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5 Steps to Nail Tough Interview Questions

Last week, a Dale Carnegie Course participant reached out to us and said he was preparing for a big interview. He had received questions in advance and was wondering:

What’s the best way to approach these questions?

While there are many good ways to nail tough interview questions, a few best practices will get you a long way.

Avoid This Novice Mistake

Years ago, I was part of a committee to hire staff for a year-long assignment. We had approximately 10 questions to ask candidates during forty—five minute interviews.

I’ll never forget the candidate who was still responding to the first interview question fifteen minutes later. We were only able to ask three questions of her. Since part of the job involved customer service, she was excluded immediately (the customer would never have gotten a word in).

Most recruiting professionals advise that you aim for thirty seconds to 2 minutes for interview responses. While doubtful anyone will be timing you, aim for this range to demonstrate that you can articulate your ideas in a clear and concise way.

Now, Play the PIANO

With traditional interview questions such as, “Tell me about yourself,” it’s easier to tell an interviewer what you think they want to hear. That’s why a lot of interviewers now use behavioral interview questions. Behavioral interviews attempt to uncover your past behaviors in order to better predict your future ones.

An example of a behavioral interview question is:

Tell us about a time that you helped a team overcome a challenge and what you did to handle it.

When you get a question like this, follow a five-step process to respond. Using the acronym PIANO will help you do this effectively:

1. P = Define the Problem

Any significant, prior action you’ve taken in the workplace almost certainly started with a problem. Interviewers expect this, since they are trying to assess how you will handle problems in your new role.

Tell the interviewer(s) enough about the problem you were facing so they can understand the context of what you’ll say next — and nothing more. A few sentences here are usually enough to set the stage so you can focus your response on the next steps.

Note: While talking about problems you’ve handled in the past is expected and appropriate, criticizing a former boss or employer is not. Avoid complaining about the problem or the people who were involved.

2. I = Describe the Opportunity for Influence

Regardless on the position you’re applying for, most employers want to see that you’ll take initiative to lead yourself and others to solve future problems.

One of the best ways to demonstrate this skill is to show how you’ve done it in the past. What you’ll describe here is where you saw your opportunity to influence a solution to the problem, either individually or as part of a team.

A clear statement of how you thought you could help sets the stage for the actions you took. It also demonstrates that you did some strategic thinking before taking that action.

3. A = Review Past Actions You Took

Now that you’ve defined the problem and the opportunity you saw to influence, you’ll want to review the actions you took to add value. Of the five steps, spend the most time here, since interviewers want to see detailed evidence of how to handle problems.

If the situation was complex, focus on the 3-4 broad actions you took over a period of time, instead of going into minute detail on each step. This will ensure a concise answer and good interviews will ask a follow-up question if they want more details.

4. N = Report The Numbers You Moved

It’s nice if your colleagues or manager felt good about your past actions, but ultimately it’s numbers that talk in most organizations. Articulating the numbers you moved when solving past problems adds a lot to your credibility.

Numbers don’t have to only be revenue or cost figures (although those are great starting points). Depending on the kind of role you are interviewing for, articulating how you reduced turnover percentages, increased engagement scores, or enhanced quality metrics are great too.

The key is that the numbers can be measured and verified. Of course there is often value in sharing examples that don’t have numbers tied to them, but whenever possible, use examples that show you can move the needle on what’s important.

5. O = Speak to the Long-Term Outcomes

While numbers are certainly outcomes, they often only tell the short-term story. Presumably, you are highlighting some of your best work in interview responses, and these should also show long-term outcomes for the organization and you.

Finish your answer by highlighting an outcome. Here are a few examples of how might do this:

  • Explain what else the organization was able to do as a result of this problem being addressed.

  • Demonstrate how the lessons from this situation were incorporated into a broader organizational strategy.

  • Report on related business metrics that were ultimately influenced because of your actions.

  • Articulate what you learned from this situation that you now bring into your work in other areas.

Employers love results, but they also want someone who demonstrates how results can be sustainable and of value to the broader organization. If you can show this from your past actions, you’ll set yourself apart from other candidates who aren’t thinking as strategically.

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