A Hollywood Star Interview: Three-Act Structure for Answering STAR Questions

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It is actually quite easy to make an impact and persuade your way to success at job interviews. Behavioral scientists have made it simple for us to get our dream job. But if you are, like most, still having difficulty in your job search it is really because the internet is flooded with advice that is overly complicated and is mostly given by people who want to sell books and make money off you in your vulnerable situation as a job seeker.

They key is to sort through the falsehoods from these charlatans and find the ways that work. Usually if it is complicated, it is unlikely to work. I’ve been studying the field of persuasion for longer than I want now, and the one thing that stands out with effective persuasion is simplicity and non-obviousness. We have one such approach here, that if employed correctly, will shift the odds of success in our favor substantially.

Behavior-based questions in interviews are generally expected to be answered in the situation, task, action, result (STAR) format. Much advice is available on how to structure your answers using this format. Astoundingly, none take advantage of a neat cognitive trick, seemingly, only known to Hollywood. It is a tried and tested method for narrating a hero’s tale of trial and ultimate triumph called the three-act format featured in most movies.

This storytelling format works every time because human minds are primed to be influenced through this approach from an evolutionary cognitive perspective. The many Hollywood movies we’ve seen only serve to further solidify the impact this narrative structure has on our minds. This allows your story to be thought of as more compelling in the interviewer’s mind than told through other formats.   This forges a strong emotional connection between you and the interviewer by eliciting the release of feel-good brain chemicals in the right order just like they have been primed to from the many movies your interviewer has seen.

Common perception is that we make decisions based on facts and reason. Modern behavioral scientists have done enough research to show that this is far from the case. You can find a list of my recommended books that cover this here. Humans are influenced by emotions first and then the facts are used later to rationalize the decision. Control the emotions of the interviewer through this form of narration and you will persuade them more effectively towards your candidacy.

The three-act structure is simple (another reason why it works) and consists of the following parts:

First act: The setup. Here some background information of the main characters is presented. Towards the end of the first act, a life changing event that necessitates the protagonist to take on an epic struggle to achieve a task such as defeat a villain or solve a significant problem. It is usually clear at the end of the first act that life will never be the same again for these characters.

Second act: Confrontation or rising action. This is the main part of the movie where the protagonist makes serial attempts to resolve the problem but only finds himself or herself in more dire circumstances without resolution of the problem. The protagonist struggles to achieve the task mostly because they don’t yet have the necessary skills. Thus, they often need to learn new skills and become fully aware of who they really are. This is called character development or a character arc and is typically aided by a mentor or another protagonist.

Third act: The resolution of the story. The protagonist, against all odds, finally achieves the goal and defeats the villain. This is done through a climatic sequence where the audience is subjected to strong emotions not knowing what the outcome will be. Often a surprising twist is also used in the third act such as one more unsolvable problem. The antagonist is defeated but in the process has poisoned the protagonist who must now save himself or get help from a co-protagonist.

Fortunately, the STAR format already fits the three-act structure plot in that the situation/task usually is the first act (setup) with the action taking on the second act (confrontation) and the result, the third and final act.

First act – The Setup

Your story should start with the background information about yourself and the circumstances that led up to the problem you need to address. The key is to end this part with a good inciting event to set up the second act. Here you are looking for a problem that is critical to your role or how your team operates. Something life altering from a work standpoint.

Second Act – The Confrontation

Here you want to build up things with rising action where you have solved several initial challenges to make headway with the task. Include aspects where you’ve reached out to other colleagues and team members for help (the hero always has a side-kick or two and generally gets some help from others).

It is critical to conclude your second act effectively.  The standard way this plays out in a movie is that even though the hero and the rest of the good guys have done an impressive amount, the final objective still fails (villain still prevails). This gets to the character arc in which the hero needs to radically change a part of his very character and then try for a win against the villain facing very low odds at success. This builds the climax for the final act. For a STAR response this will usually involve making a radical change to yourself or viewpoint which to evolve to a higher level of knowledge and transform to a new person.

Third Act – The Resolution

This part should start out somewhat glumly and could even hint at the story ending without success. Then from out of nowhere you should provide the final act where you throw one last Hail Mary at the problem and finally emerge triumphant.

It’s that easy and works every time for the right situation. Try it out because it will be a hit, I assure you.

Shaun MendonsaShaun Mendonsa, PhD is a Senior Analytical Development Leader in Pharmaceutical R&D. Realizing the need for talent stacks besides scientific and technical abilities, he focuses on driving persuasion and influencing skills for business professionals and leaders.  His only goal is to teach you the tools of influence and make you a master persuader.

You should follow me on Twitter @ShaunMendonsa because I’ve persuaded many smart people to follow me there.

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