Welcome to the first in our series of articles on mastering the interview process. If you’re like most people, interviews are not something you look forward to! Chances are, that’s because you’re approaching them with the wrong mindset. Most people do.
I’ve conducted thousands of interviews, both “live” and in training scenarios. There are certain patterns I’ve observed and approaches I’ve witnessed time and again, and they not only hurt your enjoyment of the process, they hurt your chances as a result. Seeing the same mistakes happening over and over again made me start to wonder where these mistakes were coming from.
WHY People Interview Badly
Unfortunately, interviewing as a skill is something very few people get any formal training on. Sure, maybe someone gave you some helpful but generic advice like “don’t slouch” or “dress professionally,” but beyond that, most people don’t ever get trained on this, despite the fact that it’s a fundamental part of career planning.
For most people, the only experience you’ll ever get is on an actual interview. While I support “live learning” in most circumstances, interviews aren’t the best environment for this. First, there’s virtually no feedback – if you don’t get the job, that’s usually all you learn. How can you improve without feedback? Second, you interview infrequently; years might pass between short bursts of interviewing for most people. And of course, most people aren’t interviewing with the goal of getting better at it – in fact, most people are trying to interview specifically so they won’t have to again, at least for a long time!
Put all together, that means most people have very few natural ways to develop interviewing skills. Without that process, people instead turn naturally to scenarios that they felt were similar, trying to draw lessons that they can transfer. This is, I’m sure, the heart of the problem.
Why? Because for most people, the most similar scenario they can think of is taking a test. Superficially it makes sense – you can draw a lot of surface-level parallels between an interview and the last time a high school or college professor really tested you on something difficult. In both cases, there’s someone you want to impress in a position of professional authority or influence. In both cases, you’re trying to demonstrate your expertise in a satisfactory way. And in both cases, you feel like it’s not the core thing you want to do, but rather an impediment standing between you and what you really want – the grade or the job. So for many, many people, they approach an interview the way they approached finals day. And if you do that, you will be an absolutely terrible interviewer.
An interview is NOT a test
Apart from those superficial similarities, an interview is nothing like a test in school. The goals and motivations of each party are totally different. So the first step to being a great interviewer is to eliminate those bad habits. Even if you’re not consciously making that association, chances are very good that you’re doing one or more of these things in your interview process.
- Don’t “Cram” For Your Interview. An interview isn’t something you can study for. Cramming works for tests where you’ll only have to retain the material for long enough to pass the test and then in many cases not use it again. Sure, that’s being a lousy student, but it gets you the grade. Not only will that not help you in your job, but it won’t even help you in the interview. The interview isn’t a multiple-choice test with “right” answers. They’re looking at you as a total professional, not testing a snapshot of your current knowledge. You can’t fundamentally change who you are in a few hours. If you practice anything, it should just be your body language and diction, like you were warming up for a play. Anything else is probably wasted and will just make you tense and nervous.
- Don’t Try to Give “Correct” Answers. There are no correct answers. When a professor asks you questions, they know exactly what answer they’re looking for – after all, they told you what the answer was, earlier in the class. They’re not looking for your input, they’re looking to see if you absorbed the information. That is completely different than the interview process. The interview process is about the interviewer and the candidate getting a better professional understanding of one another in a much deeper way. There are no “right” and “wrong” answers. Even if you had some magical ‘cheat sheet’ that told you exactly what to say to get the job, you probably wouldn’t want to use it; you don’t want a job you’re not a good fit for.
- Don’t Elevate Your Interviewer Above You. There’s an inherent hierarchy between a student and a professor; after all, you’re learning from them, and that’s the nature of the relationship. That’s not the case between a candidate and interviewer. They aren’t “above” you, and you’re not trying to suck up to them. You’re both professionals, and you’re meeting to see if there’s the possibility for healthy collaboration. Things like respect and politeness should be given to anyone, regardless of status, so of course, I’m not saying you don’t need to show those things. But you don’t need to show them by showing up hat in hand, acting like someone looking for a handout. You’re a professional, and in many cases, you’ll know more than your interviewer about your topic. That’s why they’re hiring someone – unlike your professor, they have a problem they need to solve. They’re not grading you; they need you!
Okay, get those things out of your mind! Ditch the supplication and approach the interview with the full confidence in your ability to do the job.
Now I’ve told you what not to do, I’m going to draw a few analogies that are much better suited to what an interview is really like. Use these to shape your thinking and preparation.
Analogy 1: An Interview Is A Sales Pitch
My experience as a hiring manager for many years taught me that salespeople are often really, really good interviewers. It’s not just that people who communicate well tend to be drawn into sales, it’s also because the format of the interview very carefully mirrors the format of a good sales meeting! The lessons there transfer very well, so here are some of the major takeaways:
- A sales professional knows when to go “off-script.” Sales professionals know that the purpose of a meeting isn’t to check every box off a list or to say the “right” things, it’s to make the sale! You make a sale by solving a problem for the customer, and it doesn’t matter how the conversation gets there. Don’t focus on yourself; focus on the customer and what problem they need solved. Salespeople never make sales by talking about themselves.
- Good sales professionals ask a LOT of questions. Sales 101 tells you that if you’re doing 80% or more of the talking, you’re not making sales. Great sales work happens when you ask a ton of questions and let the customer answer them – they’ll answer themselves into a sale. Asking questions is a sign of both intelligence and confidence. You have to be smart to know what questions to ask, and you have to be confident in yourself to ask them. That’s why they’re such a great tactic in an interview.
- Great salespeople control the conversation. They’re not passive participants in something happening to them, they’re making things happen. Salespeople use questions to steer the conversation to where they know they’re strongest, and they’re approaching the whole meeting with a singular focus. They’re never leaving loose ends, either – they leave every meeting with either a sale or a clear understanding of the next steps to get there.
If you’re interviewing like a sales professional, you’re interviewing MUCH better than if you’re interviewing like a student!
Analogy 2: An Interview Is A First Date
There are lots of similarities between a first date and an interview. If you heard someone come back from a first date, and they described it feeling like a test, would you consider the date good or bad? Probably terrible! Here are some notable ways to approach an interview like a good first date:
- On a date, both parties are on equal footing. Yes, you’re trying to impress them – but you’re also evaluating them. Both sides have to feel good in order for the relationship to progress. Sure, you can do everything in your power to tell the other person exactly what they want to hear instead of giving healthy, honest answers – but how would you feel about any relationship that started that way?
- You aren’t trying to share or learn everything on a first date. You understand it’s just step one, and you’re putting your best foot forward. It’s okay for the date to end without both parties knowing everything about the other – in fact, it’s good! You want them to leave with an impression of you that is accurate and desirable but leaves room for more. That’s like an interview; you want to give them your highlight reel, not your autobiography.
- On a date, you recognize the importance of dialogue. If either party was completely dominating the conversation, you wouldn’t feel like either side was doing well. Both sides should be asking roughly as many questions as they’re answering. You would want it to be a conversation, not an interrogation.
If you’re approaching an interview this way, you’ll not only do better on the interview itself, but you’ll make sure you’re being treated the way you should be!
Our Next Steps
In the next installments of this series, I’ll get into concrete methods and techniques. But before any of that will work or have value for you, you have to have the right mindset. With the right philosophy to guide you, the tips and tricks will feel natural and easy to incorporate; without the right philosophy, they can leave you confused and more nervous than when you started. Even if this is all you read before your next interview, it should dramatically change how you perform – instead of trying to pass a test, you’re going to go in with curiosity, show them how you will solve their problems and dazzle them!