Acing Answers: Speaking Succinctly in Interviews

By Beverly Hinson, President & CEO SuccessWorks, LLC

In this week’s Guest Blog, we learn from Beverly Hinson of SuccessWorks how less can be a more effective reply when interviewing for a job.

Are you talking too much when answering interview questions? Are you sharing too many unimportant details to illustrate your answer? How do you know?

Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds, and possibly thousands, of job candidates. Indeed, those candidates who get to the point quickly and don’t ramble on with their answers stand out as good communicators. Remember, your interviewers need to get to know you, and they have a certain amount of ground to cover in a short window. You want to provide just enough information for them to know you have the qualifications for the job and let them follow up if they need more. So, what is the right amount of information?

Typically, when answering interview questions, you want to share a little context on the situation, then share three to five key actions you took, followed by the result. Adhering to this formula will keep your answers on point and will give the interviewer key details needed to make informed decisions about your potential as a future employee.

Let’s compare the answers given by Ginny and Mary to the question, “Tell me about a time when you had a difficult problem to solve at work.”

Interviewee Answer #1

Ginny’s reply:

“We have difficult problems every day, it seems. Usually, it’s because someone doesn’t do something they are supposed to, and the situation escalates. We had a rush order to complete, and one of my co-workers forgot to order some of the parts needed. I discovered this issue when I was going over the customer orders and making sure everything was ready to start on the order in three days.

Two of the parts we needed were not in the supply, so I started checking around and found out that they had never been ordered, and it usually takes five full days to get the parts shipped to us, so this was a big problem. I called the company from which we ordered the parts and found out they could get one of the parts in two days and the other in five days.

I told my boss what happened, and he approved us to work overtime to get the shipment ready on time. We did what we could on the project until we got the second part in, and then we worked 12-hour days until we were finished. No one was pleased about having to work the additional hours, but we knew how important it was to get this project done. We realized we would still be delayed by an extra day, so I called the customer to let them know. They weren’t happy about the delay, but they appreciated letting us know before the due date. My boss was happy I found the issue in time to keep the project from being even later.”

Interviewee Answer #2

Mary’s reply:

“Once, I was the lead on a project; we had a critical machine break just as we started an important order for a major customer. Immediately, I pulled our team together to assess the situation and brainstorm solutions. We identified three possible solutions.

  • First, we could run the job on an older, less reliable machine and deliver two days later than promised.
  • Second, we could wait for the new part and deliver it three days later.
  • Third, we could outsource the job to another company with the same machine. After talking over the options with my boss, we decided I should call the customer and explain our situation and options.

Our customer felt the quality was better on our new machine and preferred we wait to run until it was fixed. We agreed to ship directly to their customer at our expense instead of their distribution facility to save a few days. Although we were delayed in producing the product, their customer still received it on time, so everyone was happy.”

How’d They Do?

Which answer from our two interviewees appealed most to you? Did you notice Ginny added extra details that add little or no value to her answer? Like Ginny, candidates often feel interviewers need to know the whole situation, yet this can work against them. You want to be honest, but don’t overshare.

Ginny’s responses might cause concern for interviewers that she is not a team player and may throw her co-workers under the bus. She says, “We have difficult problems every day. Usually, it’s because someone doesn’t do something they are supposed to.” Later, she also says, “No one was pleased about having to work the additional hours, but we knew how important it was to get this project done.” Adding this tidbit might leave the interviewer feeling like she will be unhappy if she must do extra to meet customer and business demands.

Mary, on the other hand, gets to the point. She provides a small glimpse of the situation and sticks to the facts about the actions taken and the results. She gives interviewers enough details to understand her role in solving the problem without expanding on her or everyone’s feelings about the situation. Interviewers will follow up if they are curious about her reactions.

Ready to Nail Your Next Interview?

Anticipate questions you may be asked and prepare your answer. Be brief, be positive, provide complete answers (situation, actions, results), and stick to the facts unless asked for your feelings. Following this formula will help you showcase your skills and increase your chances of being a top candidate. Good luck in your job search!


About Beverly Hinson

Beverly Hinson is a certified coach and trainer specializing in leadership, presentation skills, facilitation skills, interviewing prep, and interviewer training.  She has over 20 years of experience, specifically as a learning and development leader for billion-dollar organizations. She has served both large and small entities in various industries for more than 30 years, supporting leaders and individuals alike on their paths to success.

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