The Formula for Winning Interviews

The Formula to Win Job Interviews

Stop tediously scripting and preparing, and learn the underpinning formula organisations use without them even knowing it.

By Jacquie Liversidge

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If you search online for ‘types of interview questions’, you’ll find resources that point you to ‘the 8 different types of interview questions’, the ‘4 different types of interview questions’, the ‘5…’ and so on.

Make no mistake, there are only four.

From these four types, there are an endless amount of questions you could be ask that fall into these three categories.

So, if you have landed on this resource with hopes to flesh out responses to interview questions for the future, then; a) sorry, and b) also, please don’t do that. It’s a bad strategy.

If you prepare responses to imaginary questions, you’ve prepared for questions which may never get posed to you. It’s a waste of time, and you’ll panic when you get into the interview and never get the chance to offer forward these amazing, overdeveloped, over-rehearsed answers.

The four questions are:

1. Behavioural responses - the past

Behavioural questions are super easy to spot. The interviewer will ask you to tell them about a time that you did a specific thing. 

For example: ‘Can you tell me about a time that you resolved a conflict with a customer?’

Then, you tell them about a time you resolved a conflict with a customer. You use STAR, of course, because there’s only one way for humans to tell a story about their past, too.

You outline the situation, the challenge, what you did, and what the outcome was.

To rehash, STAR has just been nicked by HR, but it’s the structure for a story you would use to talk about your day. I like to disambiguate STAR as much as possible—the below is an everyday example.

A real life STAR example:

“This morning (situation) I got in the car and there was a dog on the road (task), anyway I ended up getting out of the car and approached the dog. I found his collar and called the owner but couldn’t get a response, so put the dog in the car and drove to the address on his collar. On the way the dog made a huge mess I had to clean up. Anyway, I got to the owner’s address, gave him the dog (result), and I firmly decided that I would never do that again (learnings). Also, I told the guy to answer his phone in future if he doesn’t know where his dog is (process improvements).”

Real life example turned corporate speak:

(situation). I worked in partnership with the XYZ Council to develop a communications strategy encouraging local students to participate in Council’s Recycling Week event (task). To develop the strategy, I met with key Council stakeholders to determine available resources, scheduling, and to brainstorm ideas. From there, I coordinated focus groups with local educators to learn about successful or unsuccessful strategies used for similar events in the past. I established a strong rapport with Council stakeholders and local educators involved in the planning process. Through effective and regular consultation, we determined our method to encourage student engagement with Recycling Week would be hosting a competition to build a sculpture out of household recycled materials. To promote the competition, I collaborated with local educators to develop flyers and posters which we then distributed around the area’s primary schools. Teaching staff incorporated the education of recycling and environmental care into their lessons and encouraged students to sign up for the competition, and I worked with them to incorporate key marketing messages into their classes (actions). As a result, Council recorded their highest ever student participation rate in their Recycling Week event (results).

You can view a whole bunch of STAR examples here.

The panel are looking for your decision making and your approach in actions by deploying this question.

2. Overview responses - neither past nor future

A question prompting an overview response will be phrased like, ‘tell me about your experience with Xero.’ You might respond, ‘yes, I’ve used Xero for invoicing, accounts payable, superannuation, BAS lodgment and single touch payroll for the last three companies I worked with’.

Every single interview starts off with an overview question. These are questions like, ‘Tell us a bit about yourself”, or, “Tell us why you have applied for this role.”

These questions are checking your understanding and general exposure to something, and are both conversation starters, and conversation enders.

Other overview questions you might get, might be something like:

  • Tell me what customer service means to you?
  • What defines failure for you?
  • What’s your understanding of our business?

3. Scenario questions - the future/hypothetical

These tend to freak people out. This is where you are given a hypothetical situation, and told to walk your audience through the steps that you would take.

‘You are faced with an angry customer. The customer has received a letter in the mail saying their claim has been denied, and they are not happy. What do you do?

You then walk them step by step the actions you would take. You don’t have the role, so you are working with limited visibility. Just use your previous example, and consider the needs of the business.

But the concept for this one is really straightforward.

4. Yes or no questions

These are pretty self explanatory. These are questions that you can respond to only with a yes or no. “Do you have an environmental degree”, “do you like to eat cheese?”, etc.

How an interview is structured

The interview panel will generally sit you down, welcome you, introduce themselves, and then begin with:

  • Overview questions (tell me/us about yourself, why have you applied for this role, what do you know about our business, etc)
  • A mix of behavioural and scenario questions
  • Some more overview questions
  • You are provided time to ask questions

Now at this point of this article, we could produce for an exhaustive list of interview questions.

But there’s no point.

It’s better to teach you about capabilities, and personal attributes.

In an interview, everyone is looking for the same capabilities.

Humans, despite our smarts, only really have a few of these.

Whether you are a Senior Executive, a doctor, a front of house worker, a graduate or anything else, if you can’t demonstrate capability in any of the below capability’s sub-dot points, you will not make it far.

The six capabilities all people can only have

The capabilities are:

  • Problem Solving
    • Technical problems
    • Non-technical problems
    • Research and analysis
  • Communication
    • Written
    • Verbal
    • Non-verbal/interpersonal
  • Collaboration
    • Teamwork
    • Partnership building
    • Relationship management
  • Expertise
    • Knowledge
    • Niche expertise
    • Subject matter expertise
  • Leadership
    • Of self
    • Of others
    • In projects
  • Organisational
    • Time management
    • Priority management

The list of all the personal attributes you can have

There are personal attributes that enable the above to consistently happen in the workplace.

If you are able to lead a team, but you’re not very kind, you’re not agile, you won’t be a leader for very long.

If you have knowledge in change management, but you don’t act ethically and with respect, you’re never going to get the buy-in from those affected by change that you need.

You might solve problems theoretically really well, but without resilience, how will you solve them in action?

The personal attributes that interviewers want to test are:

    • Honesty
    • Fairness
    • Integrity
    • Accountability
    • Agility
    • Resilience
    • Assertiveness
    • Confidence
    • Impartiality
    • Open-minded
    • Logical
    • Consistency
    • Self-reflectiveness

Putting this into action

No one has all of these all the time. People have a good deal of these though, and where all of the above personal attributes meet the capabilities is what the ideal candidate is from any field.

With this all firmly in the forefront of our minds now, let’s run a scenario.

Imagine you are a project manager. You manage projects for the construction industry. You’re interviewing for a role with the government, where you will manage infrastructure projects if you get the role.

Because you’ve had some to think before going in to the interview, we know that the government has organisational values, serves the people, uses public funds (hopefully, wisely) and would need to be very compliant.

The panel asks you, ‘tell me about your most complex project. What was it, and what did you do?’

You don’t tell them about the *actual* most complex project, which was when the foreman was sacked for poor behaviour, and was so angry that overnight he came to the site and poured petrol on it and lit it on fire, and you had to deal with it and it was awful and the budget and deadline were so overblown and it’s still going through the courts and…

… You instead tell them about the time you were sub-contracted for a government roads upgrade, which was hard because of the different stakeholders involved, but you got it done on time and on budget anyway.

This is going to demonstrate:

  • Collaboration
  • Expertise relevant to the government
  • Leadership of self, others, projects
  • Verbal communication, written communication
  • Organisational skills
  • Problem solving
  • … and most of the personal attributes

Now if you were truly honest, and outlined the time the foreman got sacked, while you demonstrate resilience, problem solving, etc. you don’t get the opportunity to highlight any of these other capabilities.

There is no expertise required with being summoned to court as a witness. Calling emergency on the blazing fire was a basic thing to do. Telling the customers what happened is necessary and even if you don’t do it, they’re going to find out soon enough anyway.

You can replicate this over and over, no matter what field you are in.

When you start preparing for an interview, I want you to ask yourself:
why me, why this, why now.

Consider your audience; who are they?

Consider the kinds of problems and challenges that the specific workplace you are interviewing has.

Are they a new organisation? (No processes, compliance issues, growth pains). 

Are they a global organisation? (Geographically spread team, digital systems are extremely important, each country has unique challenges and rules) 

Is it government? (Challenges in embedding changes, strict regulation, budgetary constraints) 

Are they a small business? (All-rounders are valuable, staffing can be hard, low profit, high competition)

In summary:

If you’re going into an interview, take away from this article:

  • Behavioural, scenario, and overview types of questions
  • STAR responses
  • The capabilities
  • The personal attributes
  • Why me, why now, why this role

And finally:

  • Where do I think all of this meets in the middle, if I was interviewing candidates for the role I’m being interviewed for?

Between now and your interview, talk to yourself, practice your story telling, and as always, happy hunting.

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