The STAR technique is commonly used to construct the answer to behavioral interview questions, like “Tell me about a mistake you’ve made. How did you handle it?” You might have heard of it before:
- S – The situation or event that you were in
- T – The task you had to complete
- A – The actions you took to complete the task
- R – The result or benefit of your effort.
But STAR answers are not stories and they’re not memorable. They’re like hearing Apple Siri read a book.
They’re not going to connect emotionally with the interviewer, because they don’t make them FEEL anything! There’s another way to make your answers deeply connect with the interviewer to make them like, trust and remember you – something the STAR technique alone does not do. A technique that, if used, will make you stand out from the competition and bring you closer to the job you’ve been dreaming of.
The STARLESS Technique
In David JP Phillip’s TED talk The Magical Science of Storytelling, he says “Science tells us that the more emotionally invested you are in anything, the less critical and less objectively focused you become.”
That means, when it comes to getting a job, if you use stories strategically and correctly, if you get them emotionally invested in you, then the less critical and less objectively focused they will be towards you.
The less they will just focus on the words on your resume, your years of experience, gaps, etc. and the more they will start to develop FEELINGS for you. But don’t flatter yourself – this isn’t an article on how to date your interviewer.
Science also tells us you use more of your brain when you’re listening to a story vs. listening to just the facts.
For example, if I taught you how to fish, giving you just the facts – this is how you hook your bait, this is how you cast, this is how you reel in the fish – just the facts. Then only the data processing regions of your brain would work to absorb that knowledge.
But if I told you a STORY about fishing and I described the fresh smell of the lake on a crisp morning, then your olfactory cortex will kick in. If I described the slow, rocking motion of the boat and the feeling of the vibration of the pole as the fish bites, then your motor cortex will kick in.
A story can stimulate the parts of the brain that process sensory information, and get this, the stimulation can be just as strong as if you were actually experiencing the story.
That means if you tell a really good fishing story, if you get the person emotionally invested, then their brain can be stimulated just as it would if they were actually fishing.
Back to reality. The interviewer will use more of their brain to absorb the knowledge you want them to have about you if that knowledge is wrapped in a story. You will also be more memorable.
STARLESS stands for:
S-T-A-R vs. L-E-S-S
- S – The situation or event that you were in
- T – The task you had to complete
- A – The actions you took to complete the task
- R – The Result or benefit of your effort.
The STAR portion of this technique is how you construct and frame your answers to behavioral questions.
The missing L-E-S-S component is what David JP Phillip calls Functional Storytelling, or purposely making people feel a certain way through stories, specifically by making them produce one of three different hormones: Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Endorphins. What? I’ll explain.
How you do this by adding imagery and sensory details into your STAR answers to draw them into the experience.
When we think of a good story, we think of a movie or a book that made us feel emotions. A story that made us laugh, cry, feel suspense, excitement, or empathy.
You can do the same by tweaking your STAR answers, but only if you add the LESS component. And yes, LESS is more.
L – Laughter
“L” or “Laughter” is a way to remember how to give someone Endorphins. When you laugh, Endorphins are released in your brain. They will make you more creative, more relaxed, and more focused.
It’s true, comedians are the endorphin drug dealers of our time. They can make us laugh for hours. And we will happily pay $50 or more for a show because the feeling we get is so enjoyable. It relaxes us. So now you know, when you flip on Netflix and start watching a stand-up, what you’re really wanting is some Endorphins – you druggy.
But you don’t have to be a professional comedian to be funny. You don’t even have to tell a long story. Sometimes a few words said in a funny tone, or using funny metaphors can make people laugh – you drug dealer you.
See what I’m doing there? Did you laugh, or maybe you internally laughed? Either way I’ll take it. It’s that simple.
E – Empathy
“E” or “Empathy” is a way to remember how to give someone Oxytocin. When you feel empathy for someone else, Oxytocin is released in your brain. The reverse is also true, if someone takes Oxytocin their empathy will increase. This hormone will make you feel more generous, more trusting, more reciprocal, and more bonded to the other person.
All feelings that you want them to have towards you when you’re trying to prove you can fit into the culture of the company. Feelings that you want them to have when you’re trying to prove you’re “one of them” instead of an “outsider”.
Some people actually call Oxytocin the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone” because it’s released when people snuggle up or bond socially. But since you can’t love or cuddle with your interviewers, you’re going to have to stick with stories. At least I sure hope you do.
S – Significance
“S” or “Significance” is a way to remember how to give someone Dopamine. When you build up the significance and suspense in a story, when you create cliffhangers, dopamine is released in your brain. If you’ve ever read a book that was a page-turner or if you’ve ever watched a movie that had you sitting on the edge of your seat, then you were experiencing the effects of Dopamine.
Known as the “feel-good hormone”, it will make you more focused, more motivated, and more energized.
Dopamine also helps to control the flow of information through the brain and increases your short-term memory.
Those are definitely effects you want THEM to feel and have in your interviews so they remember you and remember the benefits you will bring to the position rather than your competition.
S – Stands for Simple
Memorable stories are relatively simple. Putting in too much detail of the wrong kind can lessen the impact and lose the attention of the listener.
Meaning, don’t tell your audience what you had for lunch that day, for instance, or what tie you were wearing if it doesn’t advance the story towards the emotion you’re trying to make them feel. Don’t go off on tangents and don’t ramble.
Especially in an interview, it’s important to speak clearly and be concise about what you say. This is even more important when you make your answers more story-like, because people hate feeling stuck listening to a bad storyteller.
How you stay simple, while at the same time sounding natural, is by practicing your stories. That’s the only way.
Comedians know the importance of staying simple and practicing. Do you know that when you watch a comedian’s special on Netflix, that they’ve practiced each one of their jokes hundreds of times to different people. They don’t just test the words they use, they also test how they emphasize each word. And by the time you hear the joke in their special, they’ve learned from hundreds of previous reactions how to tell each joke so that each one generates the greatest amount of laughter from their audience.
You don’t have to be a comedian, but you do need to stay simple and practice so you don’t sound like a robot when you talk.
STAR vs. STARLESS Examples
Here are 3 examples. One for laughter, one for empathy, and one for significance. I’ll start off by giving you just the STAR answer, and then I’ll add in the LESS so you can hear the difference.
Example 1 – Laughter
“Give me an example of a goal you’ve met?”
(Situation/Task) Last October, I had to write six articles for the month to keep our blog fresh. (Action) I created an action plan for myself, with deadlines as to when each article should be published. (Result) I finished that month with six articles written and ahead of schedule.
Boring! Now let’s add some humor to this answer.
(Situation/Task) Last October, I had to write six articles for the month to keep our blog fresh. (Action) I created an action plan for myself, with deadlines as to when each article should be published and when to switch from decaf to espresso. (Result) I finished that month with six articles written and ahead of schedule, and with a newfound love for mocha lattes.
See how just that little bit of humor lightens things up? You don’t need much, but you also shouldn’t drown your story in it. This is going to make them more relaxed in your interview.
Example 2 – Empathy
“Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision”
(Situation) Working as a Program Manager, (Task) I was asked to coordinate a training for our Support team. This required 3 people to travel across the country for a whole month and train with Engineering. (Action) I didn’t agree with my manager that a whole month was needed for this training. I thought a week at most was enough, but it was difficult at first to approach my boss about my opinions. But I did, and we agreed to make the training only one week, and then test their knowledge afterwards and schedule follow-up weeks as needed. (Result) It turned out that one week was more than enough and the training was a success. The training was very disruptive to their regular job responsibilities, and so they needed subsequent weeks to absorb the knowledge and catch up.
(Situation) Working as a Program Manager, (Task) I was asked to coordinate a training for our Support team. This required 3 people to travel across the country for a whole month and train with Engineering. A whole month. They never agreed or were used to that amount of travel before. And I remember one guy just had a newborn baby, a 3-month-old daughter. I knew a month away from his new baby would crush him, and his wife. And when I broke the news over the phone, I’ll never forget the silence. The silence that confirmed what he must have been feeling, thinking about the first-time moments he was going to miss. Telling him that news while staying professional was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do as a manager. What was also difficult was, (Action)I didn’t agree with my manager that a whole month was needed for this training. I thought a week at most was enough, but it was difficult at first to approach my boss about my opinions. But I did, and we agreed to make the training only one week, and then test their knowledge afterwards and schedule follow-up weeks as needed. (Result) It turned out that one week was more than enough and the training was a success. The training was very disruptive to their regular job responsibilities, and so they needed subsequent weeks to absorb the knowledge and catch up.
Do you see the difference? For a second, did that give you empathy? Could you almost feel the pain and sadness this guy had? (It’s much more effective when you hear it, not read it) That’s what Oxytocin feels like, you’re welcome!
And yes, unlike humor and making people laugh, empathy takes a little bit more words to draw someone into the experience. If you deliver Empathy STARLESS stories right, your interviewer is going to more easily bond with you socially and trust you. And they’re not going to forget that story.
It’s also important to modulate your voice, meaning using “pauses” and “slowing down” strategically, especially around the meat of the emotions. You need to say it with emotion. That is very important. Remember, how you say it can be more important than what you say. You have to really practice how to deliver an Empathetic STAR story to get the best emotional response from your interviewer.
Example 3 – Significance
“Tell me about a time when you performed under enormous pressure.”
(Situation) I was working at NASA and was involved with supporting the Curiosity Rover’s landing on Mars. (Task) My team was given the responsibility to keep the supercomputers operational that determine whether or not to correct the spacecraft’s trajectory. (Action) We spent months preparing complex programs, procedures, and monitoring software to ensure every risk had an action-plan, every file was backed up twice, and that we could rebuild the entire supercomputer and restore data in 6 hours. (Result) And when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, and those first pictures came into focus, that was one of the proudest moments of my career.
(Situation) I was working at NASA and was involved with supporting the Curiosity Rover’s landing on Mars. A billion-dollar spacecraft. (Task) My team was given the responsibility to keep the supercomputers operational that determine whether or not to correct the spacecraft’s trajectory. There was a very real scenario where our computers could be the reason the spacecraft crashed into Mars, a billion dollars being wasted because of my team, the Mars program possibly being discontinued, and my career forever being painted with that failure. The amount of pressure was unreal. But (Action)we spent months preparing complex programs, procedures, and monitoring software to ensure every risk had an action-plan, every file was backed up twice, and that we could rebuild the entire supercomputer and restore data in 6 hours. (Result) And when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, and those first pictures came into focus, that was one of the proudest moments of my career.
Do you see how I drew you into the experience even more by building up the significance of the Situation and the Task and by painting a vivid picture of what failure would feel like? Did that work on you? Did that give you a greater amount of focus? Could you feel the amount of pressure I was under? If so, that’s what Dopamine feels like. You’re welcome!
Again, practice delivery. You have to deliver it with a serious tone to make them feel the emotion of the significance. Don’t be a robot, don’t say (begin robot voice) it-was-a-billion-dollar-spacecraft-and-my-career-would-be-painted-with-that-failure-and-the-pressure-was-unreal. (end robot voice). Who’s going to believe you were feeling that emotion if you don’t deliver it with emotion?
So there you go. That was 3 examples of the STARLESS technique to really help you understand how to deeply connect with the interviewer using stories. You can do it too!
One quick tip, please for the love of getting hired, diversify your story order. For example, don’t just answer every interview question with an empathetic story. Same with laughter or significant stories. You’re going to come off like a big bag of drama if you don’t switch it up. Also, I wouldn’t give STARLESS answers to every question you get. Use your instincts and try to judge the amount of connection you’re getting with your interviewer.