How to begin answering interview questions

24 Jan 2022

Communication is listed as a top-five skill for almost all companies. If your answers are rambling and unstructured, you might as well hold up a sign that says, ‘My communication skills are weak’. This is why you need to know how to begin answering interview questions clearly.

Interview answers need to be short

In an interview, you will spend between 30 and 90 minutes answering questions that start with:

  • ‘Give me an example of…’
  • ‘Tell me about a time when…’

When answering, you don’t have 10 minutes to give the back story and context for your examples. You need to get to the part of the example that answers the question the interviewer wants to hear about.

The good news is the methods from my book, The First Minute, can help. A technique called ‘framing’ provides context for your example as well as a headline. This immediately lets the interviewer know how your answer is relevant. It also shows you are a good communicator.

Here’s how to use framing to start your interview answers.

What is framing?

It takes only a few seconds to prepare the interviewer to hear your example if you frame it correctly.

Framing, as defined in The First Minute, is the simplest way to prepare an audience to receive your message before you go into detail. Framing lets the audience know what is expected of them right from the start. Clear framing also ensures they understand the core of the message within a few sentences.

  • Context: This is the topic you want to talk about. Of all the topics in the world, this is the one you will talk about now
  • Intent: What you want the audience to do with the information you are about to share
  • Key message: The most important part of the overall message you are about to deliver (the headline)

Framing should take no more than three sentences and be delivered in less than 15 seconds. The point is to let your audience know what you are going to talk about, so they aren’t guessing for the first few minutes of the conversation. If the first lines of your message provide context, intent, and a key message, you will have clearer conversations every time.

How to use framing to begin answering interview questions

Using the three-part technique will immediately make your answers clearer. But if you want to really make your answers stand out there are a few rules to follow for each part of the method.

Context: The first thing to do is make the context clear. Name the situation you will use as the example in your answer. Do this using generic terms.

  • Don’t use project or system names that may have no meaning to anyone outside your current team
  • Don’t describe the situation — describing is where we go off on tangents that distract from the main points we want to make
  • Do use statements that make it clear what the overall situation involved, usually this is the main goal you were trying to achieve. Examples include:
    • I needed to deliver a report
    • I had to close a deal that day
    • Our team was preparing a software release

Intent: After the context is clear, make it obvious what the intent was in the example. State what action you needed to happen in the example.

  • The intent sets the stage for the problem you overcame
  • Don’t describe the problem here, you will do that next
  • Don’t be too specific with the details. Things like names, dates and step-by-step descriptions are not required
  • Do give a single statement of the intended action connected to your example. The intended action should be described in one line. If the action involves multiple steps, summarize it in one line. For example:
    • I needed a senior manager to approve the contract
    • I planned to complete the report that afternoon

Key message: Having defined the context and made the intent clear, you now need to give a meaningful headline summary of the example. This is a one line summary of the problem or challenge that you successfully overcame.

  • Don’t describe the problem, state the problem — the key message is a short statement
  • Do give a headline that describes the difficult situation preventing you achieving your intent
  • The exception to this is when you are describing a time when you didn’t do something well (some interview questions ask for times of failure). In this case you can state the negative outcome or failure as the key message. For example:
    • The senior managers were all away from the office
    • The data for the report wasn’t available until next week

Framing sets up the rest of your answer

Framing is a simple way to begin answering interview questions. But it isn’t usually a method for giving a complete answer. After you’ve framed your answer, now is the time to go into more detail. If you frame your answers, you reduce the risk of confusing your audience. In short, the interviewer will be ready to hear and understand your full answer.


If there is ever a situation where you want to get the first minute right, it’s in an interview. When you apply for a new role, in your current or a new organization, making a good first impression is critical.

Framing your answers gives you a simple, repeatable structure for starting answers. Not only that, the information you give will help the interviewer understand the rest of your answer. And when people understand what you’re saying you are being a good communicator.

To find out more about giving great answers in interviews, check out my book, The First Minute — Interview Answer Workbook. This 30-page instructional guide and workbook shows you the step by step process for creating clear, concise answers to tough interview questions.

Learn more with my book

The First Minute Interview Answer Workbook

The First Minute Interview Answer Workbook by Chris Fenning

Communication is listed as a top-five skill for almost all companies. There is no better time to show you have clear and concise communication than when answering interview questions.

This instructional guide and workbook shows you the step-by-step process for creating clear, concise answers to tough interview questions. The guidance and activities in this book will improve the quality of your interview answers.

  • Section 1 of this workbook covers the theory behind creating great interview answers. Examples are given to demonstrate the methods.
  • Section 2 provides activities and exercises for identifying the topics and problems you can use as examples in your interview. Activities then guide you through the creation of examples and answers you can use in your next interview. The result will be shorter, more organised examples that you can take with you to your next interview.