How to interview well

How do you pull off a great job interview, especially if you need the job, or if you feel that you are the supplicant and the interviewer holds all the power in the situation? Only a very few people seem to enjoy job interviews, or do them well. Following are some tips on how to join that elite crew and make your job interviews fun and successful.

The first idea to get in your mind is a Zen-like one: you need to believe that you don’t need the job. Even if a little self-hypnosis is involved, you’ve got to walk into the interview with an attitude that says, “Hey, great to be here, looking forward to our conversation, interested in finding out more about your organization, happy to spend the time with you — but I’m not desperate for a new job.”

Why? Desperation is not attractive, and it causes your interviewer to begin to wonder what’s wrong with you and why you’re so eager to leave your other job (or why you don’t have one). So excise it from your attitude, as best you can.

The point is to be able to truly focus on the interview itself. You need to be fully there, present and accounted for, and enjoying yourself. If you’re only thinking about employment after the interview, you’ll be focused on other things beyond the moment, and you won’t make the impression you need to make, ironically, to get the job.

This kind of relaxed-yet-engaged attitude sets you up to negotiate well for a salary, in the happy event that you get an offer. If you convey to the other person that you’ll do anything to get the job, you can be sure that working at a lower salary will be on the list of possibilities.

So focus on the task at hand, and get really interested in that. Don’t look ahead to something else, yet. Just be there, in the room, as engaged as you can be. It’s a conversation. Simply that.

How do you prepare what to say at a job interview? The same way you’d prepare for a TV interview or a discussion with a world leader. You do your homework, get to know your opposite party as well as possible, and then think about what are the half-dozen or so (no more) key points you want to make.

Specifically, in the case of a job interview, think in terms of a narrative that includes both you and the organization. What problems that the organization has can you help solve? What skills that you have is the organization in need of? How can your vision and dreams complement those of the organization?

Oh, and by the way, make it compelling, world-changing, and fun to think about. The goal is to imagine yourself already at work in that organization, making a difference, having a blast, and doing well. What does that look like? What are the crucial elements of success? What are you doing that’s remarkable?

The secret to a great discussion during a job interview is to know what you are going to say. That helps in a couple of ways. If you’re prepared, you’re more confident. But you’re also able to pay more attention to how the other person in the discussion is faring.

Then there’s the other conversation — the body language. You’re going to spend a fair amount of time planning out the content of the interview, so doesn’t it make sense to plan out the non-verbal ‘conversation’?

You’re under stress in an interview, and you don’t want surprises to overload your capacity for responding well to the moment at hand. People can handle about three surprises before they begin to overheat, so try to minimize them by knowing as much as you can about the place, the interviewers, and your role in that place and with those folks.

Ask the person you scheduled the interview with, “can you please tell me where we’ll be meeting? And whom will I be meeting with?” and so on.

Once you’ve got as much detail as possible about the stage your little play will take place on, you’re ready to proceed to the ‘blocking’ or body language.

The first step in the choreography of your body language is to get an ‘offstage beat’ or emotional attitude toward the upcoming interview BEFORE you meet anyone. That attitude will make you more interesting to the interviewer with whom you’re about to shake hands.

Most people have been told that you should shake people firmly by the hand and look them straight in the eye. That leads to a whole host of introductions during which the two hapless inductees madly break the bones in each other’s hands and glare at each other fixedly, afraid to be the first to look away.

Of course you should make reasonable eye contact, and of course your handshake should be somewhere in the middle of the scale between bone crusher and dead fish. Beyond that, though, it’s the rest of the body that creates the impression, and it’s with the rest of the body that you don’t want to send the wrong message.

You’re probably nervous, perhaps a bit shy, maybe a bit desperate, and all of those feelings can come through in a myriad little adjustments that your body makes in space relative to your interviewer. You can address this problem in one of two ways. Either work on your inside — get the feeling of openness and connection in your gut and focus on that strongly — or your ‘outside’. From the outside, you concentrate on keeping your torso relatively still and pointed toward the other person, without blocking it off with any nervous gestures of your hands and arms.

Either way can work; you just have to decide which method makes most sense to you. Either think to yourself, I really, really want to be open to this person; I feel comfortable and relaxed, like I’m talking to a close friend I’m very glad to see, OR pay close attention to your torso and make sure that is pointed in the right direction.

You should be making eye contact, but more than that, your face should be open and welcoming. That means that your eyes should open wide, your eyebrows should go up (a little — too much and you’ll look astonished), you should smile — all the things you do unconsciously when you meet a close friend you haven’t seen in a while.

Getting an interview off to a good start with that kind of positive attitude and affect is half the battle won. As the interview goes on, you should think of your non-verbal conversation as an opportunity to build trust and credibility. Trust is primarily built with open body language, focusing on the torso. Credibility is primarily created with an authoritative voice and body language that is emotionally consistent with the role for which you’re applying.

In other words, if you’re applying for the position of lion tamer at a circus, emotional confidence might be important, just as energy might be dominant in other jobs that don’t involve large carnivorous animals — and calm might be more important in positions involving nuclear reactors.

The point is that you need to figure out what the emotion is and then work on showing it. If the interviewer is still unconsciously picking up nervousness from you well into the interview, and you’re hoping for a job at NORAD, then you’re probably not going to be hired.

All the studies show that people aren’t very good at selecting prospective employees through job interviews, making them doubly irritating for the interviewee — stressful and not very useful to boot. So you might as well relax and have fun.

My Story

I had a job interview with a consulting firm a number of years ago that illustrated these paradoxes — in my lack of ability to control them.

It started well. I had the necessary cool, because the job involved a lot of travel and the company was headquartered in another city, so I was genuinely unsure if I could make it work. That gave me the necessary detachment.

I was to meet with the company president for dinner at a nice restaurant in the distant city. I’d heard about the restaurant but never eaten there, so I was looking forward to the meal. That’s part of the secret of focusing — keep it immediate. (“If nothing else, I’m going to have a nice meal at a restaurant I’ve always wanted to try.”)

I met the president in the lobby of the restaurant. Both of us were on time. The first faintly alarming note was that he insisted on making a big deal of the fact that he knew the m’aitre d’. But we sat down, exchanged pleasantries, and I reached for the menu.

At that point, the prez insisted that I put the menu away. “I’ll order for both us,” he said in a way that allowed for no alternatives, “something a little bit special, off the menu.”

I hate that kind of grandstanding, but I was in for it. It turned out that he ordered a gigantic lobster for me, almost certainly as a test to see how I handled messy eating under pressure. While we were waiting for the food to come, he delivered a monologue on the wonders of working for his company. I could hardly get a word in edgewise.

It had been a long time since I had had lobster. What neither one of us knew was that I had developed an allergy in the intervening years. After the first bite or two, my throat started closing up. I could barely breathe.

I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and promptly threw up. I was back at the table in a minute, and the prez was so self-involved he noticed nothing untoward.

For the next hour, I proceeded to push lobster around on the plate, occasionally taking a bite when the prez interrupted his monologue to say, “You’re hardly eating.” Twice more I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom.

I was focused on survival, so I presented a weird mixture of intensity and detachment that apparently worked perfectly on the president, who was one of nature’s more oblivious specimens. On the emotional intelligence scale, he rated a minus ten.

I don’t recommend having an allergic reaction as a way of presenting intensity and detachment at the same time, but I did get the job offer — and a lasting lesson in the Zen of job interviewing. Don’t want it too much, but be completely focused on the moment as if you did.

The interviewer is looking for reasons to eliminate people, and hoping to bond with the interviewee.

You should try to minimize the former and maximize the latter.

Obviously, in terms of content, you need to do your homework, and prepare your insightful questions and creative ideas. But what about the non-verbal conversation? How do you accomplish these interesting goals in body language?

Try mirroring the overall physical behavior of your interviewer, within limits, reasonably, and tactfully. Mirroring signals unconscious agreement and alignment, so you’ll promote the bonding. To avoid being eliminated, after you’ve mirrored for a while, try subtly leading the interviewer by shifting your overall body position into a new one and seeing whether or not the interviewer follows. If he or she does, you’re doing well, and in fact you’ve taken control of the interview, thus minimizing the chance that you’ll be eliminated.

That’s the point at which you should present your three brilliant ideas for transforming the company for the better.

As the interview is unfolding, you should keep a close eye on the interviewer, for signs of interest and boredom, affinity and disagreement, attention and disengagement. You need to be ready to react to each of these signals.

What are those signs, and how do you spot them? Since we usually move closer to things we like and are interested in, and away from things that we dislike or are not interested in, look for changes in body orientation from your questioner. If he or she suddenly moves in closer, then be prepared for an offer of some kind. If he or she suddenly moves further away, then it may be time to leave.

There are exceptions to the general rule. President Lyndon Johnson was famous for coming in very close to people he was trying to enlist on his side (most of the population, in fact). He was a master at getting people to agree with him — especially other legislators. They gave in because his invasion of their personal space made them so uncomfortable.

Some interviewers may try this trick to see how you stand up to the stress.

And there may be other reasons for motion that closes the distance, having to do with comfort, illustration of a point, or even an interruption from someone else. Don’t jump to conclusions about body language too quickly; you should always be aware of the context and any environmental changes that might affect you and your interlocutor. Once you’ve eliminated other possible options, though, be ready to act on non-verbal signals that tell you something about what’s going on in the mind of your potential colleague.

You’ll instinctively know dismissive behavior when you see it; it’s very hard for even polite people to completely disguise their disengagement when they’ve made up their minds. Similarly, if your questioner wants to make a connection, you’ll most likely sense that in the way that he or she orients his or her body in space relative to yours when you’re saying your goodbyes.

The trick to accurate reading is to focus more on the other person than on yourself. That goes back to your state of mind going in to the interview. If you want the job too badly, you won’t be able to get out of that frame of mind easily to become a cool observer of the body language in the room. The best way to read the other person accurately is to be so well prepared and so comfortable that you can forget about yourself for that one important hour.

That’s the real art of interviewing in a phrase: the paradox of not appearing to be too desperate in a situation in which your future is potentially at stake. Of course you care — and want to show you care — but you also need to project a little cool. You’re engaged and fully present, but you also can put the whole exercise into perspective; you know that it is a game at one level, and serious at another.

That’s a lot to accomplish, and a lot to signal. The best way to think about it is to keep the focus simple: focus (1) on your emotional engagement with the job or task under discussion — you’re interested, or you wouldn’t be there — and (2) on your confidence that stems from knowing your role in the overall scheme of things — you’ll survive to interview another day if this isn’t the right one for you.

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