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Effective Strategies to Optimize Interview Performance

The interview can be thought of as a mutual exchange of information – a dialogue between two professionals regarding a common interest.  For the interviewer, the purpose is to obtain information about you that cannot be determined from your resume.  It also allows the interviewer to assess your skills & experience in terms of the job requirements as well as your personality, style, values & motivation as a fit for the organization.  The interview allows you to gather information about the job responsibilities and about the culture of the organization so that you can assess the potential for furthering your career.  Following are some strategies to help you perform optimally in the interview:

Set Goals for the Interview

Commit that you will evaluate your performance immediately after the interview to reinforce what you did well and improve what didn’t go so well.  If ever there were an exercise in continuous improvement, it is in the art of interviewing!  Incorporate your learnings into future interviews.  Another goal should be to ask enough of the right questions during the interview to glean ample information to help you decide whether or not the job and the company & culture are the right fit for you.

Use Strategic Answers

You will usually have no more than 60 minutes to convince your interviewer that you are the best candidate for the job.  Use the time wisely.  Select achievement “stories” [sometimes called PARs – Problem/Actions/Results] that were challenging and highlight your sills in difficult situations.  Tailor each story to the needs of the company as positioned in the job description.  Try not to use an achievement story more than once.  Push your “refresh” button and use that 60 minutes to showcase the bandwidth of your skills & accomplishments.

To keep your responses strategic and professional, never use jargon, slang or profanity or become overly familiar with your interviewer and let your guard down.  These tendencies diminish your power & your professionalism.

When asked a question about previous assignments, talk about the scope of the job, not merely the tasks.  Don’t simply tell the interviewer you managed a budget of $2M.  Use the opportunity instead to sell yourself, citing the scope of your responsibilities and the results you achieved:  “For the past three years I have managed the entire budgeting function for a $2M operating division with total P&L responsibility.  During that time I initiated a series of cost-reduction programs that saved $350K.”

Responding to questions with strong action verbs [eg., “directed,” “championed,” “transformed”] to convey leadership & decisiveness.  Be memorable.  Differentiate yourself from your competitors. 

Listen Hard

Give yourself permission to take a few moments to compose your answer before responding.  Don’t feel like you have to fill the silence.  Taking time to think about a question, rather than rushing to answer it, is a positive trait.  It indicates reflection and reduces the impression that your response is rehearsed.  Listening helps you learn and focus on the needs of the organization rather than being preoccupied with your ideas, opinions and desire to showcase your knowledge.  Listening keeps your assumptions & biases in check.  Most importantly, it will curb any tendency toward interrupting – a cardinal sin in any communication venue, but particularly in the interview.

Keep Responses Concise & Focused

Keep your answers concise – no longer than two minutes; preferably, no longer than one.  This is where practicing and timing your responses becomes crucial.  Brief answers translate as power & confidence.  Using a conversational [non-rehearsed] tone implies candor & authenticity.

Remember to answer only the question being asked.  Don’t ramble or offer irrelevant information, particularly personal data that detracts from the quality of your response.  Doing so will undermine credibility.  Stay on point!  Gear your responses toward answering the key, underlying questions of any interview:  “Why should I hire you?” and “Why are you the best fit for the job?”  Finally, remember that responding that you don’t know is far better than trying to finesse an answer.  You can’t invent experiences that you don’t have.  And, don’t apologize.

Use the Inquiry Method

When a question requires a detailed response and you sense your going over the two minute deadline, stop, take a breath and ask the interviewer if the information you’re providing is what he or she is looking for.  “Am I addressing your question?”  If you are on point, the interviewer will likely ask you to continue with your response.  This also gives the interviewer a break from listening to you!  After all, the human brain can only take in so much information!!  As previously mentioned, if the interviewer states a question in an unclear manner, it’s a good idea to ask him or her to restate the question.  Otherwise, you risk spending valuable time responding incorrectly to the intended question.

Bide for Time

When that dreaded, unanticipated question for which you have no answer is asked, what do you do?  Answer: bide for time!  You might say something like, ”Let me have a moment to think about that” OR “Could you rephrase that, please?” This will provide you a bit more time to think about a response. While this may feel uncomfortable to you and create some anxiety-producing silence, it is far better than talking too long about something irrelevant.  If your brain is still “locked up,” try to relate something about your career that is at least similar to the question.  For example, “This may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but I had a similar experience when …”  Let the interviewer decide whether it fits or not.  If you’re really stuck, respond that you don’t have an answer at the moment and request the interviewer return to the question later in the interview [chances are, he or she won’t!!].  If you think of an answer in the meantime, you can bring the interviewer back to that question.

Don’t Be Defensive

Think & respond positively.  Get rid of any negative thoughts prior to the interview.  If you happen to get a “drill sergeant” for an interviewer, who’s abrasive & constantly interrupts, don’t panic!  Don’t lose your cool!  Focus on what you can do for the company, not your present discomfort.  The interviewer is probably “playing” you to see how you react under stress.  Don’t collapse – stay positive – even if the questions or interviewer’s style are making you squirm!  You may even eventually gain his or her respect by managing your reactions and remaining positive.

Ask the Right Questions

Why is asking penetrating, thought-provoking questions important to your success in the interview?  You want to show that you’ve done your research and are motivated to learn more about the company and the job.  You want to differentiate yourself from the competition.  And, you want to determine if this is the right company and job for you.  Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers.  You want these questions to be so insightful & perceptive that they become memorable to the interviewer.  So, just as you leave stock answers at home, leave those mundane questions [eg., “what are your benefits;” “what companies are your biggest competitors;” “when can I take vacation…”] at home as well.  Instead, ask questions like, “If hired, what would you expect me to accomplish in the first three months.” Create a list of questions to ask as part of your preparation.

Don’t wait for permission to ask questions or until the end of the interview.  Ask questions whenever they’re relevant or helpful to the process.  As the interviewer responds to your question, listen intently for any problems or challenges they identify.  Utilize your consultative selling skills to provide solutions and showcase the value you bring.

Evaluate if the Job is Truly the Right Match for You

Keep your focus on the goals you’ve set for your career and your self-knowledge about the kind of company culture that will enable you to flourish and be successful.  Even if the interviewer appears enthusiastic to hire you, you owe it to yourself to evaluate whether this is the right job for you.  While on-the-spot offers are rare in today’s market, they do occur.  Don’t make the mistake of accepting an offer prematurely.  Delaying your decision to give you more time to evaluate is far better than dealing with the consequences of accepting the wrong job with the wrong company.

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