will Smith, his parents went away on a week’s vacation and they left the keys to the brand new Porsche. Those are the only details I need to know before Will tells me what he did. Think the same way, and similar to your role and company, if it needs additional context provide it, but simply with a few extra words, it will make all the difference.
For example, we were trying to close a client, but they were unsure if we were the right fit. The better “what” is, we were trying to close a medium sized retail client with 100 million in annual revenue and they did not believe our cyber security technology would integrate well with their Google Cloud Platform services. Now you have provided just a few details on the client and what was the major challenge you were trying to overcome. I don’t need anything else at this point, all additional context should be uncovered in your actions and results.
After the situation you clearly state the task, what you needed to accomplish to overcome the challenge you just presented. This should take 30 seconds or less, if it takes longer than 30 seconds ask yourself, can I be more like Will Smith? A second really important question to ask yourself is the 1% question. If there is a 1% chance that the information you are presenting to your audience may be unclear, you need to define it for them. So stay away from abbreviations and not defining/providing those few specific details that get us connected.
Get this part of your behavioral answer right and you will get better results from these answers. Good luck and I hope this helps!