Dec 21, 2021
How to become a master interviewer through intentional practice.
Years ago, I thought that I wanted to learn how to play the piano.
I enrolled in a group piano course that claimed to be a foolproof way of learning. I’m surprised they didn’t print “Piano for Dummies” on our manuals.
Our instructor said something pretty interesting that contradicts a lot of what people say when it comes to trying to get better at something (anything). She said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
She then taught us a way of practicing that I’m sure had I stayed up on it, I’d be Mozart by now!
The point I’m trying to make is this: the only true way to get better at something (anything)--is by practicing the right way.
You actually need to learn a way of practicing that results in your weaknesses becoming stronger and your strengths coming forward more--so that you can really shine!
Remember having to apply this principle to learning sports as a kid--the small things like dribbling, catching, hitting, or throwing a ball took consistent and correct effort, didn’t they?
The EXACT same principle goes for interviewing. In order to ace an interview, you need to ace practice interviewing.
A lot of people that walk into an interview fit into one of two categories: they are either A) overly confident or B) nervous and unsure. As an employer, I’m always happiest when a third type of candidate enters our interview room: I call them “The Respectfully Competent.''
These are the individuals that come in ready to show who they are and what they know--without sounding like pompous jerks that already believe they are your number one choice! (If you can’t hear it in my tone, I’ve met a few of the latter!)
“The Respectfully Competent” are humbly confident enough to know their own value and talent, but not so modest that they don’t recognize and share what they have to offer.
You can become this person--this kind of interviewer--through sufficient, thorough, correct practice. Just like any skill, interviewing can be improved upon with consistent, conscientious practice.
So try out these five tips, and see what difference (all the difference) they can make!
1. Practice interviewing
Google search for a list of practice interview questions specific to your industry and job role. Generic questions (such as “Tell us about one of your strengths'') are great, but you also want to work on the specific types of questions relevant to the job title that they will be sure to ask you.
If you have a local government service to help you with employment (job placement, career coaching, interviewing, etc.) it is worth practicing interviewing with them. If that is not an option, ask a friend to practice interviewing with you. Also, what other alternatives do you have: is there a local church group or Meetup group you can get this kind of help from? (Just be smart and safe!!!!)
The goal is to create a circumstance and setting as similar as you can to what you will experience in your real interview--a less familiar location, new room, and interviewers you don’t know--are best! (Let me say this again, be safe. No reason to find some random strangers to help you practice interviewing!)
When I say try and make things as close to the real interview as possible--I’m meaning everything--from how you do your hair, what you are going to wear, your shoes, nails, and facial hair.
If the real interview will be over the phone, practice interviewing over the phone! If it will be a Zoom interview, sit in the exact room you will use and make sure your technology is ready to go and your background isn’t distracting.
I’ve found that when people do this, they feel less nervous, more prepared, and are ready to show their authentic selves in a real interview.
2. Practice being succinct in your responses to questions
Let’s face it, in an interview, it is rather easy to ramble. What is not quite so easy--saying exactly what you mean, in the most concise way possible.
With limited time to show your interviewers who you are, and what you are all about, you want to get to the point in your responses as efficiently as you can. BUT, don’t let this make you feel like you need to rush! This is actually a huge part of why people get rambly and go crazy with the filler words.
1. Slow down
It is more than appropriate to slow down in an interview--do not feel the need to respond quickly to every question. It is okay to pause and formulate your response to a question before you answer.
One of my favorite responses to more complex interview questions has always been “That is a great question!” Then pause for a moment to mentally formulate what you want to say.
If a question doesn’t make sense (or you don’t understand what they are asking you) it is more than appropriate to say, “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand the question. Is this what you mean: [insert in your words how you understood the question]?”, or, “Could you please clarify what you mean?” or repeat it back to them saying, “So you would like to know [...], is that correct?”
2. Avoid filler words such as “and,” “um,” “you know,” and “like”
I was enrolled in a class back in college where we were docked a half point every time we used a filler word during our presentations.
Why do you think a professor would do that?
She knew that the only way we would overcome the social habit of using these words was by recognizing when we were speaking them, and she knew that lowering our grade was the quickest way for us to pay attention to our word choice!
When you are practicing, try this out!
3. Become aware of your non-verbal communication
When it comes to interviewing, we can get a bit stressed about what to say, but what research has actually found is it’s less about what you say and more about how you say it.
60-90% of our communication is nonverbal. This includes (but is not limited to) facial expressions, voice inflection, eye contact, body language/positioning, and movements--including talking with our hands.
You as a job seeker and interviewer need to become aware of what your nonverbal communication is saying about you. This is why practice interviewing can be so helpful!
Through practice interviewing, and asking for open feedback, you can become aware of what default nonverbal communication you use. Once you have become aware, you can counteract certain undesirable behaviors and amplify the beneficial ones.
A few examples of this: making sufficient eye contact with your different interviewers as you respond to their questions, keeping *open (versus closed) body language, leaning in slightly (shows interest), keeping your hands visible (increases trust), avoiding fidgeting, nodding in agreement from time to time, and speaking loudly enough.
(*Crossing your legs and arms can physically close you off from your interviewers. Be sure you are positioning yourself in a way that makes you feel “warm” and approachable to the people interviewing you.)
I once interviewed a person who nodded their head “no” every time they were agreeing with me. Honestly, they probably didn’t even realize they were doing this, but it made me feel like they were lying to me! This alone should be reason enough that you figure out what you are doing with the nonverbal communication that you may be unaware of!!!
Here are some quick tips by Dr. Amy Cuddy on using body language to boost confidence (she is a Social Psychologist at Harvard Business School that studys interviewing). If you’ve never seen her *TedTalk on Power Poses, and how they can help you be more confident in interviews, it is worth listening to and applying!
Minor tweaks to nonverbal communication will translate into you presenting your best self in the way you want to be viewed by others. Watch and see what a difference this will make in your next interview!
4. Make sure your clothes are “working” for you
One of the reasons I tell people to practice interviewing in what they plan to wear (head to toe: hair, make-up, beard trimmed, jewelry, clothing, shoes, etc.) is because I’ve seen my share of mistakes be made.
For example, let's say that you find the perfect skirt at the store. You love the way it looks, and it makes you feel very professional. You get to the interview, sit down in it, cross your legs like you normally would--and then you hear the sound of ripping (apparently there wasn’t as much give in the fabric as you thought during the five minutes you wore it in the fitting room).
If you aren’t embarrassed enough, it also turns out that the length shrinks some 5+ inches the minute you are sitting (no longer standing in it) leaving your legs more exposed than you had planned.
Depending on if you are behind a table or not (and what kind of job you are interviewing for) this may not be such a big deal. But depending on who your potential employer is, they may be a bit put off. Do you want to put yourself in this circumstance to find out?
It is worth getting some in-person feedback on your choices of hair, clothing, etc. Sometimes what we think is appropriate and great is actually exactly what we shouldn’t do.
When in doubt, go for neutral and conservative. Also, remember that the people at the department store will tell you everything looks great and will work (because they are making a commission on your sale). Instead, bring a trusted friend to the store with you, who's in touch with these things--especially if you are not!
Interviewing can be challenging—mainly because you never know what they are going to ask you!
Over the years, as I’ve helped people master the skills of interviewing, they have expressed to me how glad they were that they spent the time coming up with responses to basic questions and practicing them.
Doing this helps you roll with the punches, taking what an interviewer throws at you and reflexively responding as it comes. Think of it like learning to catch a ball--as you do it successfully over and over again, the minute one flies at you unexpectedly, your muscle memory knows what to do!
Now apply practicing with the other tips I just gave you: being succinct, nonverbals, and your interview clothing and appearance—you’ll be sure to not only catch “the ball,” but when it is time for you to come up to bat--you will hit it right out of the park!