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Master the Interview


by Mark Hammerton, The Toastmaster July 1998

part I  

            Like a speechwriter, the job seeker should start by analyzing the audience. Want to know what recruiters are looking for? Put yourself in their shoes. After sifting through a bushel of resumes and chatting with a flock of candidates, an employer wants to feel comfortable with the hiring decision. He needs to feel confident that the chosen person will solve some of the company’s problems and will fit in. To that end, interviewers have hiring criteria that they use to screen candidates. The successful candidate ferrets out that criteria and convinces the employer that he or she is the perfect choice.

            A way to get off to a running start in an interview and simultaneously learn more about the company’s needs is to begin  with a couple of questions (you should have memorized several). After some small talk, you might say, “Before we get started, could you describe some of the expectations you will have of the person you hire?” Listen carefully and you’re likely to gather clues about the company’s needs and values.

            Make no mistake, the job interview is not a social encounter; it is pure business. It can’t be overemphasized that the reason you are there is to sell yourself to the employer. Once you have learned what the company’s needs are, you must fit your skills and accomplishments to those needs.8/17/98; 3/15/99

part II 

            Don’t forget the power of first impressions. Consultant Eleanor Baldwin asks the following question at her seminars for employment recruiters: “How long after the job prospect walks in the door does it take for you to decide whether you are going to talk seriously with that candidate about your opening?”

            She says the answers range from “immediately” to “by the time they sit down”. It’s therefore crucial to exude confidence when you first meet the interviewer. Be on time (not too early) with a presentable appearance. Offer a firm handshake (if the interviewer offers his/her hand) and a confident smile - even if your stomach is doing somersaults.

part III

            Research proves that people remember stories, especially those spiced with action. Marcia Barnhart, Acting Director of Placement Services at Western  Michigan University, suggests that you tell stories from your work or educational experience that highlight your skills, accomplishments and career goals. Set the stage by showing a problem that needed solving, then simply tell what actions you took and the results achieved.  Make yourself stand out from the competition. According to Barnhart, “Many people are far too modest in interviews. It’s the one time where bragging is OK”.

            Perfect your stories by telling them to a friend. Ask your audience to listen for action phrases.  Improve the stories until they show, with reasonable clarity, that you are someone who has initiative, are persuasive, get results, etc. Use stories that will relate to potential employer’s needs.

            Expect to be asked some tough questions. Most interviews start with, “Tell me about yourself.”  Should you launch in a long winded dissertation at this point, with details of your personal life, work history, etc? Not if you want the job. Until you know what the employer is looking for, a detailed answer to such a question runs the risk of being irrelevant or worse. The basic rule is to not give the interviewer any reason to screen you out. For example, you may be asked if you have any weaknesses. Listing serious shortcomings is dangerous. Instead, you could say that you don’t have any  that you’ll bring to the job. You could then probe, saying “Tell me what you would consider a real weakness in this job.”  The answer should be revealing.

            Throughout the interview, give answers that are to the point but not curt, then probe the questioner for more information. Keep the interviewer talking about the hiring criteria by showing interest, with an occasional “I see”, or “That’s interesting.” When you understand what the company is looking for, then you can put on your salesman’s hat.

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