Using a STAR performance to shine brighter

Sally Wilson offers some advice to those interviewing for their next role, championing a technique that has served well for more than a decade.

STAR: Situation, task, action, result. An interview technique which has been championed for more than 10 years as a way of demonstrating an interviewee's competencies. But in a highly competitive market (in my case the interim market) where all interviewees are well trained in how to use this technique to demonstrate the quantifiable results they can deliver, what else can applicants do to stand out?

In a budget-constrained sector, where all appointments are under the spotlight, it's not enough for an interim role to just cover a substantive post. So, how can you persuade an organisation to make a value-add interim hire? Or, as a permanent candidate, how can you really underpin your worth against other competent applicants?

As an interim recruiter for almost 20 years, I've been privileged to sit in on many interviews. What I can share with the upmost confidence is that the most successful interims are not just great networkers, deliverers and technical experts within their fields, they are also great storytellers. And I don't just mean spinning a story, but the greater ability to weave a compelling narrative around their achievement

A few are born with the gift; that ability to hold a room full of strangers and engage both their attention and conviction within minutes. For others, like me, I suspect it's a learnt behaviour. How do you acquire these behaviours to improve interview performance? I believe a few tweaks to the STAR method could warrant exceptional results

Through storytelling you can not only weave in a huge amount of information, but you can also tap into your listeners' emotions and energy. Uniting an action with an emotion.

In his 1997 book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles ofI Screenwriting, screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee argues that stories ‘fulfil a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living – not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience'. This begins by using the ‘situation' part of the method to hook the listener in.

Many interviewees skip past the situation part of the method in favour of the tasks, but by expanding further on the situation you can connect better with the listener as they start to understand the ‘why'. In screenwriting, they call this ‘inciting incident' as in ‘What happened' before you were hired and came to the rescue? Who was struggling and, importantly, how were they feeling?' This part of your answer is your opportunity to add in the human element of the story and create the opportunity to connect to your interviewer.

The task element of STAR is often where people spend most of their time, outlining all of the tasks they did. However, rather than falling into the trap of listing all the tasks you performed, I'd recommend keeping this succinct and sharing the exact task/deliverable the client was initially looking for. Then use this as an opportunity to take them on a journey. A good story uses the narrative arc of a beginning, middle and an end, with particular emphasis on overcoming a challenge before the happy ending.

Outlining the original task or objectives at the outset allows you to use the ‘actions' section of your method to expand on what you really did. Emphasise the struggle between expectations and reality and demonstrate the real value add you gave your last organisation. You may have been asked to come in and overcome Scenario X, but after getting under the skin of X, you actually found they would benefit more from Scenario Y. Remember, at the point of interview, the person leading the assignment interview won't necessarily be 100% clear on the detailed priorities and tasks and they may also need to confer with stakeholders after your meeting to secure budget sign off.

By expanding on examples of additional achievements or value added, you are not only building confidence with the interviewer, but giving them the persuasive narrative they'll need to make the hire.

The master storyteller will weave in the big challenge they overcame just before they lead on to the ‘results' element of the STAR method; building tension and anticipation, just before they save the day at the narrative finale. By highlighting the challenge or challenges you overcame you can share the lessons you learnt as opposed to just outlining how you saved them x amount of money or time. The results section then becomes more relatable.

Rather than facts and figures you are bringing in the human element of the story, helping the interviewer relate to either a current problem they are facing or maybe a worry they have for the future.

By analysing the key themes of the job description or speaking to the consultant who's had the client briefing prior to interview, you should be able to guess where the pain points are going to be for the interviewer. Take the time to research what these key competencies are likely to be so you can map out your stories in advance to ensure they follow the story arc. Find examples that have drama, can build tension, and have a relatable resolution.

While you don't want your examples to feel scripted and overprepared, reciting your stories out loud during your preparation will help you get a feel for how they will be received. Are there certain words you could emphasise for impact? Are you emphasising the right things to connect with the listener? Are your responses simply too long for it to remain impactful? It will also help you to internalise the story so you can reignite its authenticity with real feeling, and this will help it land better with your audience

In your next job interview, rather than focusing on just selling the facts and figures, also question where your narrative builds the emotional investment – not just of the mind but the heart as well. How is your back story helping persuade the interviewer that you offer the best match for the role? Ask yourself: ‘If I were this hiring manager, what would I need?' and ‘What have I experienced in others that would benefit them?'

Sally Wilson is a principal consultant in GatenbySanderson's Local Government Practice


Squaring the circle

By Seb Lowe | 18 July 2024

Joe Montgomery and Seb Lowe review the King’s Speech, and they conclude the sector is well placed to help the Starmer government find solutions to several co...


AI – progress to a local government future

By Paul Marinko | 16 July 2024

Following a discussion last year on what AI promised for the councils of the future, The MJ and Penna reconvened a group of experts in the field to discuss p...


Brokering a new social contract

By Donna Hall CBE | 16 July 2024

Local government is uniquely positioned to play a huge role in the rebuilding of a new social contract between the public and public servants, says Donna Hall


Free to be

By Nick Plumb | 16 July 2024

Devolution needs to be pushed beyond the town hall to restore trust in government, and the community can play a much greater role, says Nick Plumb

Popular articles by Sally Wilson