Five Strategies for Acing Your Next Job Interview August 14, 2016

By Lisa Ryan

You’ve probably seen it before: an interview with a high-profile celebrity or politician that is almost painful to watch because the responses have zero connection to the questions being asked. The subject hammers away at a few bland talking points or, even worse, rambles on incoherently. Either way, that burning question on everyone’s mind stays unanswered.

A famous person can get away with that. There’s only one Leonardo or Angelina or whoever and zillions of journalists fighting for a few minutes of their time. But when you interview for a job, it’s the other way around. There’s only one opening and you – the person answering the questions – are one of dozens or even hundreds of applicants.

With those long odds, it surprises me when candidates don’t answer the questions they’re being asked in an interview. As an executive recruiter, I see it myself. I hear about it from our clients, too. Maybe the candidate is nervous or arrogant or just isn’t listening. Whatever the reason, I can tell you how that movie ends: the employer hires someone else, someone who actually told them what they wanted to know.

The obvious advice here is to go in well prepared and with a humble mindset, respecting the process that could land you your dream job. But it’s possible to do all of that while still getting your own message across. Here’s how I recommend going about it:

  1. Know the job and the employer. Some candidates, particularly for very senior positions, let their confidence get the best of them and decide to “wing it” rather than prepare for an interview. As a first step, whatever level the job is at, you really need to learn as much as you can about the organization, the people there and the role. This will help you to draw relevant connections to your own background while responding to the questions that are being asked.
  2. Know your own brand. Good messaging has focus, and the “rule of three” is one way to achieve that. The idea – which has worked for everyone from ancient Greek philosophers to modern management consultants – is that people are most persuasive when they break their message down into three key points. Not two. Not five. Three. Before an interview, try thinking about the three key strengths that you most want to highlight. These could relate to your skills, experience, knowledge or any combination of those. They just need to be relevant to the job and need to cast you in a favorable light.
  3. Anticipate (and know your answers to) the most likely questions. This is where you match up your messaging (Point #2) to what you know about the job opportunity (Point #1). Based on your research, what are the dozen or so questions you are most likely to be asked? And how will you weave your personal branding into your responses? Obviously, you won’t hit on all of those points in every answer. That would be boring and robotic. But, as in a novel or a speech, you want certain themes to build over time so they resonate with your audience.
  4. Get comfortable with a bit of silence. Resist the temptation to start crafting a response before the person is done asking a question. An interview isn’t an episode of “Jeopardy.” A quick answer doesn’t win you anything, and you’re more likely to miss what is actually being asked. When the other person is talking, just concentrate on listening. And it’s OK to pause for a few seconds to collect your thoughts before responding. You might think of that as an awkward silence, but it won’t come across that way. If anything, it will show that you think before you speak.
  5. Expect the unexpected. You can’t prepare for everything. Curveballs are almost inevitable. A different person than you expected – or multiple people – might conduct the interview. A question might come out of left field. The whole conversation might move in a surprising direction. Don’t panic. Just listen and try your best to incorporate your own message while responding as directly as possible.

These strategies actually work. Recently, I was sitting in as a client interviewed someone for a prominent communications role. The candidate – the one who was ultimately offered the job – had us absolutely mesmerized. Answers were direct, to the point and relevant to the questions being asked. But there was also a cohesive, compelling narrative behind them that wove together personal experience and professional accomplishments. It was all very fact-based and sincere but a performance nonetheless – a masterful one. It was clear that the candidate had done the homework and pinpointed what the people doing the hiring cared about most. When you approach an interview with that kind of commitment and situational awareness, you make yourself very hard to forget when the time comes to make someone an offer.

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