When you’re looking for a new job, an interview offer is exciting. It’s a chance to make your case for why someone should hire you. Sadly, most people are terrible at doing so.
And it's not just candidates who struggle, the hiring manager is in an equally difficult position. Both candidates and interviewers suffer from the same problem: lack of context about the other person.
- Interviewers find it very difficult to translate interview answers into whether someone is qualified to do the job. They do not understand the context of the candidate's past work environments and experiences.
- Candidates find it very difficult to translate their skills and abilities into language the interviewer will understand. They do not understand the context of the employer's work environment.
A typical interview is a volley of questions and answers back and forth, with very little to show for it at the end. For most managers, most candidates are forgettable. For most candidates, they walk away from the interview completely clueless as to how they fared.
Two Reasons Interviews Fail
- One problem is that most human communication assumes a similar context—one that is equally familiar to both parties. You get to know someone at school, or at work, or in your neighborhood. You have a common location or interest. But an interview lacks that common frame of reference.
- The second problem with interviews is that we are rarely great at communicating under severe time constraints. Most of us spend our days in a loose, wandering conversation style full of tangents, rambling stories, and drifting topics of discussion. (If you have ever reflected on a conversation and wondered, “How the hell did we start talking about that?” then you understand. And that's a very bad question to ask yourself after an interview.)
An interview follows four very different rules from normal conversation:
- Normal conversation usually involves people who share a certain context with you—a co-worker, a friend, a neighbor. But in an interview, you must provide context before you make your point. Most people forget to provide that brief bit of context, rambling on with irrelevant story telling instead of making their point.
- In an interview, the interviewer picks all the topics. The whole meeting is their agenda, not yours. They decide what to talk about, and for how long. Most candidate answers go on for about twice as long as the interviewer would prefer.
- Unlike a normal conversation, an interview has a time limit. Most candidates struggle to fit all of their thoughts into the allotted time.
- Normal conversations rarely require you to make multiple points. But this is necessary in an interview, as you must demonstrate that you meet all of the job's key competencies.
When you follow normal conversational styles, the result is a failed interview.
In a job interview, normal conversational style does not apply. A job interview is more like a briefing for the board of directors. Prepare your remarks, get in, make your point quickly and coherently, answer questions, and leave on time.
The Solution: The CAR/STAR Interview Method
The “CAR” (sometimes alternately called the “STAR”) interview method is the best communications strategy for an interview because it keeps your answers brief and to the point.
Instead of giving meandering answers to pointed questions, CAR/STAR, by contrast, creates an easily memorable structure to plan your responses around. The rules are simple—be prepared, be bright, be brief, and be gone. CAR-styled responses highlight top level details, and orient answers so they are always crisp, brief, short, and provide just enough information. They also keep your interview running on time, which keeps the interviewer happy.
Preparation in this style involves some anticipation of the questions you will be asked. A good method is to consider the key competencies for the position, most likely laid out in the job description. Your answers should be concise and structured—ideally about 3 minutes, but never more than 5. In those answers, provide all of the following information:
- Context: What situation were you in? What background information does the listener need to understand the context? What was the task you were expected to perform? What needed to be done? What challenges did you expect to face?
- Action: What actions did you take? (You can also outline what alternatives you considered.)
- Result: What impact did your actions have? (These do not have to be all puppies and rainbows. You can admit that you got it wrong on the first try and had to go back and fix something.)
That's the CAR method. Provide just enough information to answer the question…and then stop. Always remember that normal conversations don't have a time limit, but interviews are tightly scheduled affairs.
With CAR answers prepared and ready, you look well-researched and knowledgeable about your past experiences. You create opportunities to impress the interviewer, and you leave time to answer the follow-up questions (and ask your own) that really impress the interviewer.
For more job search advice, read our Senior Executive Guide to Job Search and learn:
- How to write effective cover letters
- What matters in your resume
- How to tell your career story
- How to handle tough interview questions