Interview Techniques Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Interview Techniques

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A show girl, a sad clown and a happy harlequin all sat on a sofa waiting to go in to the manager's office

Being interviewed for a job can be a scary business. In one way it's great to get an interview. It means that your initial job enquiry, usually in the form of a letter and a CV, has been met with a degree of approval. Great! This is a really good start. But what do you do when you end up face to face with a panel of folk firing questions at you left, right and centre? Read on to find out what can be done to prepare in advance for what can sometimes be a real ordeal.

Do Some Research and Ask Questions

Let's face it, your average employer will interview multiple people for a single job. At least one other person besides yourself is likely to have the basic fundamentals covered. That is, they will be reasonably qualified for the job, presentable in appearance, and sociable enough to navigate through the interview without serious mishaps.

The real trick is in distinguishing yourself by appearing more acceptable for the job than absolutely necessary. One of the best ways to do this is to first do some research, and then ask questions during the interview.

First, research the company beforehand if you are not employed there. Don't get caught looking silly by showing ignorance about what the company does, or how it is positioned among its peers. For this, the first place to check might be the company's own website. While setting up the interview time, it is also considered appropriate in most fields to ask for corporate literature or information.

If the business is local and public, consider stopping by before the interview. You may be able to walk around the establishment or take a guided tour. If you are applying at a large company far away, you may consider checking financial news sources for information on the company. Both the Internet and library searches of newspapers may be helpful. The amount of research you do will understandably depend on the job and salary you hope to get.

Also, find out as much as possible about the job. You may be able to get some information while setting up the interview. If you are seeking a promotion within your own company, don't hesitate to start a casual conversation with someone in the department the job is in. They may have inside information on why the job is vacant, or what exactly the interviewer is looking for.

While being interviewed, you have the option of either demonstrating your knowledge or keeping your fact-finding a secret. In many cases, interviewers will be impressed if you know pertinent facts about their company. In other cases, they may be surprised if you specifically mention personal traits that match their needs when they have not told you what traits they are looking for. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification if you are asked an unclear question. In some cases, your question may demonstrate more knowledge than an obscure answer would have.

After the interviewer has finished with their questions, it is your turn to ask what your duties will be in the new post, what the starting salary will be, whether there will be opportunities for advancements and raises, and so on. If the job is technical in nature, ask a technical question or two as appropriate. This will make the interviewer feel that you are actively interested in the position, and will reinforce the feeling that you are very knowledgeable in your field. Do not ask more than a few technical questions, or the interviewer may start feeling annoyed or defensive.

Asking questions during the interview also subtly raises the interview relationship from one where you alone are being judged, to one where you are on an equal footing with the interviewer. While this is purely psychological, it is a powerful tool in interviewing. You may find the starting salary has been raised for you, or you were considered more qualified than the other applicants, purely on the basis of the interviewer's inner feelings that you are closer to being their equal.

Dress Accordingly

If you are applying for a conservative company dress conservatively. Men should opt for a dark suit, plain shirt, tie and good shoes. Women can go for a business like skirt or trouser suit. A calm hairstyle and discreet jewellery and make-up are essential.

However, if the company is a little more relaxed you can add varying degrees of colour. Still look smart and organised, because no matter how laid back the company may appear, you still have to make a good first impression as someone who will give 100% for the sake of the company.

Don't wear jeans, wrinkled/dirty clothes, anything that is in style (eg, hair bandana or giant hoop earrings) and take out any pierced jewellery that wasn't intended for the earlobes.

If the job you are applying for is summer work, then the best thing to do is dress smart casual; chinos, khakis, shirt and good shoes.

The Face - Advice from an Actor

The advice given in this section deals with how to create that perfect corporate face and posture to make the interviewer feel at ease in your presence.

First, and most important of all, preparation. Before your interview, try to visualise yourself as your prospective employers will see you. This isn't easy, but be honest with yourself. If you're ugly as sin, admit it. It makes a difference, like it or not. Now, you need to practise doing The Face. I give it capital letters because it's very, very important, and because I have a healthily over-inflated sense of my own importance.
Stand in front of a mirror and look yourself in the eye. Strike an expression that you would describe as neutral. Don't think too much about this, just do it. Now turn your mouth up at the corners just a little bit. Raise your eyebrows a fraction. Open your eyes just a little wider. Lift your chin up, and be sure that your head is straight and in line with your spine. If you're one of the 30% or so of people who's bottom lip protrudes a few millimetres further than your top lip, make an active effort to pull it back - a jutting lower lip suggests an aggressive and unreasoning nature and a low IQ (think Neanderthal, and you'll see where I'm coming from. Cruel, but true). Okay. Done all that? Good. Hold it. This is the natural expression that your face should fall into during your interview. Your shoulders should be back and your legs should not be too far apart (for a man) or crossed lightly (for a woman).
Now that you've got into this position, what I'm about to tell you next won't make much sense: relax. Even though holding your face like this may feel alien and unnatural, you must give the impression that this is how you approach life each day. If you look constipated, all our hard work was for nothing. You really need to practise this expression until it comes naturally. It's a great tool to have in everyday life as well as in an interview situation. Try it out - you'll be surprised how quickly it will put most people at their ease.
Remember to hold eye contact for a fraction of a second longer than feels comfortable - don't stare, but don't feel as if you have to apologise for looking at someone. If you're English, this will probably be a tremendous problem. We're naturally submissive people who feel that we're probably at error in any given social situation. Again, cruel but true.
During the interview itself, try to be natural. Don't use the time the interviewer is talking to you to prepare your next answer - if you haven't been listening attentively, it will be blindingly obvious. Punctuate any long speeches by your interviewer with very slight nods of the head - particularly the 'let me tell you a little about what we do here ...' speech. The interviewer knows this by heart, and so is far more interested in your reaction to it. If you are being interviewed by more than one person, switch your attention periodically. It's good practice to address your remarks to one interviewer only if he or she has just asked you a direct question, but don't turn your back on the rest, or obstruct their view of your torso. Apparently this is a tribal thing. If you can see someone's head and torso, you can see the most vulnerable areas. This makes you want to trust them. Good, eh? That's why your handshake should always be with an open, relaxed palm.

Take your Time

Allow yourself a good length of time to find a job. Consciously take the pressure off yourself by setting yourself a long-term goal if you can. That way you are going into interviews without thinking 'I have to get this job or I will have to start hunting all over again' because this job interview will be one of many so you can consider the merits of this company and their package against that of the last one and against the one you are going to see next week, etc.

Performing well in interviews is just like writing a good CV and covering letter - the more practice you get the better you become. The more feedback you ask for, the more you can work on your technique in a constructive manner. If you apply for a post which turns out to be handled by a recruitment consultancy, you will find that you have to be 'interviewed' by them before they will put you up for the job. This actually means that they will make you register with them - do typing tests or other tests relevant to your field, go through your CV in detail and discuss what you are looking for. This is very useful as it focuses your mind on what you actually want. It is useful to tell them the truth as ruthlessly as you can because, if they are good at what they do, they will try and find a job that will best suit what you are after. They will also go for the job that can get you the most money, because this is where they get their money from - a percentage of the salary that they negotiate for you (from the company - you don't pay them a penny).

Dos and Don'ts

  • Don't wear anything new - wear something that you are familiar with.

  • You shouldn't wear a skirt which is too short or has a split up to your bum.

  • Don't leave your mobile phone switched on.

  • Don't chew gum.

  • Try to avoid saying 'um' and 'so...'.

  • Do try to use correct grammar.

  • Do ask what it was about your application that made the company want to get to know you better.

  • Do make sure you know where the interview will be held. Make sure you know how to get there (by whatever means). If you go by car you really need to research where you can park. Don't run out of petrol on the way.

Advice from Interviewers

Now it's time to look at the dreaded interview from the other side of the fence. The advice given in this section comes from the horse's mouth so to speak - the interviewers themselves. The information given here can mean the difference between the communal toilet and the executive washroom.

  • You will have a huge advantage if you are confident and show it. Of course, a lot of applicants are nervous, and it's natural to feel nervous... if you have the common and wrong attitude about job interviews. This company you're interviewing with is not necessarily the right one for you; you need to find out whether it is or not. Thus you are interviewing the potential employer as much as he or she is interviewing you. Keeping this in mind should help you avoid feeling like some kind of supplicant on bended knee.

  • You may think you really, really, really need this job. Well, you don't need the wrong job. If you think you need a particular job even though it may be lousy, then you need to re-evaluate your goals.

  • Worrying about what to wear is mostly wasted energy. Just look like a pleasantly attired normal person, and you'll be fine. If you are paranoid, lurk near the offices of the company on the day before, see what style of clothes people are wearing as they emerge, and dress like that. Your garb is not going to matter unless it is so outlandishly different from the way people dress at the company you're visiting that the folks there think you're trying to send a disrespectful message.

  • There is no excuse for not having read the employer's website if they have one. Also, know what's on your own CV.

  • Know what you want. Visualize your ideal job; write down characteristics it has. Your job in the interview is to find out whether the employer has these characteristics. Another good reason to be ready with this information is that the interviewer may ask you for it.

  • Have some stories to tell and be prepared to narrate something you did that you're proud of. Even if the interviewer doesn't ask, being able to tell a few coherent stories of things you have done not only shows what you've experienced, but also shows that you're capable of logical, organized thought.

  • What if the interviewer asks hard questions? What if they ask you about your experience at XYZ Company, and you actually screwed up there big-time? Look the interviewer right in the eye and say, 'I screwed up there big-time. Here's what happened. And here's how I plan to make sure that never happens again'. Your candour and willingness to admit mistakes will overshadow your error, even if it's a big one.

  • Remember: you are not as good a liar as you think you are.

  • Ask who your boss would be if you were hired. Chances are that this person will be one of the people who interviews you. Pay special attention to how this person deals with you. If this company offers you a job, this person is going to be very important in your life. If you don't click, take a pass on any job offers. Do ask your potential boss questions about how they manage their team.

  • Bring extra copies of your CV or resumé. The chances are that at least one of your interviewers will have mislaid his or hers. Having a copy to offer shows that you are organized and think ahead.

  • How do you make yourself seem likeable? When the interviewer asks you about your last job, tell him or her how much you loved the people you worked with. This shows how you are easy to get along with and people like you.

Questions you will be Asked

Below is a list of questions, supplied by one Researcher, that you can be expected to be asked in an interview. You have been forewarned.

  • I will always ask you what you're doing now and why (how do you fit in the company? Do you know how your role relates to the rest of the firm? Are you interested in the company you work for?). Apart from anything else, it acts like an ice-breaker and lets me frame some of my follow-ups.

  • I will ask about strengths, weaknesses, things you're proud of, things you wish you'd done differently. Don't hide the negatives. I will never believe a candidate who has no weaknesses or never made a mistake and if I start distrusting you on that, I will distrust you totally.

  • I will ask you why you want the job and why you want to get out of your existing one. If you have specific relevant skills beyond the more general (obviously this depends on the role) I'm bound to ask about them.

  • Think like an employer. I will not know what the PQR system or department is. If possible, don't put things on your CV that will just confuse me, but if you do, expect me to ask. Have a simple and concise explanation prepared.

  • Expect me to probe. I will not always take your first answer for granted.

  • Try not to make me feel ill at ease. If I ask you what you've been doing for six months (say you have a break in your CV) and the answer involves a death in the family, etc, do your best to tackle the subject in a matter of fact way. I have been taught to handle things if you get unexpectedly emotional, but that doesn't mean I feel comfortable with it. If you have something like that lurking in your CV, expect it to come up.

  • One caveat1 - when asked what your 'weaknesses' are, don't say 'I'm a bit of a perfectionist', 'I expect everyone to work as hard as I do' or any other self-aggrandizing, mock-deprecatory answers. Trust me on this - because people are still being trained to say this sort of thing - the only effect you will have on the interview panel is that they will laugh themselves sick after you've left the room. If any of these things are really faults of yours, explain why you think this is a problem for you rather than a problem for your colleagues.

  • Take time to think about the question before you start to answer. A pause of six or seven seconds (longer than it sounds) is definitely okay. If you lose track halfway through the answer, stop, ask the interviewer to repeat the question and make sure you stick to the point.

  • Make sure that you ask a question appropriate to the post. If you really must ask about promotion, ask whether people who have come into the company at this level have been promoted internally. That sounds less pushy and less as if you are going to leave if you don't get promoted in the next five minutes.


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