Interview Skills that Win the Job Interview Skills that Win the Job Simple techniques for answering all the tough questions MICHAEL SPIROPOULOS First published in 2005 Copyright © Michael Spiropoulos 2005 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act. Allen & Unwin 83 Alexander Street Crows Nest NSW 2065 Australia Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100 Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218 Email: info@allenandunwin. om Web: www. allenandunwin. com National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry: Spiropoulos, Michael, 1959- . Interview skills that win the job: simple techniques for answering all the tough questions. ISBN 1 74114 188 5. 1. Employment interviewing. I. Title. 658. 31124 Set in 9. 5/13 pt Stone Serif by Bookhouse, Sydney Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 This book is dedicated to Suzanne Smith for her love and support Contents Contents
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Introduction: The path to interview success 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Interview myths Convincing them you’re right for the job Can you do the job? Same skills, different job Your potential to tackle new tasks ‘Are you the sort of person we can work with? ‘ Employers love motivated employees The ‘big five’ questions Building rapport and trust Effective answers to common questions ix 1 11 22 42 49 56 67 73 89 129 Introduction: The path to interview success Introduction: The path to interview success Interview Skills that Win the Job offers an innovative and exciting approach to developing interview skills.
As well as letting you know what’s needed to succeed at interviews, it goes one important step further and demonstrates how you can prepare your own answers including exercises designed to improve your skills. People who consistently succeed at interviews are those who take the time to prepare their own answers rather than simply using answers they have read or heard elsewhere. Whether you’re a recent school leaver or a seasoned professional, this book will show you how to prepare highly effective answers and how to deliver them in a confident manner whilst establishing that all-important rapport with interviewers.
The book recognises that one of the major obstacles to successful interviewing is organising a vast amount of detail about what you’ve done in previous jobs (or at school or university) and expressing this information in a clear and convincing way at the interview. The book has been designed specifically to prevent you from: • • giving those long-winded answers that drive interviewers to distraction; failing to mention important key achievements and kicking yourself afterwards; x interview skills that win the job • • being stumped by certain questions and not providing an intelligent response; failing to build rapport and trust.
In addition to teaching you how to respond to popular interview questions and distinguishing a good answer from a bad one, Interview Skills that Win the Job will go through the specific steps you need to establish rapport and trust during the course of the interview. The reason for this is simple: if you fail to establish rapport and trust, it is highly unlikely that you will get the job—no matter how technically brilliant your answers are. The skills and techniques you will develop from reading this book will remain with you for the rest of your working life.
They will immeasurably improve your chances of winning those hard-to-get jobs and contribute to a rewarding career. Interview Skills that Win the Job 1 Interview myths Interview myths One important reason people fail at interviews is because of several misconceptions, or myths, about what really happens during the course of an interview. All of us know that the purpose of interviews is for an interviewer to hire someone who will perform well in a particular job, but beyond that few people fully grasp how interviews really work and what makes one candidate stand out more than another.
This lack of understanding represents a major obstacle to maximising performance when sitting before an interviewer and trying to give your best answers. Interviews are no different to other endeavors in life: the better you understand how they work (or don’t work), the higher the probability of tackling them successfully. An understanding of the underlying dynamics inherent in most interviews is an important start to improving your interview performance. Myth no. 1: The best person for the job gets it Sometimes this is true—especially in a situation where everyone knows everyone else, such as when a company is recruiting internally.
However, this is often not the case. In order for the best person for the job to win it, a number of very important things need to be in place (and even then, there’s no guarantee). These include: 2 interview skills that win the job • • • • • The interviewer knows what questions to ask and how to search for the truthfulness in answers. These two things may sound simple enough, but I can assure you that a large proportion of people conducting interviews have received no training, lack interview experience and often do not even go to the trouble of preparing for the interview.
The interviewer is not taken in by the charm, good looks, great humour or any other aspect of the interviewee. This can be a difficult obstacle, even for experienced interviewers. The interviewee has learned how to clearly articulate their skills, key achievements and how they can add value to the organisation. There is no personality clash between interviewer and interviewee. Neither party is having a bad day. Some employers—usually the ones who have been badly burnt by hiring the wrong people in the past—go to great lengths to set up professional hiring procedures designed to minimise hiring mistakes.
Whilst some of these procedures are effective in improving candidate selection, they do not guarantee that the best person for the job will actually win it. In the final analysis, choosing someone for a job involves at least one human being making a decision about another, and no matter what we do to eliminate subjectivity, as human beings it is impossible to put aside our predispositions, predilections and personal preferences—no matter how much we may try to. In an ideal world, the best person for the job would always win it; however, the reality is that it is often the person who performs best at the interview who wins the prize.
The important lessons here are: • Don’t automatically pull out of applying for a job if you know someone better suited for the job is also applying for it. If you go to the trouble of preparing properly for the interview, there’s a good chance that you may be seen as the preferred candidate— especially if the other person takes the interview for granted and fails to prepare. If you happen to know that you’re the best person for the job, avoid taking the interview for granted. Behave as though you’re • interview myths 3 competing against formidable rivals.
Take the time to prepare properly. Just because you’ve got a lot of experience does not mean you know how to convey this message at an interview. Myth no. 2: Interviews are like school exams— the more you say, the better you’ll do Yes, interviews are a bit like exams in so far as that you’re asked a number of questions to which you need to respond intelligently, but there the similarities end. Unlike exams, where lots of accurate detail is important, interviews are more about interacting and rapport building whilst simultaneously articulating smart answers.
And a smart answer is often not the most detailed. In fact, long and overly detailed answers can drive interviewers to distraction, despite their technical accuracy. Knowing when to stop talking is a skill all successful interviewees have. Also unlike many exams, there are often no right or wrong answers in interviews. We’re all different and come to interviews from different backgrounds and business sitations. What is important at an interview is to justify your actions and talk about your achievements in a confident manner. Myth no. 3: Interviewers know what they’re doing
Some interviewers are very good at what they do, especially fulltime professionals (provided they’re not suffering from interview fatigue). However, many managers and owners of small businesses often flounder because interviewing is not something they do on a regular basis. Some sure signs of a bad interviewer are: • • • • They do most of the talking. They sound as though they’ve made up their mind about you in the first five minutes. They seem to pluck their questions randomly out of the ether. Their phone keeps ringing and they answer it. 4 nterview skills that win the job • They sound like very sharp and less-than-honest salespeople when it comes to selling the job. Some sure signs of a good interviewer are: • • • • • • They have their questions carefully prepared in advance. They want to know what you’ve done and how you’ve done it, including specific examples. They let you do most of the talking. They may want to interview you more than once. They will try to make you feel at ease. They are genuinely interested in your accomplishments, skills and the type of person you are.
Inexperienced interviewers generally don’t ask the right questions and can easily be swayed by factors that have little to do with your ability to perform in the job. So if you are being interviewed by an inexperienced interviewer, don’t wait to be asked a good question— one that will allow you to talk about all your wonderful skills and qualities. Rather, take the initiative in as unobtrusive a way as possible and talk about the things you feel the interviewer might really want to know. Unfortunately, this may not always be possible—especially if you’re being interviewed by a forceful personality who loves the sound of their own voice.
If ever you find yourself in such a situation, don’t panic. Remind yourself that interviews are just as much about rapport-building as they are about answering questions. So nod your head, smile and make all the right noises—talkative interviewers love people who agree with them. Myth no. 4: Never say ‘I don’t know’ Interviews are about making a positive impression by answering questions intelligently and building rapport with the interviewer. To this end, many interviewees feel that they have to provide the perfect answer to every question put to them, irrespective of whether or not they actually know the answer.
Clearly, a great interview is one in which you can answer all the questions (and you should be interview myths 5 able to do so if you take the time to prepare correctly); however, if you don’t know the answer to something, it is better to admit to it rather than pretend to know and start waffling. Most interviewers can pick waffling a mile away and they don’t like it for a couple of very important reasons: first, it is likely to make you sound dishonest; and second, it will make you sound considerably less than intelligent. You may as well not attend the interview if you give the impression that you’re neither honest nor bright.
Trying to answer a question that you have little idea about could undermine an otherwise great interview. This does not mean that you cannot attempt answers that you are unsure of. There’s nothing wrong with having a go, as long as you make your uncertainty clear to the interviewer at the outset. Here’s what an answer may sound like: I have to be honest and say that this is not an area I’m familiar with, though I am very interested in it. If you like, I’m happy to have a go at trying to address the issue, as long as you’re not expecting the perfect answer.
Or: I’d love to answer that question, but I need to be honest upfront and say that this is not an area that I’m overly familiar with, though I’m very interested in increasing my knowledge about it. Myth no. 5: Good-looking people get the job I suppose if the job was for a drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale type in a movie, then good looks would certainly help, but for most other jobs the way you look is not as big a deal as many people make out. As we’ve already discussed, there will always be an inexperienced employer who will hire on the basis of superficial factors, but most employers are smarter than that.
The claim that good-looking people get the job over plain-looking people makes one seriously flawed assumption—that employers make a habit of putting someone’s good looks before the interests of their livelihood. All my experience 6 interview skills that win the job has taught me the contrary. Most businesses find themselves in highly competitive environments and employers are only too keenly aware that a poor hiring decision can prove very costly. This is not to say that appearance and a bright personality are not important factors at an interview.
It is very important that you dress appropriately and try your best to demonstrate all your friendly qualities. Good looks are certainly overrated in interviews, but an appropriate appearance and a friendly personality are not. Myth no. 6: If you answer the questions better than the others, you’ll get the job Being able to articulate good answers in an interview is very important, and failure to do so will almost certainly mean you don’t get the job. However, interviews—as we’ve already seen—are much more than just giving good answers. They’re also about convincing the interviewer that you will be a nice person to work with.
To put it another way, it doesn’t matter how good your answers are technically, if the interviewer doesn’t like you there’s not much chance you’ll get the job (unless your talents are unique, extremely difficult to find or the interviewer is desperate). So avoid thinking about interviews just in terms of answering questions correctly. Interviews are also about establishing rapport and trust, and whilst there is no fail-safe method in doing this, there are things you can do (and things you should not do) that will go a long way towards improving your skills in this all-important area of interviewing.
Myth no. 7: You should try to give the perfect answer I’ve heard too many people stumble over their words, repeat themselves and talk in circles because they’re trying to articulate the perfect answer—or what they think constitutes the perfect answer. Some people are so obsessed with delivering the perfect answer that interview myths 7 they don’t stop until they produce what in their opinion is a wordperfect response. Because we can never be entirely sure of what the interviewer wants to hear, some of us will keep on talking in the hope that we’ll cover all bases.
The problem with this approach is that we end up talking too much, leading to the interviewer losing concentration— which, of course, is the last thing you need at an interview. The reality is that in most cases there is no such thing as the perfect answer. The lesson here is: it makes a lot of sense to settle for a good answer that gets to the point rather than meander all over the place searching for the elusive perfect answer. Myth no. 8: You must ask questions to demonstrate your interest and intelligence Many interviewees are under the mistaken belief that they must ask questions at the end of the interview.
There seems to be a common belief amongst many interviewees that this makes them sound more intelligent as well as more interested in the job. This is not true. Asking questions simply for the sake of doing so won’t improve your chances of getting a job. It could even make you sound a little dull—especially if you ask questions about matters that were already covered during the course of the interview. Only ask a question if you have a genuine query. Acceptable questions include those relating directly to the job you’re applying for, as well as working conditions and company policies on such things as on pay, leave, and so on.
Interviewers never mind answering questions about such matters, but they do mind answering questions they perceive to be irrelevant. If you have no questions to ask, simply say something like: ‘Thankyou, but I have no questions. You’ve been very thorough during the course of the interview and have covered all the important matters regarding the job. ‘ There’s nothing wrong with including a compliment to the interviewer about their thoroughness and professionalism—provided it doesn’t go over the top or sound like grovelling. 8 interview skills that win the job Two further points need to be made about asking questions.
First, avoid asking too many questions. On the whole, interviewers do not enjoy role reversals. Second, never ask potentially embarrassing questions. These can include: • • • a question relating to a negative incident; something that’s not supposed to be in the public domain; a difficult question that may stump the interviewer. The rule of thumb is: if you think a question may cause embarrassment, err on the side of caution and avoid it. Myth no. 9: Relax and just be yourself Whilst it is important to be relaxed and show your better side, it is also very important to understand that interviews are not social engagements.
Most interviews are highly formalised events in which otherwise innocuous behaviours are deemed unacceptable. In short, being your usual self could spell disaster (as contradictory as that may sound). For example, if being yourself means leaning back on your chair, dressing somewhat shabbily and making jokes, you might find yourself attending an inordinate number of interviews. Whilst interviewers like people to be relaxed, they also have definite expectations about what behaviours are appropriate for an interview— and you violate these expectations at your peril!
Myth no. 10: Interviewers are looking for flaws The danger with this myth is that it can easily lead to interviewees adopting a defensive, perhaps even distrustful, attitude during the interview. If you believe that the interviewer is assiduously searching for your flaws, it will more than likely undermine your attempts to establish that all-important rapport and trust. It may also prevent you from opening up and giving really good answers. Rest assured that most interviewers do not prepare their interview questions with a view to uncovering your flaws.
Questions are mostly prepared with a view interview myths 9 to giving the interviewer an overall or holistic insight into what you have to offer the company. A good interviewer will indeed uncover areas in which you are not strong, but that is a far cry from thinking that the interviewer is hell bent on uncovering only your flaws. It is very important to treat every question as an opportunity to excel rather than being unnecessarily guarded. It is only by answering the questions that you can demonstrate how good you are. To treat questions as objects of suspicion makes no sense at all.
Understanding the myths surrounding interviews gives you a great start for success. Remember, interviews are no different to other endeavors in life: the better you understand their underlying nature the higher the probability you’ll tackle them successfully. An insight into common interview myths will arm you with the information you need to prevent you from falling into those disheartening traps. Just as importantly, a clearer picture of the true nature of interviews better informs the rest of your preparation and will contribute to your confidence and performance. Summary of key points The best person for the job does not necessarily win it—often it’s the person who gives the best interview. • Interviews are more than just giving technically correct answers. They’re also very much about building rapport. • Not all interviewers know what they’re doing; your job is to know how to handle the good and bad interviewer. • It’s better to be honest and admit ignorance than try to pretend you know an answer and come across as disingenuous and less than bright. • Good looking people win jobs—maybe in Hollywood movies, but on the whole, employers are keen to hire talent over superficial factors. Striving to give the perfect answer can get you into trouble. It’s better 10 interview skills that win the job to give a good answer that’s to the point rather than searching for perfection; besides, often there’s no such thing as the perfect answer. • Do not ask questions for the sake of it. Only ask a question if you have a genuine query that has not been covered. • Interviews are formal occasions requiring relatively formal behaviours. Interviewers will expect this and may react negatively if they don’t see it. • Interviewers do not spend all their time looking for your flaws.
They’re more interested in getting an overall picture of who you are. Avoid answering questions defensively. It’s much better to see every question as an opportunity to highlight your best points. 2 Convincing them you’re right for the job Convincing them you’re right for the job Doing well at interviews is not nearly as difficult as many people think. With correct preparation and a little practice, most people who dread interviews can learn to excel. The important thing to note is that performing well at interviews is a learned process.
Highly effective interviewees are not born with interview skills; rather, they teach themselves what to say, how to say it and how to behave during an interview. Common interview mistakes All of us have made mistakes during interviews, and most of us have walked out of interviews thinking of all the great things we forgot to mention and all the things we shouldn’t have said. But the most important thing about mistakes is learning from them—and not repeating them. Here are some common interview mistakes: • Failing to express oneself clearly.
Often, because of anxiety and wanting to say things perfectly, we try too hard and turn what should be simple sentences into convoluted nonsense. Simple language is always the most effective. Avoid trying to sound knowledgeable by using jargon or complex sentences. Not being aware of one’s body language. Many interviewees succeed in alienating the interviewer because they pay little or no • 12 interview skills that win the job • • • attention to their body language. Body language is an extremely powerful communicator, and failing to use it effectively will almost certainly put you at a significant disadvantage.
Eye contact, sitting position and facial expressions are all very important aspects of interviewing, and need to be thought through before the interview. Failing to control those nerves. Sometimes people allow their nerves to get so out of control that they fail to establish rapport and even forget their answers. Feeling anxious before and during an interview is common. In fact, a touch of nerves can be a good thing. But there is no need to be the victim of debilitating nerves. As you read through this book, you’ll gradually learn how to lessen your anxiety.
Failing to give appropriate examples. Failing to give examples, or giving inappropriate examples, will spell disaster. Before the interview, it is important to think of relevant examples of what you’ve achieved and how you went about realising those achievements. Saying that you achieved something without being able to back it up with specific examples will only get you a rejection letter. Your examples need to be easy to understand, follow a logical sequence and be relevant to the needs of the employer. None of this happens without preparation. Trying too hard to please the interviewer.
Whilst building rapport and trust during the interview is critical, few interviewers appreciate interviewees going overboard with their behaviour. Obsequious behaviours are generally seen as a form of deceit and carry little weight—in fact, they can undermine your efforts to create trust. There’s nothing wrong with you You’ve probably committed at least some of the mistakes listed above. It’s very important to realise that making such mistakes is common. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you. In the vast majority of cases, performing poorly at an interview happens because onvincing them you’re right for the job 13 of the very nature of interviews—it’s the interview process that is the culprit. So an awareness of the basic nature of interviews is the first step in a step-by-step process by which you can significantly improve your performance. A great place to start is to ask: ‘What does it take to convince the interviewer that you’re the best person for the job? ‘ The answer to this question can best be summarised in four parts: • • • • correct preparation; knowing the things that are important to interviewers; practising your answers; perseverance. Correct preparation
How well you perform at an interview will largely depend on how well you have prepared for it. Failure to correctly prepare almost certainly means you will not perform at your best. In some cases, it will mean performing quite badly, which may contribute to the erosion of your confidence. Even if you’re lucky enough to be the favoured candidate, and are almost certain to win the position by just turning up, you should still take the time to prepare because the better you perform, the greater the likelihood that you will negotiate a better salary—and often the difference in money can be substantial.
We’ve all heard people boast that they’ve never prepared for an interview in their lives and have done all right. Whilst this boast may not be an idle one, closer inspection will usually reveal that these people were: • • • • lucky—that is, in the right place at the right time; well connected; working in a favourable labour market where there was a huge demand for employees coupled with low supply; applying for jobs well within their comfort zone—that is, not stretching themselves to improve their position; or 14 interview skills that win the job • pplying for jobs internally and competing mainly against external candidates. The case for preparation The argument for interview preparation becomes compelling when you give some thought to the basic nature of interviews. Not only are you expected to sell yourself in a competitive environment, but you’re also expected to compress large and often complex pieces of information into neat and highly articulate answers that avoid any negative connotations and contain the information the interviewer wants to hear. It’s no wonder people’s stress levels increase. But it doesn’t end there.
There are three additional reasons that make the case for interview preparation even more compelling: • • Interviews are rare events, thus making them unfamiliar and awkward. Many people find it very difficult to sell themselves at interviews because they’ve been conditioned by family and society not to blow their own trumpet. Making simple statements such as ‘I am very good at selling xyz’ can be quite an obstacle to overcome. In most interviews, coming second isn’t good enough. It’s not just a matter of performing well; it’s also a matter of beating everyone else. It is unimaginable that you would fail to prepare for an event that is infrequent, competitive and requires behaviours not normally used. Yet that is exactly what people do when they walk into an interview without preparation. What is incorrect preparation? Incorrect preparation is any preparation that will not optimise your performance at an interview. Rote-learning generic answers that someone else has prepared has limited value. At best, they can give you an insight into what may constitute a good answer; at worst, they simply lead you astray.
It is important to understand that, in convincing them you’re right for the job 15 the vast majority of cases, there’s no such thing as a single answer to a question. What may constitute a great answer for one employer may be viewed as quite ordinary by another. One of the worst things you can do is learn other people’s responses off by heart and repeat them at an interview. Repeating other people’s so-called great answers can make you sound disingenuous and make you look a bit ridiculous when asked a probing follow up question. It makes a lot more sense to prepare your own answers.
Advantages of preparation Taking the time to correctly prepare for an interview will: • • • • • • improve your confidence levels; assist you in answering questions succinctly, as opposed to taking forever to make a simple point; help you know what to say and how to say it; assist you in handling difficult questions; help you avoid saying things that will make a negative impression; improve your rapport-building skills. Knowing the things that are important to interviewers One of the keys to knowing what to prepare lies in understanding the needs of the interviewer.
Once you know the things that are important to interviewers, interview preparation suddenly becomes a lot clearer and a lot more manageable. The vast majority of interviewers—whether or not they realise it—want to hear three things from you. In fact, nearly all good interview questions boil down to these three key generic questions: • Can you do the job? In other words, do you have the skills, knowledge, experience or potential to perform well in the job? Most interviewers will spend the majority of the interview probing you on this question. They’ll want to know what you’ve done, how you did it and what the outcomes were.
In the event you 16 interview skills that win the job • • have not performed a particular duty, they will try to ascertain your potential to do the job. Are you the sort of person they can work with? Another way of stating this question is: Will you fit into the existing culture of the organisation? Or, in the case of small organisations: Will you get on with the boss? Whilst interviewers generally spend a lot less time on this question, it is nevertheless a vitally important one— that’s because no one wants to work with someone they don’t like, even if they can do the job. How motivated are you?
In other words, what energy levels and drive do you bring to the position? You may not even be asked a question about your motivation levels, but you fail to address it at your peril. As we all know, highly motivated employees are keenly sought after by employers—with good reason. There are two significant benefits in knowing that interviewers are keenly interested in these three generic questions, and that the vast majority of questions they can ask fall under one or more of these categories. First, it guides you in the preparation of your answers (a large part of this book is based on answering these three key questions).
Rather than spending lots of time wading through randomly selected questions in the hope that you will have prepared the right answers, an understanding of the significance of the three key generic questions provides a direction and platform for your preparation. In short, you are able to plan your preparation around the following issues: • • • your skills, knowledge and experience—can you do the job? (see Chapters 3, 4 and 5); your personal attributes—are you the sort of person they can work with? (see Chapter 6); your motivation levels (see Chapter 7).
Second, it provides a useful way to deal with questions at the actual interview. By sorting interview questions into one or more of the three generic question categories, your answers will gain added structure and a clearer direction simply because you know what the convincing them you’re right for the job 17 underlying purpose of the questions is. By learning how to recognise the real intent of a question, you minimise your chances of giving the wrong answer and/or waffling. Practice The third aspect of convincing an interviewer that you’re the best person for the job is practice.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to developing great interview skills. Once you’ve prepared your answers, you need to sit down and practise them as much as you can. The more you practise, the better you’ll be. As the old saying goes, ‘success is one part talent and nine parts perseverance’. How you practise is up to you. Do it in front of the mirror, sitting on your couch, pacing your room or while driving your car—but avoid practising in front of your boss! Practising your answers aloud It is important to practise your answers aloud, rather than just mentally rehearsing them.
That’s because the human brain distinguishes between talking and thinking and you need to stimulate the talking part of your brain. Thinking your answers at an interview will get you nowhere, unless the interviewer is a mind reader. Get some feedback Ideally, you should do your practising at real interviews. The more interviews you attend, the better—even if you have to attend interviews for jobs that you’re not really interested in. After the interview—assuming you’re not the winning candidate—ring back the interviewer and ask for feedback on your performance.
Some interviewers are happy to provide this feedback; however, many prefer not to because they find it threatening and a waste of their time. These people will either avoid you altogether or provide you with such watered-down feedback that it will be virtually useless. 18 interview skills that win the job In some instances you may not be able to resolve this problem; however, you can increase your chances of getting honest feedback by making interviewers feel as comfortable as possible. You can do this by a) assuring them that ou only want five minutes of their time; and b) telling them that the only reason you’re seeking feedback is to improve future interview performance. Mock interviews If you cannot get yourself to as many interviews as you would like, it’s a good idea to set up mock interviews with someone you can work with. The more closely you can simulate a real-life situation, more benefit you will derive. An effective way to conduct mock interviews is to get into role and stay in it for the entire interview. No distractions, no small talk and especially no starting again.
If possible, avoid providing the questions to your helpers—let them come up with their own. If your helpers are not in a position to do this, give them lots of questions and ask them to choose the ones they want. The important thing for you is to get yourself used to answering unexpected questions. Furthermore, if you feel your helper can provide you with honest feedback on your performance, do not shy away from asking. You never know what you may learn. Often it’s the small things that make a big difference. But be on your guard for overly positive feedback.
Chances are that your helper will be a friend, and friends are well known for avoiding negatives. Perseverance The worst thing you can do when setting out to improve your interview performance is give up because it all seems too hard. Quitters invariably get nowhere. They certainly don’t land great jobs and build great careers. On the other hand, people who persevere very often gain valuable insights simply because they have the stamina to stick it out. convincing them you’re right for the job 19 The people we admire most are often those who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles yet instead of quitting, quietly resolve to overcome them.
On the other side of the coin, the people we generally least respect are those who are forever starting things without finishing them. They tend to be the same people who make grandiose claims but end up delivering little or nothing. One common characteristic that chronic quitters tend to have is low self-esteem— they don’t really believe in themselves. And if you don’t believe in yourself, others usually don’t believe in you either—not a great place to be when you’re trying to convince interviewers to believe in your abilities.
These are the people who are often heard saying things such as: ‘That’s too hard’, ‘I can’t learn that’, ‘What will others think’, etc. They also tend to be the people who are always complaining about things but never seem to take any action to correct them because there’s always an excuse. You don’t have to be a chronic quitter or burdened with low self-esteem to give up on working on your interview skills—there could be any number of other reasons. However, if you’re reading this book there’s a good chance that improving your interview skills is an important priority in your life, and therefore should not be let go easily.
If you feel you might be one of those people who is standing on the precipice of quitting, here is a little exercise that can assist you to take a step or two back from the edge. Suggested activity: Neurolinguistic programming Based on neurolinguistic programming (NLP), this exercise is designed to influence how you feel. People often quit because they associate negative feelings with what they’re doing. People who persevere have the power to feel good about their actions no matter how tedious or unconstructive these actions may seem to others.
If you can make yourself feel good about the process of improving your interview skills, then there’s a good chance that quitting will be the last thing on your mind. Next time you feel like quitting, you might like to find a quiet spot and take the following steps: 20 interview skills that win the job • • • Close your eyes and imagine yourself performing extremely well in an interview. Take your time to view this picture in as much detail as you can. Picture the faces of the enthusiastic interviewers, noticing how attentive they are and how impressed they are with your responses.
Immerse yourself in the experience. Pay attention to the details, including sounds, smells, colours, temperature, and so on. Above all, capture the feeling of being successful. Do not hold yourself back. The better you make yourself feel, the more powerful the exercise will be. Keep on repeating this exercise until you capture that feeling of excitement. You may be able to generate greater excitement by picturing yourself in your new job. Imagine how good it is going to feel winning a great job. Imagine getting that all important phone call informing you of your success.
Picture yourself in the position doing all those things you’ve dreamt of doing. The key to this exercise is to generate the great feeling that goes with succeeding at an interview. Your only limitation is your imagination. Once you’ve captured that feeling, the next step is to recreate it when you need it—in other words, when you feel like quitting. An effective way of recreating the feeling of excitement is by installing what NLP refers to as an anchor. An anchor is a stimulus that triggers the desired feelings when you want them. An anchor can be something you do, say or imagine.
Action anchors usually work best. For example, you might cross your fingers or jump up in the air or pull your ears. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you can do it easily when you want to and trigger the desired feelings. Every time you’re afflicted with the scourge of quitting, use your anchor and let your ability to influence your feelings do the rest. Summary of key points • Because of their nature, interviews are inherently challenging. Making mistakes at an interview is something that everyone does. The good convincing them you’re right for the job 21 • • • • • ews is that we can overcome our errors by correct preparation, practice and perseverance. Beware of faulty preparation. Avoid rote learning of other people’s answers. Always prepare your own. Knowing what employers want to hear at an interview constitutes a great start for preparing your own answers and simplifies interview preparation. What most employers want to hear can be represented by three key questions: – Can you do the job? – Are you the sort of person they can work with? – How motivated are you? Get in as much practice as you can and always ask for honest feedback. Perseverance is everything.
Banish all thoughts of quitting by teaching yourself to associate strong feelings of excitement with improving your interview skills. 3 Can you do the job? Can you do the job? Before an employer decides to give someone a job, they need to be convinced that the person can either do the job properly or learn it quickly. It comes as no surprise to learn therefore that ‘Can you do the job? ‘ questions are the most common. They’re also the ones people spend most time preparing for. ‘Can you do the job? ‘ questions are those that directly or indirectly seek to ascertain your ability to perform the duties inherent in a job.
They include questions that seek to clarify your: • • • • • skills; knowledge; experience; key achievements; potential performance. Examples of ‘Can you do the job? ‘ questions include: • Can you give us an example of a time you had to communicate something that was complex and controversial? How did you go about it? Tell us about one of your key achievements? An irate client rings and gives you a blast over the phone. How do you handle it? What do you think you can bring to this position? • • • can you do the job? 23 • • • • • •
Can you give us an example of a project that you had to plan and organise? What steps did you take? How would you describe yourself? (At first glance this may not strike you as a ‘Can you do the job? ‘ question, but effective interviewees always look for ways to highlight their skills. ) What would you say makes an effective manager of people? Why should we employ you? What do you regard as your greatest strength? The most important duty in your job will be to look after the x, y and z. Tell us how you intend going about it. Three types of ‘Can you do the job? ‘ questions
Unless you’re being interviewed for a job that’s almost identical to one you’ve already had, it is likely that you will be asked three types of ‘Can you do the job? ‘ questions. These are: • • • questions about duties that you have performed before (see Chapter 3); questions about duties that you have not performed but whose skills you have mastered (see Chapter 4); questions about duties that are entirely new to you (see Chapter 5). Finding out as much about the job as possible The first thing you need to do is take a very close look at the duties and requirements of the job you’re applying for.
It is these duties and requirements that will form the basis of your answers. There are several ways of collecting this sort of information: • scrutinising the job advertisement; • accessing a duty statement—if there is one; • contacting the employer or recruitment agent to clarify the main responsibilities of the job. 24 interview skills that win the job In an ideal world, you would have access to a detailed job advertisement, an up-to-date duty statement and an employer happy to discuss the main responsibilities of the job.
Unfortunately, all too often the reality is that job ads are thinly worded, duty statements are non-existent and employers do not have time to return your calls. However, it is critical that you find out as much about the job as possible before sitting down and thinking about your answers. The best source of information is either the employer or the recruitment agent. Job ads and duty statements are useful (sometimes they’re all that you will have); however, duty statements can often be out of date and job ads can lack sufficient information.
Talking to the right people can provide you with insights that often cannot be picked up from the written word. You might find out, for example, that the position you’re applying for was made vacant because the previous incumbent had poor interpersonal communication skills and became aggressive when anyone expressed a differing opinion. In such a case, it is likely that the employer will be looking for a replacement with excellent interpersonal communication and team player skills. You’d have a far better chance of winning the job if you had accessed this information before the interview and taken the time to prepare your answers.
Talking to an employer to find out more If you’re able to talk to the employer, be sure you’ve got your questions prepared. The last thing you want to do is waste their time by stumbling through poorly thought-out questions. If the employer does not return your call, do not throw in the towel. Often the person who answers the phone can be an invaluable source of information—especially in small to medium sized enterprises. There’s a good chance that they know a great deal about the position, or they might know someone else who does and is willing to talk to you.
Here are some useful rules when talking to an employer before the interview: can you do the job? 25 • • • • • Avoid small talk and get straight to the point. Small talk will be seen as sucking up—which, of course, it is! Avoid asking too many questions—just ask the important ones, unless the employer has made it obvious that they’ve got lots of time on their hands and is willing to talk to you. Never ask frivolous questions—those that can be answered from the advertisement or that a good applicant would be expected to know the answers to.
Where necessary, provide a succinct reason why you’re asking the question—the employer may not understand the significance of the question and could draw the wrong conclusions. Thank them for their time and tell them you’re looking forward to the interview. A quick word about duty statements Duty statements are simply a summary of the main duties of a job. Whilst they’re a great source of information, they can be out of date. So, if you’ve been sent one, make the effort to find out whether the information on it is still valid. Checking on a duty statement can represent a great opportunity to contact the employer and ask a few questions.
Unfortunately, duty statements are usually the preserve of large organisations. Smaller companies generally lack the resources to write them. Gleaning information from a job advertisement When you scrutinise the job advertisement, make a list of all the duties/requirements associated with the position. The idea is to try to read between the lines as much as possible. The more duties and requirements you come up with, the more thorough your preparation will be, which will lessen the chances of being caught unprepared at the interview. 26 interview skills that win the job
The four steps to interview success The four steps to interview success are designed to capture all the relevant information you need to construct interview answers within a simple-to-manage framework. This method features four columns, with the headings shown below in Table 3. 1. Table 3. 1 The four steps to interview success Step 1 Duties/requirements of the position I’m applying for Step 2 Step 3 Step 4 Outcomes— organisational and personal What I’ve already Current or past done that relates context directly to the duties listed in step 1, including overcoming obstacles
By filling out each of the columns in the table, you are effectively collecting all the information you’ll need to answer a broad range of questions. Most importantly, it’s your relevant information, not information gathered from other people’s answers you’ve read elsewhere. Once you’ve captured the required information, your next step is to put it together in response to a range of likely interview questions and then practise your answers. Behavioural questions One of the key advantages of the four steps method is that it lends itself to addressing a popular questioning technique commonly referred to as behavioural questioning.
You can recognise one of these questions every time an interviewer asks you for specific examples to back up a claim you have made, including the steps you took and the obstacles you encountered. Behavioural questions are designed to uncover the actions (behaviours) behind an outcome or a duty, and cannot be successfully answered without preparing the third column. If you’re a graduate or a new entrant to the workforce, there’s still a good chance that you will be asked behavioural questions; however, they will be limited in scope. Instead of asking for can you do the job? 27 mployment-related experience, interviewers will ask for study- or life-related incidences. For example, the interviewer may want to know how well you function in a team, so may ask you about the last time you had to complete an assignment with a group of students. The same principle applies to communication skills, planning and organising, conflict resolution, your ability to cope with change, and so on. Using the four steps Once you’ve come up with as much information as you can about the job, you need to start thinking about preparing your answers regarding duties you’ve performed before.
All you need to do is recount your past actions and achievements and link them to the new job. But be careful not to take these interviews for granted. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of not preparing because you think that the questions will be easy. However, just because you’ve performed the same duties does not mean you will be able to articulate the details of what you did and how you did it. There’s a big difference between doing something and actually having to talk about it in a succinct and coherent fashion.
Your first step is to select all the duties/requirements of the new job that you have performed before and recount your past actions and achievements in a way that will make the creation of effective answers easy. Use Table 3. 1 to capture all the information you will need, including what you did, how you did it, the context in which you did it and the outcomes. A more detailed explanation of each of the steps, including what to include and not include in each column, follows. Step1: Duties or requirements List the duties and requirements of the job you’re applying for in the first column. 28 interview skills that win the job
Step 2: What you did and how you did it The second column (step 2) contains the core of your answers, including the obstacles you overcame to satisfy the duties or requirements listed in step 1. When filling out this column, avoid writing broad-ranging or general answers, though this may not always be possible. The idea is to break up the duty or requirement listed in step 1 into its primary tasks or components. It helps if you ask yourself the following question: In order to complete the duty or requirement in step 1, what individual actions did I take, including any actions I took to overcome obstacles?
Then list these in a logical sequence. Avoid rushing through this step, especially if it has been a while since you’ve performed a particular duty. A good idea is to write all the things you can think of and then reduce the list down to the key points. Include specific examples. Be careful not to over-elaborate when filling out the second column. Doing so can inadvertently lead to answers containing far too much detail. Given that many interviewees feel they have to show off their hard-earned knowledge, it is easy to go overboard in step 2.
But, in the vast majority of cases, you are not required to cover every contingency when answering a question. Try to avoid talking for longer than you should, thus boring the interviewer. Most interviewers are able to draw sensible inferences from the main points in your answer. If they want more information, they’ll ask for it. If you do have lots of great information that you absolutely feel cannot be left out, then go ahead and list them in the second column, but be selective about what you use at the interview. Only choose the most relevant points.
You can leave your other points for other questions or, if there are no follow-up questions, pat yourself on the back for being thorough in your preparation. Not providing exhaustive answers at an interview makes a lot of sense when you factor in the importance of rapport-building during the course of an interview. Remember: building rapport with the interviewer is the most important thing you can do at an interview and talking too much works against that all-important goal. can you do the job? 29 How long should my answers be?
Some answers can be as short as one word; others may run into many sentences. It all depends on the question and the circumstances. Here are some helpful guidelines on keeping your answers within acceptable parameters. Let’s make some reasonable assumptions. Say your interview will run for 40 minutes. Take away five minutes for settling and the exchange of pleasantries. That leaves you about 35 minutes. (It never hurts to ask how long the interview will run, but ask before the interview, not at the actual interview, lest you give the impression that you’re in a hurry to be somewhere else. Now, let’s say the job contains ten main duties and requirements and that the interviewer has prepared two questions per primary duty/requirement. That means you have to answer, at a minimum, twenty questions within 35 minutes, which means you’ll have a little under two minutes per question. This does not mean that you set your timer at one minute and fifty seconds for every question—it simply means that it is reasonable to assume the interviewers have left a little less than two minutes to get through their primary questions.
However, it is also reasonable to assume that the interviewer may want to spend more time on particular questions. If you’ve done your homework, there’s a good chance that you’ll know beforehand which questions the interviewers will wish to spend a little extra time on. If not, it’s up to you to be as alert as possible during the interview. Look out for any clues (such as body language and tone of voice) that may indicate the interviewer is placing extra importance on particular questions. The point is that it’s OK to spend a little extra time on these sorts of questions.
Avoid subjective or liberal interpretations of questions. Listen very carefully to the question, and answer it. This sounds obvious, but people do have a bad habit of assuming that the interviewer is wanting to hear a whole lot of other things. Just stick to the question. If interviewers have other questions, there’s a good chance they’ll ask them. 30 interview skills that win the job Step 3: Context Once you’ve listed what you did and how you did it under step 2, it is important to give some thought to the context or situation in which you did it.
Without context, your answers will sound empty or only half-completed. In fact, as we shall see a little later, it is often a good idea to begin your answers by giving the interviewer an insight into the context in which you performed the duties. For example, it’s better to start an answer by saying, ‘I planned and organised my work in a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment where clients wanted everything in a big hurry’, rather than saying, ‘I planned and organised my work by ensuring that my work schedule took upcoming events into account’.
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with the latter, the former is a better beginning because it sets the scene and gives the interviewer a better insight into the environment in which you worked. By talking about context, you’re giving the interviewer a better appreciation of the work you did, as well as its relevance to the job you’re applying for. Without a clearly articulated context, your answers will consist of little more than a bunch of tasks you completed. And there’s a good chance interviewers will adopt one of those indifferent expressions indicating that, no matter what you say thereafter, they have decided you’re not getting the job.
Please note that you only need to establish context once for each job you did. Repeating context for the same job is nonsensical and is likely to make the interviewer think that you bumped your head against something hard on your way to the interview! Step 4: Outcomes This step involves writing down the key outcomes or results of your actions. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that many people find it difficult to articulate the good things that have resulted from their work. When I ask them why, I soon discover it’s because many of them don’t think in terms of outcomes.
Unfortunately, their thinking is primarily confined to what they did, and sometimes T m a e how they did it. However, outcomes or achievements are arguably the most important aspect of your work. There’s little point in doing all the right things if you don’t achieve any positive outcomes. From an interviewer’s point of view, outcomes are critical. When thinking about outcomes, it is useful to separate them into organisation and personal categories. F Y L can you do the job? 31 Organisational outcomes Organisational outcomes include any improvements accrued by the organisation as a result of your work.
Sometimes these are easy to quantify, especially if you’ve been involved in making, selling, installing or changing something. When thinking about organisational outcomes, many people confine themselves to the evident outcomes— or the things they actually did. Examples of evident outcomes include such things as implementing a new filing system, changing report templates or building a new database for keeping track of customer contacts. Needless to say, it is important to mention these outcomes at an interview. However, the shortfall with evident outcomes is that they fail to articulate their primary benefits to the organisation.
Saying you implemented a new filing system is great, but your answer would be much better if you also articulated the benefit of this new filing system to the employer. For example: • • • • • Productivity rose by 5 per cent. Quality of service, as measured by customer feedback, improved significantly. Customer service levels improved by 12 per cent. Staff satisfaction and moral improved by over 8 per cent. Turn-around times nearly halved. ‘Best guess’ estimates are fine in this situation. You will have noticed that most of the above outcomes are quantified.
In general, quantified outcomes sound a lot more credible than just saying something ‘improved’. However, if you do not have specific numbers to talk about, approximations will do—providing you can back them up. Unfortunately, many interviewees feel they cannot talk about the specific improvements their efforts led to 32 interview skills that win the job because they worked for an organisation that did not measure outcomes. If you find yourself in this situation, you should not allow your employer’s failure to measure to deter you from articulating ‘best guess’ improvements.
You are entitled to say to the interviewer that, even though the benefits to the organisation were not measured, you estimate that improvements were in the range of x per cent. But be warned—do not go making over-inflated claims, otherwise you’ll lose credibility. And be sure you can justify your ‘best guess’ claims. Here are some phrases that may assist you in articulating outcomes that were not measured: • • • • • Anecdotal evidence strongly indicated . . . All the feedback we received showed that . . . The stakeholders were unanimous in their praise. Senior management felt that the goals were more than met.
Judging by the time saved, we estimated that productivity improved by . . . Here’s an example of an answer that includes employer benefit outcomes that were not measured: As result of the new filing system, time spent by staff locating certain documents decreased significantly, which gave them more time to concentrate on other work. Even though we did not measure precisely how much time was saved, the feedback I received from the users strongly indicated that productivity improved by at least 5 per cent. Personal outcomes In their rush to talk about organisational outcomes, interviewees often neglect to talk about their personal outcomes.
Articulating personal outcomes can be a very effective interview technique, particularly when those outcomes are directly relevant to the job you’re applying for. It’s also an effective way to highlight an important skill or insight to an interviewer who seems to be incapable of asking appropriate questions. can you do the job? 33 Personal outcomes include any benefits you have accrued as a result of your work. These can include: • • • • learning new skills; improving existing skills; gaining new insights; various forms of recognition, including promotion or monetary gain.
For example, stating that, at the end of a big project, you felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment (a very natural thing to feel) signals to the interviewer that you’re the sort of person who is motivated by working on and successfully completing a large project. Here are some examples of simple but effective personal outcome endings: As a result of working on the project, my planning and organisational skills improved dramatically. (skills-based) By the end of my stay with company x, my insight into the legal aspects of occupational health and safety requirements had improved significantly. knowledge-based) One of the pleasing things about working with the project team was discovering how much I enjoyed working in a team environment. I always thought that I functioned better working solo, but I discovered that I was highly effective working as part of a team. (skills-based and motivation relating to teamwork) Suggested activity: Personal outcomes Before you go on, see whether you can come up with three personal outcome endings of your own. Putting it all altogether Having created your answers, you need to bring together the information you’ve captured in the four steps in order to construct 4 interview skills that win the job answers that can be used to tackle a broad range of relevant questions. One of the main advantages of using the four steps is that you can easily construct answers that address a range of questions relating to the duties and requirements in step 1. Here are some important tips to help you construct an answer. Posing questions to yourself The first thing to do is pose a question relating to the duty or requirement listed under step 1. Start off with a question that you feel comfortable with, then answer it using the information in the other three columns.
At the start, it is a good idea to write your answers down. This will give you some all-important structure and direction. However, committing answers to paper does not imply that you have to memorise them word for word. In fact, doing so can be counter-productive—for two reasons. First, precise word-forword answers are suited to highly specific questions, and there is no guarantee that you will be asked the specific question you’ve prepared for. Second, memorising answers to such a degree can rob you of two of the most important skills used in interviews: flexibility and an ability to think on your feet.
The important thing is to memorise the main points of your answers. You are not required to regurgitate them in exactly the same order using exactly the same sentences. Once you’ve written your answer down and practised it to the point where you’ve achieved a satisfactory level of fluency (without referring to your notes), you can ask and answer other questions relating to the same duty or requirement. Two to three questions for each of the duties/requirements under step 1 should suffice. You can do more if you choose; however, you’ll probably find that, with more questions, ou’ll be repeating your answers.