How to Use SMART Stories to Ace Your Next Interview
How do I answer behavioral interview questions?
This is one of the most popular questions I get asked as a Career Coach. The best questions are behavioral to help the interviewer get a clearer picture of why you are the best fit for the job and company culture. While answering critical thinking and behavioral based questions, it’s important to focus on developing and articulating a compelling story with a beginning, middle and end to leave a lasting impression.
How do I start creating SMART Stories?
I like to work backwards to ensure I’m hitting every critical step to get to my goal. I figure out what information the interviewer would want from me and then identify how to phrase it in an appropriate SMART story. My reverse engineering technique includes:
- What is my final goal? At the end of the interview, I want to feel like I’ve achieved a good balance between my resume and my interview presentation. I want them to see me as the best fit for the role, the team and the environment.
- How do I feel like I’ve achieved a good balance? By using SMART stories to showcase how those skills or achievements shaped my career, linking me to what they seek in a candidate in addition to showcasing how capable I am of performing the tasks at hand.
- What exactly are they seeking in a candidate? I need to look at the job description to see which characteristics are listed. Are there traits like “customer-oriented”, “team player”, or “versatile” listed in the job description? If so, then I should make sure my SMART story is connected to those traits to make me stand out as the perfect fit.
Once you fully identify what they are looking for, you can come up with relevant SMART stories:
How is a SMART Story constructed?
S STANDS FOR “SITUATION”: Start by outlining the situation behind your story.
M STANDS FOR “METRICS” OR “MORE”: This second part gives you the opportunity to expand your story with concrete details and scope, including any obstacles, conflicts, or difficulties you encountered.
A STANDS FOR “ACTION”: List the specific actions you took.
R STANDS FOR “RESULTS”: Describe the exact results you achieved. Quantifiable results that use data are always more effective and memorable, so be certain to use numbers, dollars, percentages, productivity, and comparisons in your description. Feel free to share any accolades or praise you received as well.
T STANDS FOR “TIE-IN”: The final stage is to bring the message home that you are the ideal candidate for the position by tying your accomplishments directly to the expressed needs of your future employer.
The best information to share in SMART Stories:
- Assess Strengths, Values, and Skills: Just as you are a unique professional, every job you apply to is unique as well. As part of your interview preparation, take stock of your strengths, values, and skills and identify how they align with the organization, what the organization is looking for, and the challenges the organization is facing. Think of the key competencies that make you shine as a candidate. A general list will look something like this:
- Passion for industry
- Passion for the company
- Getting things done
- 30-second Elevator Pitch: This branding pitch is your answer to the question "tell me about yourself." When pairing an effective elevator pitch with a well-written resume, you will significantly increase your chances of having a successful interviewer as you have effectively branded yourself and can now effectively “sell” yourself as the perfect candidate.
- Preparing Your Strategy: After you research the company, interviewer, industry and anything else you can think of it’s time to think like a consultant instead of an interrogated interviewee.
Remember that interviewing is a two- way street and should be a discussion, not an interrogation. Your SMART stories will engage the interviewer, provide insights on key results that go beyond your resume and showcase you doing something impressive that made an impact.
Interview storytelling: Organizing SMART Stories
A SMART Story is essentially how to measure your confidence in interviews. It illustrates the specifics of your previous accomplishments. You are selling your product which is yourself. Some interviewers might not ask you directly to explain why you are the best candidate and this is where a SMART story comes into play. Whether you are asked about being a fit or not, this strategy centers on developing interview answers that are impactful, relevant, and position-focused.
Key tips for creating engaging SMART stories include:
Length and Timeframes. Stories should be approximately two to three minutes in length and be based on recent situations that show favorable behaviors or actions. It’s also optimal to vary your examples; don’t take them all from just one area of your life.
These should be streamlined and concise stories. You have a limited amount of time for an interview and should use that time wisely. The attention span of your interviewer won't be much more than the two to three minutes it will take you to tell the story. You want to set up the story briefly with facts, place the greatest weight on the action and metrics then wrap it up with results and tie it back to the interviewer’s needs (i.e. what characteristics they are looking for in a candidate).
Use Metrics. Having numbers in your SMART story speaks volumes as it offers proof and backs up your claims. It helps explain the scope of your role and gives substance to your achievements. Using stats and metrics showcases that you have a solid grasp on action and results and are mindful of using data effectively in proving your value and in making decisions. Quantifiable metrics can include cost reductions, efficiency improvements, revenue increases, customer wins, staff management, contracts retained, awards won, and many more!
Include feelings and avoid personal opinions. When describing your SMART story, don’t be scared to include empathy and other emotions that play on who you are and how you’ve succeeded. This can include:
- There was tension during a meeting
- A direct report was feeling overwhelmed
- Customer was irate
- Team had low morale
Stay Positive. When writing/explaining stories that have emotions integrated into the narrative, it’s best to be aware of if you are coming off as whining or if you are criticizing anyone.
While you can use the opinion of a Supervisor or colleague in your SMART story, it’s best to stay away from your individual opinions or personal emotions. The job interview is just not the place for it and can cause uncomfortable situations. Always remember to stay in the professional zone while giving off SMART stories and answering specific on-the-spot questions.
Comfortability. Be confident and concise in your SMART stories. Along with that, remember to be as specific as possible at all times, without rambling or including too much information. You are explaining why you believe you should be hired and what you will do the best job possible. Don’t blurt out answers and don’t rush yourself. Practicing your SMART stories at home will drill the content into your memory, making it come out more organic and natural sounding.
When you are comfortable with your answers, the interviewer will be comfortable revealing more as well. It’s good to be aware that interview questions in general are types of questions are asked to judge your mental strength and your creativity. Your calm and confident approach matters as the interviewer is not only checking on quantifiable results, but they are also checking your attitude towards the situation.
Don’t Use Jargon. Keep terms and timelines as universal as possible. Talking to someone who is not familiar with the acronyms or cannot not fully grasp the time and place of what happened is not engaging. Don’t take for granted that not everyone will understand your industry jargon so make these SMART stories digestible for all audiences.
What if I can’t think of shining moments for SMART Stories?
Can’t think of moments when you’ve done something exceptional? Write challenge stories instead!
These are compelling stories that describe a challenge, a mistake or failure you faced and overcame. They are just as effective as typical SMART stories but give a broader view to who you are and what you do in times of stress and high-pressure.
Classic examples include resilience or bouncing back from errors, failing at something, your ability to overcome obstacles, perseverance or your improvement ethic.
Some questions the interviewer may be thinking while you’re delivering these “deeper” stories:
- Did they talk about the team or just their work?
- How do their stories match with our needs and culture?
- What did they learn from it?
- Did they blame others or incorporate the experience?
When you deliver an example of your work experience using a challenge story, it’s like delivering situational learning and assessment for the interviewer so they don’t have to do it themselves. It also humanizes you, essentially making you appear more likable and approachable. It also answers the question “tell me about your greatest weakness” or “describe a time when you made a mistake”.
Using SMART or Challenge Stories as part of your interview strategy will position you as someone who is a strong fit for a position and will add immediate value to an organization. Ideally, you should prepare several stories to draw from during your interviews.
Extra tip: Interview preparation checklist
- I have researched the company, the job, the industry, and any other relevant information.
- I have practiced my SMART Stories and have specific examples of past accomplishments that will be relevant to the hiring manager to present during the interview.
- I have my interview materials prepared: a padfolio with notepad and pen, my job search business cards, and copies of my resume.
- I am prepared to approach the interview like a consultant, focused on offering solutions to challenges, and have a comprehensive strategy prepared.
- I have questions prepared to ask my interviewer.
- I am ready to send a follow-up note after the interview.