My palms are sweating. My head churning. I take a deep breath, try to calm the racing thoughts. The pressure is immense; so much is riding on this. Got. To. Get. This. Right.
by Jude Tipper
We’ve all been there, at some point. Interview day. It’s not easy, no matter what side of the table you’re on.
And, guess what? Interviewers get nervous too. It’s a huge responsibility and an honour to interview for a position. And there’s a lot of pressure.
I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve interviewed over the years and yet, every time, my own nerves catch me a little off guard.
You’d probably like me as an interviewer, because I’m just as nervous as you, because I really care about making it a good experience all round, because I want to impress you, I want you to want my job. Because I know just how much you’ve got riding on this, how your future is in my hands. And I know I am fair, I am kind and I never ever make assumptions based on what a CV or application form may signal. It’s only when you meet someone can you truly determine if they’re the right fit.
After a recent round of recruitment, I realised I’ve picked up a few tips over the years that may help my fellow communicators when faced with a job interview. These are personal to me, and you’ll no doubt find many other, better, lists if you hit up Google. But I wanted to share a few pointers in case it might help.
So, in no particular order, here we go:
1 Stop talking
My biggest pet peeve in interviews is when a candidate can’t stop talking. I know nerves take over, I really do – I am the Queen of Nervous Gibber. However, when every question is met with a never-ending rambling answer, you lose me and my interest. My alarm bells go off about a communicator who can’t be succinct, who can’t get to the point, who doesn’t know when to stop talking. Be self-aware and know if you’re blathering. And stop.
At the same time, don’t be so succinct that the answer is over in a flash. You’ve wasted your chance to pick up more points. Flesh out your examples enough to help the interviewer make a solid judgement; there can be such a thing as too much brevity.
Side note, on the same theme – if you’re asked to present or talk about a topic for a set amount of time, stick to that time, no matter what. If an interviewer doesn’t think you can nail time-keeping, no matter how brilliant your content, you’re going to get marked down. It’s disrespectful to an interview panel to go over the time they allocated for a presentation, it forces them to rush the rest of the interview or eat into their precious scoring and reflection time. So, please, please time yourself when you practice.
2 Answer the goddamn question
Fairly obvious one, huh? You’d be amazed how many people fail to do this. It’s linked to the above, you start telling a story and giving examples and you’ve forgotten what the question is. So you just keep talking. It sometimes feels as if candidates come to interviews so determined to give the answers they’ve rehearsed that they’ll just shoe-horn them in, no matter what.
Listen carefully to what you are asked. If you’re not quite sure of the question, play it back to the interviewer – that’s fine. In fact, I quite like it when someone does that – clarifying what I’ve just communicated. “So, you want me to describe a time when I have x, y, z?”
If you really don’t know what the interviewer said and your nerves meant you just watched their mouth move – we’ve all been there – then ask them to repeat the question. That’s also fine and happens quite a lot. Remember that interviewers want you to do your best; they’re very forgiving when it comes to nerves and asking to hear a question again.
Once you get going, if you’re aware you’re rambling and have lost the thread don’t be afraid to stop and say “I’m so sorry, I think I’m going off on a tangent. Could you repeat the question for me and I’ll get back on track.” Something like this shows great self-awareness, so never be afraid of stopping.
And, if you think you’ve totally bummed an answer then ask the interviewer if you can answer again – but use this sparingly. Or, simply ask “Have I answered your question?” or “Are there any parts of my answer you’d like me to expand upon?” It gives you a great get-out and a chance to go again.
Which leads me nicely on to….
3 Remember it’s a conversation
Interviews are as much about you finding out if you want the job as it is the interviewer finding out if they want you. We all know two-way comms is the way to go, so it may calm you to approach interviews in the same way. It’s just a conversation. (Where you get scored and judged, I know, I know, but go with me…)
Goes without saying, don’t be unprofessional and overly familiar. But, don’t be afraid to ask questions back, when appropriate. Even mid-way through an answer, throw in a question.
For example, “I’d usually suggest firming up the objective with the chief exec. Do comms here have a good relationship with them?” Take the answer and then weave it into the rest of your answer. It’ll help it feel like a great conversation and show how you can bring your audience with you – a key comms skill after all.
4. Research, research, research
Again, another fairly obvious one, But, again, you’d be amazed how many people don’t do it and drop a clanger in interview that they really should’ve known. Find out all that you can about where you’re applying to work.
And don’t be afraid to request relevant info ahead of an interview if you can’t find it. “I’ve had a look on your website but can’t find your latest annual report/staff mag/comms strategy/pet of the week, could you share this with me if you’re able to?” I love a candidate who is proactive in their research, shows how much they want it.
Throwing in the odd fact about the organisation or industry in your answers really makes an interviewer pay attention. “I know you have 52 sites across the region, so multi-channel comms is clearly essential.” “I read your recent news article about x.” “It must have been a challenging time recently when your chief finance officer stood down.”
Yet, as ever, don’t overdo it. Don’t come prepared to brain-dump every little fact you’ve swotted. Using your research sparingly is far more impressive than peppering every answer with your newly-found factoids.
5. Don’t be afraid of silence
Don’t fill the air with noise instead of simple silence. It’s fine to have a pause when asked a question, or to say “I’ll just think about that” – gather your thoughts and then dive in.
It’s clear when a candidate is buying time by gibbering whilst their brain catches up to the task. Instead, embrace the pause. The silence. I respect candidates who can calmly do this – you know they’re not going to be the types to run their mouths off without engaging their brains.
And have you ever heard of embolalia? It’s when we, erm, use filler words to, ummm, you know, like, hesitate in our speech, to erm, I think, try and arrange our thoughts. We’re all guilty of embolalia when the pressure is on, it’s your mouth and brain trying to match pace.
If you think you’re prone to umming and errmming a lot then practice a silent pause instead. It makes you sound much more together and brings clarity instead of awkward stutterings. Don’t save this technique for interviews, by the way, practice it every day in meetings and presentations so that it becomes second nature.
6. Structure your answers
I’m a big fan of the STAR approach, it’s an oldie but a goodie. I won’t go into vast detail here; you can Google it. It stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.
Here’s a way to prepare for an interview (I credit this to one of the most eloquent and talented people I have ever interviewed. This was the technique she revealed she used when I quizzed her about how she achieved near-perfect scores from me).
Think about work you’ve done that matches well with the job – plot out 5/6 key projects or situations/experiences. Vary your experiences from different jobs (if you’ve had them); don’t pull them all from just one.
Pull out core competencies using the job spec, the things you are likely to get asked about.
Create STAR examples for your chosen key projects that support the competencies – each example can cover 2/3 competencies so that the same STAR could be used to answer different questions. So, you may think of a project/situation that speaks to not only your leadership skills but also your innovation and creativity. And another that can be used to answer questions about time-management, project planning and budgetary responsibility.
If you think carefully about the STAR examples you create you should end up being able to answer 10-20 different competencies using them.
My technique before a recent interview was to write all my STAR examples out on index cards – there’s something about hand writing that makes it go firmly into my brain. (And, yes, dear reader…I aced my interview).
7. Use examples wisely
OK, you’ve spent all that time prepping your STAR answers and carefully writing them on index cards. You’re then asked a scenario question or a “how would you approach….” question yet you feel obliged to shoe-horn in a carefully constructed STAR example. Don’t. First and foremost, listen to the question.
If you were asked to give examples, give them. But if you’re asked to answer a scenario or describe your approach, do that first – and then add an example if you have one that fits.
Too often candidates begin to answer questions with “Oh, that reminds me of a time when….” Or “My experience on X is relevant here”. But what they’re not doing is answering the goddamn question (see number 2).
If in doubt, answer with your approach and then simply ask the interviewer “Can I give you an example of when I’ve been in a similar situation?” It then throws the ball back into the interviewers’ court, and interviewers like that. It also helps you avoid my pet peeve…not shutting up when they’ve heard enough.
8. Think about your questions
“What’s a typical day like?” “Are there any training opportunities?” I’ve heard these hundreds of times and they bore me. Good candidates ask good questions, questions that challenge and surprise the panel.
I’m not going to give you examples because I firmly believe you should change them up for each interview, not just trot out one you’ve said before.
It’s also your one final chance to sell yourself. Turn their answer to your question back into a way to talk about yourself, tell them something you haven’t had the chance to yet, why you’re the ideal candidate. Do be conscious of time though and pick up on the visual cues of the interviewers.
And here’s a final point, about your final point. Make sure you have one – have a closing comment or statement lined up. If there isn’t a natural point to say it in the interview wrap-up then make it the very last thing you say. For example: “Thank you so much for your time, I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you. I’d like to finish by saying x, y, z”. Or, “To conclude on how I could really contribute in this role it’s a, b, c.” Remember point 1 (be succinct) but always leave with a parting shot and a great impression.
9. Be yourself
Another obvious one, I would hope, but super important so it’s worth including. Don’t be afraid to show a bit of character, give away a little of who you are, how you approach things. Don’t try and be the thing you think they are looking for.
If you fake it till you make it, it ain’t gonna work out if you land the job and then join the organisation. You’ll probably find you’re a square peg in a round hole. If the panel don’t like who you are, not just what you can do, then they’re not right for you. And it’s their loss. Never ever dull your shine.
I also love it when a candidate throws in a bit of humour, appropriately. It shows who they are and it makes it all feel more relaxed and more like a conversation (see point 3). If an interviewer can picture themselves getting on with you then you’re halfway there.
10. There is nothing more attractive than a candidate who wants this job, not just a job
This is advice I’ve repeated more often than I care to remember to anyone who asks me for interview tips.
Show your passion for the role, tell the panel your passion for the role. Leave them in no doubt you have been looking for their job…not just any job.
That’s it, that’s my top tips for interviews. I sincerely hope it helps someone, anyone.
Of course, we’re currently in the world of virtual interviews where you have to do your best to shine whilst staring down a screen. All the above tips absolutely still stand but it is worth recognising that it’s harder to build rapport and also to get a feel for a panel and a place – gone are the “did you park ok?” chats and being shown into a room, shaking hands etc. You now get thrown straight into questions, so be ready for them. The silver lining? You can stick your STAR examples and any other post-it notes all around your screen to help you if your mind blanks. You can also sit in your pants if you choose to.
So, good luck if you’re reading this because you have an interview coming up! If I’m ever lucky enough to interview you – you know how to pick up my top marks. Make me laugh, show me who you are, ask for clarity, structure your answers, answer the question. And, above all else, know when to stop talking!
Jude Tipper is assistant head of communications network at NHS Digital. You can say hello to her on Twitter at @JudeTipper
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