Use STAR Storytelling to Shine in Covering Letters and Interviews

Everyone loves a great story, especially when it’s about them!

Storytelling can really make you stand out by demonstrating the depth of your experience. More and more interviewers are using ‘behavioural interview’ techniques (see below) to see if a candidate's skills match what they are looking for. But whether your interview follows a traditional or behavioural format, a great story won’t let you down.


Behavioural interviews vs traditional interviews

Behavioural interview techniques ask more open-ended questions than traditional interview questions such as ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ or ‘What has been your biggest challenge?’

In a behavioural interview, you’re more likely to be presented with: ‘Tell me about a time when you had to tackle underperformance with someone you line manage.’ Or ‘Describe how you have gained buy-in from colleagues when you had to implement an unpopular decision.’

This technique allows prospective employers to drill down deeper into what you are telling them, and get a feel for how authentic your story is. If your story is real you’ll simply be recalling what happened and there will be flow to what you are saying. In writing your story, you are aiming to refresh your memory about what happened and use it to demonstrate your skills and experience.

Stories are even more powerful when you weave facts into them and it needn’t be that complicated if you use the STAR technique.

STAR technique

Look at the job description and the job specification, which will tell you what qualifications, experience, training, skills, responsibilities, and emotional characteristics the employer is looking for.

Starting with the most important, for each skill, think of what experience or qualities you have that you have that you can talk about, using the STAR format.

Situation: where and when was this example you’re using?
Task: what were you trying to achieve and, more specifically, what was your role in the situation?
Action: what did you do and how what you did demonstrated the skill you are trying to show?
Result: what happened? What did you achieve? What went well and what could have gone better? What would you do differently if you were faced with the same situation again?

If you lack experience in a particular area, think where you have demonstrated that quality outside of the workplace. So, if you do not have leadership experience at work, where else might you have some leadership experience – who are you a leader for - in your community, family, sports team, university? Where have you shown responsibility? Apply the STAR system to that. Don’t leave yourself with nothing to say.

You can write a simple version of your story for your covering letter and a longer version to talk about in interview.

Covering letter STAR example

A simple version of your story will be sufficient to interest your prospective employer in a covering letter.

Here’s a STAR answer you could write to indicate that you fulfil the criterion for ‘good communication skills’.

(Situation) ‘I run the weekly team meeting in our office.
(Task) This is where we follow up on things people in the team have agreed to do in the past week and agree what tasks we need to do in the following week, which clients need support and so on.
(Action) As well as running the meeting I write and distribute the agenda and minutes, and invite colleagues to the meeting. I ensure everyone gets the opportunity to speak and say what they need to the team.
(Result) Attendance at the meeting runs at 95% and colleagues say they find the meetings interesting and productive.’

Using a STAR story at your interview

At the interview this might be followed up by the interviewer saying: ‘You mention in your covering letter that you run the weekly team meeting. Tell me about a time when the meeting was difficult – how did you handle it?’

So then think about a time when things got awkward. Keep the example as recent as possible and relevant to the question - what was difficult and how did you handle it. If there was a mistake on your part, acknowledging this – it makes you more convincing. Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling. Make sure you say how you resolved what was difficult and how you handled it well. How did you add value?
Follow up with what you learned and what you would do differently now – you’re constantly developing, right?

Inject some emotion and a little humour, but keep it professional. The goal is to provide yourself with bullet points you can hold in your head, not to try to memorise a whole script. This would be difficult to pull off in an interview when you are under pressure, and won’t sound natural.

Repeat this process so that you have a few stories to tell – add value with your stories so that they demonstrate several skills at once, such as leadership and communication; increasing revenue and reducing expenses.

Above all, keep it real and be authentic.

photo by: charlotte

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