This post is all about practical interview tips that work.
You might think that wearing a freshly dry-cleaned suit, sporting a new haircut and doling out canned answers to explain your greatest strengths and weaknesses will help you ace your upcoming interview. After all, if a hiring manager likes you enough to bring you in for an interview, your resume must prove that you are the perfect fit for the role.
The job market is highly competitive, even for jobs in the high-tech industry with a shortage of qualified applicants. While there might be a dearth of software engineers out there (221,000 unfilled coding jobs in the US alone), the bar is high for the best roles, and they are not easy to get.
There is also a lot of conflicting (and potentially harmful) advice out there when it comes to acing your job interview. Some people say to “take control of the conversation” as quickly as possible. Others say to just focus on “being yourself” (what does that even mean?).
Both are terrible advice.
Having interviewed for many jobs, helped my coaching clients prep for theirs and consulted with many interview experts, here are some of the critical things I’ve discovered that any job hunter should keep in mind for their next interview.
1. Prepare! Then, prepare some more.
I’d like to share a story that is fresh in my mind. It’s a story of what not to do.
Last week I was working with a client who just applied for a job as a Product Manager in a mid-sized software company. He aced the phone screen and was being brought into the company for an interview loop with the potential hiring manager and her team.
During our coaching session, I asked him a simple question “What do you like about their product?”
He gave me a generic answer that lacked substance. I followed up by asking him what else he liked about their product.
He hadn’t taken the time to review their product in-depth, despite the presence of case studies, tutorials and free downloads on the company website! He also didn’t know the background of the recruiter who was bringing him in for the interview, the hiring manager or executive team, all of which is readily available on LinkedIn.
This was a great job at a great company. He has spent hundreds of hours networking and job searching. However, he didn’t spend even one focused hour researching the company and their products in-depth!
Most companies have a website, social media profiles and (typically) active LinkedIn and Twitter conversations about their products. Study this information in-depth. Not only will this help you come across as informed and interested in the company during your interview, but it will also help you discover if the company is one you would enjoy working for, to begin with.
Your interviews and phone screens will be far more impactful when you do your homework. Interviewers notice when you have taken the time to learn about the company.
Selfishly, you can also get a feel for the culture of a company through your research. If the company doesn’t feel like a good fit, better spend your time elsewhere.
I’m not alone in my belief that preparation is essential. According to Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a global expert on talent and leadership who has interviewed more than 20,000 candidates in his 26 years as a search consultant:
“You can never invest enough in terms of preparation. You should find out as much as possible about the company, how it’s organized, its culture, the relevant industry trends, and some information about the interviewer.”
The internet and social media makes this easy. I recommend going the extra mile and connecting with people who work at (or are alumni of) the company to get an even more accurate picture of what the company is like. You can find these connections on LinkedIn or by hitting up networking events or conferences for your industry.
Preparation shouldn’t feel like work. If you are really enthusiastic about the industry, you are looking to get a career in, your job research should seem like a fun way to learn about different companies and players in your industry.
2. Nail your first impression
Like it or not the impression you make during the initial seconds of an interview can define how the rest of the 45 minutes to an hour conversation go. There is ample research supporting our natural and evolutionary basis for first impressions and how they play out in social and professional contexts.
The particular time window you have to make a first impression, however, is unclear. Some research says first impressions are formed almost instantly (in less than a tenth of a second) while other research shows that it takes a bit longer. The phenomena are referred to as “thin-slicing,” which states that we make a reasonably accurate assessment of a person from observing just a few seconds, or a “thin slice,” of their behavior.
For the sake of your interview, focus on the first few minutes of your interaction. What impression do you want to make? How can you quickly and easily gain rapport with your interviewer?
Don’t forget about body language. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA has studied the value of nonverbal messages extensively, and found that body language conveys roughly 55% of the information, compared to words and tone of voice comprising the remaining 45%.
How might you stay relaxed, confident and engaged from the get go during your interview?
Think about how you wish the initial moments of the interview to go. Practice walking confidently, speaking clearly and think about whatever small talk you want to have to build rapport.
Then, go the extra mile and practice introducing yourself, as many interviewers will ask you to “tell me about yourself?” as a way to ease into the interview. This is a great opportunity for you to get the conversation rolling in a positive way and make the first moments of the conversation go well.
If the first minute goes well, the probability of the remaining time going well is much higher!
3. Bring the energy and excitement
I love mock interviews as a tool to help interviewees understand what is working and what isn’t. Find someone (or hire a coach) to record an interview with you and critique it. This is one of the best ways to learn what you do well in an interview, and what would be even better.
Unless you are naturally high energy, it’s important to bring more energy and enthusiasm to an interview than normal. This isn’t about being inauthentic, it’s about understanding that during an interview, the expectation is that the entire scenario is fabricated, and the interviewer will expect you, as a candidate, to bring more energy and interest than usual.
The risk of appearing dull and low energy is worse than the risk of seeming like you are bouncing off the walls.
Make sure you smile, speak up, show a general level of curiosity and interest in the company, team and the mission they are pursuing.
4. Be ready for tough questions
“Know thyself” – Greek Maxim
You should enter your interview knowing your resume and history better than anyone else on the planet. You know all about your successes and failures. You know the overall story of your work history and schooling.
What are the places that could pose a challenge for you given the requirements of the job you are interviewing for? Do you have a gap in your work history? Are you lacking the level of experience the job requires? Are you missing a few skills that are needed? What other tough questions might come your way?
Write down the toughest possible questions you will get, and practice them. Don’t just spin the questions around, as some interview guides will teach…“My greatest weakness is I sometimes pay too much attention to detail!.” Instead, start with the truth of the situation, but also explain how whatever the situation was shouldn’t be considered a ding against you.
For example, here is how you might account for a gap in work history on your resume, taken to scratch a travel itch:
“After working for 5 years and finding success at my last company, I voluntarily resigned. I did this to pursue a lifelong dream of mine to backpack the world, and do charity work along the way. This year abroad opened my eyes up to other cultures and ways of life. It inspired and energized me. Now, having completed my travels, I’m ready to get back to work. This time, I’m clear that working at a company like yours is a perfect fit. You have a culture and mission that I truly believe in.”
5. When things aren’t working out
Sometimes, no matter what you do, things get tough in an interview.
You might notice that an interviewer isn’t paying attention to your answers (or actively checking email!). You might see yourself stumbling over some questions. You might fly cross-country for an interview and find that the HR department is woefully unprepared and not sure who you should be meeting with, to begin with (I’ve seen it happen).
Usually, the trickiest times are when you feel like you flub an important question, or stumble to find the words to express what you want to say.
Regardless, even if things go south, you can salvage the situation. An excellent way to do this is just to take a relaxing breath, and pretend that the next question you are being asked is the first one of the day. Ignore the past. The reality is things are rarely going as badly as you think. We can be our worst critics.
Preparation can also help you deal with an interview gone awry. Practice imagining your interview going south, and then practice recovering gracefully. This is a mental toughness technique I learned from the world of endurance sports.
Before competing in a grueling triathlon or ultramarathon race, top performers will often visualize themselves doing well, and also counter-intuitively, they will imagine their even with things going terribly wrong. They then take the next step and imagine what they would do if things do go wrong, be it taking a wrong turn on a race course, suffering from cramps or blisters. By expecting the best, but mentally preparing for the worst, inner confidence and resilience are formed.
I’ve applied this technique successfully during my last few endurance exploits, including a 50-mile mountain trail run a month ago. You can implement it for interview situation as well.
Putting it all together
The overarching theme to acing your interview is preparation. Study your resume. Learn about the company you are interviewing for in-depth. Especially if you are just getting back into the hunt for a new job, find a friend or coach to work with who can help you role-play and provide some objective feedback on what is working and what isn’t.
Call for comments
If you have experience interviewing for a job (successfully or not), what advice do you have to share with others? What worked for you? What didn’t? Let me know in the comments.