Interviewing: Step 3 – Performing to Win

At this point, we’ve discussed knowing your interviewer and planning for the event. Well now it’s game time!

This is where you have to close the deal. I see many people fail because they underestimate the importance of a really outstanding performance.

Let me be clear. Once you walk in the room to interview, the ONLY goal you have is getting an offer (or making the next round). This IS NOT the time to show any ambivalence or uncertainty. You can be ambivalent if and when you get an offer. Until you have it, you are unemployed. Choices are for those who make options.

“But Phil, I networked and talked to everyone. I did all the right things…how could I not get it???” (Perplexed)

Because there was only one offer, and somebody else was also working hard, and also networked…and they rocked their interview. All things being equal, this is a very competitive process – particularly in a tough economy.

We discussed how and what to prepare in this post. The focus here is on actual performance.

First Impressions are Immediate, So Be Immediately Impressive

First impressions matter, so be prepared. DO NOT underestimate the power of almost instantaneous judgments people make about you. As Malcolm Gladwell extensively outlines in Blink and this Observer article shows, you may only get 1/10th of a second.

Surfaces do matter. So understand the culture and environment of your potential employer and dress appropriately. As an example, in a b-school setting the appropriate attire is a suit. But this varies based on industry. If I were interviewing with Saks Fifth Avenue, I would dress differently than if interviewing for a job at Ernst & Young or a creative agency.

Your personality matters too. Clothes and surfaces are one part, but remember that this impression can be driven as much by your “presence”. Do you have positive body language? Are you smiling or nervous and sweating?

Having done hundreds of interviews, I assure you interviewers can smell fear and appreciate warmth and confidence. It’s judged almost immediately. The rest of the interview is in some ways confirming or denying this initial impression.

Start Strong – You Set the Agenda with Your Introduction

You KNOW you will be asked to summarize your experience and interest in the position in some form. If you haven’t rehearsed a tight, compelling 2 minute summary based on the planning goals laid out previously then you deserve what you get.

You have to be able to explain:

  • That you are capable of the job
  • Why you are a good fit
  • That you represent characteristics the potential employer values (see prior post on “knowing your interviewer”)

This is a critical step. You are conveying your understanding of the role, as well as creating the first impression of you as a candidate.

At worst, you want to be clear, concise and walk through your resume with an eye to what matters to the recruiter. Note that this is my “worst case”. This might be sufficient to keep you in the game, but is not a “good performance”.

Good or great looks like a well crafted STORY that 1) hits on each of your major themes, 2) seeds clear discussion follow ups that play to your strengths, 3) reveals a bit of who you are and 4) makes it clear to the interviewer why you are sitting in front of them.

You KNOW this is coming. So deliver it well!

Answer Questions Efficiently and Thoughtfully

I continue to be amazed by how many people fall down on either A) not answering the question or B) answering it in such detail that it kills them.

The best approach is to understand the question asked and quickly hit the highlights of a situation that is relevant. I explain the STAR technique here. The basic take-away: describe the situation, tell me what you did and summarize the outcome in 1-2 minutes.

Please be sure to actually listen to the question and ask for clarification if you are unsure. One sure way to lose your interviewer and to waste time is spending 3-5 minutes of a 30 minute interview answering a question you weren’t asked!

Interviewers are looking for several things in your individual answers.

  • First, can you quickly summarize and get to the essence of the situation? Interviewees often worry that too short an answer may come off as shallow. Au contraire. A “good” answer will follow an effective summary pattern, but not take much time. This shows you understand what you did. A long answer means you are trying to find what you think somewhere in the sea of words.
  • How far can you follow your examples through? I want to know if you are simply well rehearsed or if you really understand what happened. Be sure to pick examples you can spend some time on because we may. If I have a strong candidate that I want to push, we may spend 10+ minutes on an example to force you to come at it from multiple angles and perspectives. I want to see what (if anything) you learned.
  • How well do you stand up to cross examination? The closest I’m going to come to simulating a sales call or a tough presentation is right now. I want to see how comfortable you are. In particular, I want to see how you do when I probe potential weaknesses.  Are you coming off as prepared and knowledgeable or overwhelmed? Thoughtful or glib? You get the idea.

In the end, it’s a bit like a tennis match. When you get a good serve, have a good return of serve. It takes two good players for a good match.

Closing the Deal

In sales, one of the most common early career failures is to have a great meeting and then forget to push for the close. Interviews are the same. Don’t forget to “ask for the order”.

Demonstrating clear and strong interest is important. Think about it from the hiring manager’s position. If I have 5+ candidates who are all strong, do you want to leave any doubt in their mind about whether you are interested? Of course not. Assume everyone else was. Don’t make it easy for people to eliminate you out of hand.

“Gee, I really liked Sally. But she seemed to prefer something in another department. I’ll go with Jane since she really wanted it.” Ahhhh….

Don’t be naïve or ambivalent. If you don’t want it, don’t go for it. If you do, go hard. You can decline the offer if you get it. You can’t accept offers you don’t get.

Use Questions Strategically

There are a few points where you have some leverage to take a little control of the interview. At the introduction or at key interviewer questions you can turn things back on interviewer by asking a relevant question that helps you understand them or their company. Be careful and don’t do it too often, but the act of turning this into more of a discussion can be powerful.

As an example, if you don’t know the interviewer and the opportunity arises – ask them their title and how they came to their job early in the interview. This will help you frame your answers and creates a better interaction.

Read Body Language to Improve Your Perceived Performance

Do not get so fixated on your performance that you forget to pay attention to your interviewer. (This is why practice is important – you need to be comfortable enough to be processing inputs and not just be pumping out your answers.)

Are they leaning forward, alert and asking a lot of follow ups? Good!

Are they leaning back, seem distracted and are simply scribbling a few notes and asking few follow ups? Bad.

We all unwittingly offer cues as to where our head is at. Be sure to have your antenna up and receive the signal.

Don’t Give Me “Easy” Reasons to Exclude You

This seems so obvious, but people consistently stumble over relatively straight forward questions that should have been anticipated..

As I mention above, ambivalence about the company or job is one area to be careful. I want you to actually want the job. Another is being unprepared for the nature of the job. If you are interviewing for consulting, the only right answer to the question “are you open to travel” is “yes”. If it was “no” why are you even in the room?

There are plenty of other examples, so be prepared given the context of what you are going for. Remember these are often tough choices with subtle differences between candidates. Don’t make it easy for me to knock you out!

3A – Practice Makes Perfect (or at least better…)

The only way I know to get better is to practice seriously and take real interviews. Take every opportunity to get “mock interviews” available to you. Find a friend or mentor who will put you through tough questioning and can simulate different styles.

Video-tape is even more useful (and painful). I remember a mock interview I had as a grad student. I opened a door on my personal life that was TMI (too much info) and he rode me on it mercilessly for what seemed like hours (it was probably 5 minutes). Lesson learned. Much better to learn it in practice than in an actual interview.

Practice improves clarity of stories and allows you to become comfortable with the variety of issues that make arise in a live setting.

Remember that interviews are a performance, much like a theatrical production or a sports competition. You need to plan effectively, practice well and then deliver when the lights come on!

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