How to turn a tricky interview question into a memorable anecdote

Your dazzling CV has gained you an interview, but now it’s time to shine in front of your prospective employer. Knowing you had the right skills and experience to get this far should give you confidence, but what happens when you have to give examples of these in practice? What do you do when you hear the dreaded words: ‘Tell me about a time when…’?

Suddenly, all of your interview preparation goes out of the window. ‘Why can’t they stick to the standard skills and weaknesses question?’ you ask yourself. But actually, this is your time to shine. Everybody loves a good story, and you will have plenty of anecdotes lodged somewhere in your memory bank. So stay calm, take a deep breath and think fast!

Here are some top tips to answering this kind of question:

  1. Keep it relevant. Your interviewer doesn’t need to know what you had for breakfast or what you aunty’s cat is called. Give a strong initial statement, for example, ‘I experienced conflict in the workplace in a previous role, but I managed to overcome it by…’ or ‘There was a time when I struggled to prioritise tasks, but…’, or ‘When I was at university I learnt a lot as I lived with people from various cultures and backgrounds and I have been able to use this experience in the workplace’.
  2. Give context. Explain exactly what happened. Perhaps you messed up a meeting, missed an important deadline, achieved an important milestone or learnt to work as part of a team. What were the unique challenges or opportunities? How had the situation come about? Who else was involved? Be as honest as you can, making sure you accept blame for any shortcomings rather than deflecting on to others, but also explaining that you took responsibility for your actions or took advantage of a particular situation.
  3. Explain the resolution. Explain what you did personally to maximise or turn the situation around and spend more time on the resolution than on the problem. Perhaps you had to put in extra hours to remedy a situation or you invited your boss round to dinner to get to know him/her better. Maybe you made a calendar of events so you never missed an important deadline again or you talked round a client who was disappointed by something that had happened.
  4. Share what you learnt as a result. Perhaps the way you work or the way you handle relationships has changed following this experience. Or perhaps you were promoted as a result of the way you behaved or were asked to take on additional responsibility. Whatever the situation, explain how you developed through the experience.
  5. Relate it back to the role you are interviewing for. If it is a managerial role, show how you demonstrated good leadership qualities. If it is an administrator’s role, explain how the situation helped make your more organised. If the job is in sales, describe how you reached a particular target.

This kind of question can be off-putting even for the most experienced interviewee, but if you follow these steps you should be able to craft an engaging narrative that paints you in a positive light, even if the initial situation was a difficult one. Practise a few ‘tell me about a time…’ situations with a friend so you get used to thinking on your feet. No one is expecting a perfect answer, so just be as honest and clear as possible. Good luck!

 

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Joy Tibbs is a freelance writer and editor who regularly contributes to Premier. Find out more at joyofediting.co.uk and find her on Twitter @joyous25

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