Job interviews and client pitches can be tricky at the best of times – and they’re really hard when you get thrown a curly interview question that you aren’t sure how to respond to.
Lots of people come to this site using the search term “3 weaknesses and 3 strengths”, and I know from conversations with clients that this question (or a variation on it) is pretty common for interviewers to ask. And if you’re pitching to clients, it’s amazing how often a variation of it comes up. So here’s a quick guide to help you craft your answer to even the curliest question.
Your cheatsheet for answering tricky interview questions
There are four simple steps to giving a great answer to any interview or client-pitch question:
- Anticipate the questions
- Understand what you’re being asked
- Pick a good response
- Share your answer in a way that is easy to understand
Let’s break those steps down.
1. Anticipate the questions
The best way to nail the interview (or client pitch) is to anticipate the questions you’ll be asked. Unless the interviewer has a really off-the-wall style, they’ll be looking for two main things: do you meet the requirements for the job/contract, and will you be a good fit in the team and organisation?
By doing your homework, you’ll be ready to answer any question that comes up. And that makes you look competent, capable, and confident – even if you’re a bundle of nerves on the inside.
To build a list of possible questions, use the job description or contract outline as your starting point. Read it thoroughly and make notes about the qualities it mentions (e.g. attention to detail, building relationships, dealing with change, achieving targets).
Now, make a list of the sorts of questions the interviewer might ask about each quality of the role and the culture – there are hundreds of resources online that can help with this. Just search for “interview questions” and the type of role you’re aiming for (or the key elements of the culture), and use the results to create a shortlist of questions you might be asked.
2. Understand what you’re being asked
To give a great answer, it’s important to understand exactly what the interviewer is asking. It’s not always obvious from the wording, so you might need to read between the lines.
For example, an interviewer might say “Tell me about a time you made a mistake. What happened?” They’re not looking for you to tell them in excruciating detail about the mistake, and leave it at that. They want to know what you did about it – how did you identify the mistake? What steps did you take to fix it? Who did you tell? They want to know how you’ll react when you make a mistake working for them.
And if you’re asked to share three weaknesses and three strengths with the interviewer, they’re looking for strengths and weaknesses that are relevant to the role. Tailor your answer based on the job description and what you’ve learned about the team/company culture.
3. Pick a good response
Now that you’ve been asked the question about which strengths and weaknesses you have, use your analysis of the job description and your strengths and weaknesses to tailor your response to the role you are interviewing for.
If it involves analysing sales data, having a strength in appreciating art and beauty isn’t likely to be relevant, so it probably won’t help to mention it. But if you have a weakness or strength around attention to detail, that’s relevant.
Give context for your answer
And when you give your answer to the question, don’t just stick to naming your strengths and weaknesses. Give context – for example, if you have a weakness that you think might be a stumbling block for getting the role, but you’ve got a strategy for dealing with it, make sure you share the strategy as part of your answer.
For example, I was recently chatting to someone who identified that she struggles to motivate herself to get things done. And she’s come to realise that she does brilliantly when she is accountable to someone else. So now, when she needs to get things done, she gets an accountability buddy.
Now, if she was asked the interview question about three strengths and weaknesses she has, she wouldn’t just say “getting things done on time” was a weakness and leave it at that. She’d say her weakness is “getting things done on time unless I build in external accountability, such as setting a deadline with my manager, or asking a friend to check in weekly on my progress”. An answer like that tells the interviewer that, not only do you know what your weakness is, you know how to manage it so it doesn’t trip you up.
Context is important for your strengths too
Just because strengths are a good thing doesn’t mean they’re always right for every situation. That’s why it’s important to demonstrate that you know how to hit the “sweet spot” with your strengths – that is, neither over- nor under-playing them.
Let’s take humour as an example. If you underplay the humour strength, people around you might think that you’re cold or ‘all work and no play’. And if you overplay it, people might believe that you aren’t willing or able to take anything seriously. Either of those approaches is likely to make it difficult to establish warm, trusting relationships with colleagues and customers.
So, when you’re talking about your strength of humour, emphasise how you use it skillfully to break the ice and make people feel comfortable, and mention a time when you realised that it was important to dial down the humour and use another strength to get the best out of the situation.
4. Share your answer in a way that is easy to understand
Our brains are wired for stories, because they are memorable, and easy to understand. And the easier something is to understand, the more we like it.
This means that, if you make it easy for an interviewer to understand your answer to a question, they will like you more than someone who didn’t make it easy for them. And that’s true regardless of the content of your answer.
Story-telling is a natural strength for some people, which means they have an advantage when formulating a response to an interview question. But if that’s not you, don’t despair! You can learn how to tell a good story, using this super-simple formula.
The STAR storytelling formula
This easy-to-remember formula can make anyone a storyteller! It has three elements: Situation or Task, Action, Result.
- Situation or Task: Describe the context – what was happening? What were you working on? What was the goal?
- Action: Describe what you did – talk about your thinking and your actions. How did you decide what was important to focus on? What choices did you make? How did you implement your decisions?
- Result: Describe the outcome – what happened? Did you hit your target? Did everything work out as planned? What did you learn?
Using the STAR formula to answer an interview question
Imagine you’ve been asked to describe a time when you had to use a weakness. This is how to use the STAR format:
- My manager asked me to proofread a report, and attention to detail is a weakness for me (Situation/Task)
- I find it easiest to concentrate when I’m feeling relaxed, so I made a cup of tea, and sat in the lunchroom instead of at my desk. I quickly read the report, noting a couple of things that caught my eye. Then I re-read it more slowly the second time looking for any other errors. (Action)
- I picked up a couple of spelling mistakes, and a graph that needed to be reformatted. I made the edits and sent the report back to my boss to submit to the Board, who approved it for publication (Result)
It only takes around 30 seconds to give that answer, and it is information-rich and easy to grasp. The interviewer knows exactly what your boss expected of you, and you told them how you set yourself up for success, your approach to the task, and that you proactively fixed the errors before sending the report back to your boss.
Download your free workbook
Want to get your hands on a free workbook to help you hone your STAR interview answers?
Fill out the form to get access to this free resource. It will help you deliver awesome answers to interview questions, and tell stories that draw your clients in.
It even includes a section on how to tell a story about when things didn’t go right, in a way that still makes you look like a wonderful human being.
Being able to admit to a mistake or weakness and show how you’ve learned from it will set you apart from most other candidates.
If you’re ready to shine, download your workbook now!
It’s not always easy to work out which questions you could be asked, or to know when you’ve nailed the answer. I offer coaching services tailored to your needs – check out the details on my main business website, or book your free discovery call today.