6 Aug 2011

The Art of the Interview

Interview performances can be extremely variable.  Often, those who on paper look like they’re the right man (or woman) for the job, turn out to be not quite right.  Equally, someone who isn’t as strong on paper, can surprise everyone by being spot on with the culture of a place.

So clearly, a lot relies on interviewing well.  How can you get it right?

There are some key factors to consider and remember.

  1. Do you really want the job?
Seems like a no-brainer.  Surely you wouldn’t spend the time and be sat in front of the client if you didn’t want the job.  Surprisingly, I talk to a lot of candidates who let slip that they’re going ‘for practice’.  Bad idea.  If your heart isn’t set on that job, it will come across and someone else, who does really want the job, will be much more positive.   Having said that, I don’t believe every opportunity will be your dream job (I’d be a world famous travel writer) but in your chosen career, you need to believe that this interview is for a job that is right for you.

  1. It’s a performance
Consider that the client has 3 candidates to interview, all look good on paper, all work for good agencies/companies.  How do they decide who they want in the role?  If the position you are interviewing for is a client facing one, then it’s going to be very important how you come across and how you present and articulate yourself.  You need to work on your own personal sales pitch.  I’m not saying you should put on an act but you do need to go all out to impress and generally that means tailoring your pitch to that particular role and thinking about what the interviewer wants to hear.  Use your perception – it’s usually quite easy to read into what the client is looking for (you’ll know based on the role, the company and what they themselves are like).  I often say you’ve got to wear a different hat for each interview – not literally!

  1. First impressions count
Always check out what the dress code should be.  For a law firm it’s important to be suited and booted but for an advertising agency, jeans may be the norm.  Generally, you can’t go wrong being smart and it’s better to be too smart than too scruffy.   I had a client who when I checked recently what the dress code was replied ‘something to accentuate the colour of their eyes’.  The candidate got the job. On their first day, the client requested that the candidate arrive ‘Dressed to kill’! I’m sure there is a statistic that says most interviewers make their mind up in the first 10 minutes of the interview and this largely is based on first impressions.  This is where you can help yourself by checking are you smiling, do you have poise and confidence, but not arrogance.  Try to find some way to break the ice in the first minutes of the interview.  ‘What fantastic offices’.  Another good tip is to always be particularly nice to the receptionist or person who shows you in.  Even try to have a quick conversation with them.  This will calm you down as you’ll get rid of the nerves in advance of meeting the main interviewer but also you’d be surprised how many bosses take notice of their receptionist/PA and their opinion of you.  Clearly you have the rest of the interview to impress the interviewer with your skills but don’t underestimate how important first impressions are.  Reading Corporate literature in reception may give you something to drop into the conversation later so use your time in reception wisely.

  1. Body Language & controlling the nerves
It’s all about confidence and managing to balance this with not coming across as arrogant or sleazy.  It sounds a bit obvious but I always tell candidates the best thing to do is to get a good nights sleep prior to an interview and don’t over do the coffee.  One client remarked that he’d thought a candidate was high on something as their pupils were dilated and they were talking a lot.  It turned out the candidate had not slept the night before and had drunk 3 large Americanos prior to the interview.  They didn’t get the job.  Also, caffeine can make people twitchy and that again will come across.  Interviewing isn’t rocket science, you’ve just got to come across as calm, collected and in control.  Exactly how you’ll be in the work situation.  Whilst most clients will understand nerves at the start of an interview, generally they’ll try to put you at ease and by the time you’re onto the second question you should be fine.  Body language is all important.  Look the client in the eye, LISTEN to their questions properly with consideration, THINK before you speak.  Sit on the edge of your seat, not so that you fall off but so that the client sees you are alert and taking the situation seriously.  No slouching or sitting back in the chair.  If you’re like that in an interview, it implies that you would be like that in a work situation or in front of a client.  Not good!  If you’re someone who suffers badly from nerves, ask a recruiter for help or even your friends.  Practising in front of a mirror often helps too – just talk through your pre prepared answers to standard questions and gain confidence in what you are saying – it’s amazing how quickly you can improve your answers when saying them outside to yourself.

  1. Chemistry & fit
This is where I generally tell candidates that ultimately you need to be yourself (with a bit of gloss!).  You are who you are and you can’t change your personality.  You need to fit into the team in the company you are interviewing with and the interviewer will have to make a decision about whether you can or not.  8 times out of 10 if there is a ‘no’ post interview, it tends to be ‘the fit wasn’t right’.  You might have felt that too (be honest with yourself!).  Also, when the client has a choice of 5 candidates who can all do the job, there has to be something that gives someone the edge, and that is often ‘fit’.  The problem with fit is that it is not generally defineable which can make the feedback process a bit frustrating.    I generally ask my clients at second interview to have a ‘meet the team’ session as this can really make or break the decision process.  You need to have buy in from the team otherwise you won’t settle.  Everyone wants work colleagues they can get along with and who will add value to the team, this is important!

  1. Dither afterwards
I do get candidates who mid interview knew it wasn’t for them.  Ok, that may be the case.  However good the fit is on paper, there can be the occasional role that doesn’t turn out to be what you thought it would be.  However, it’s important to keep on trying.  You don’t know that the client might not have another role that would be more suitable or they may think laterally once they’ve talked through your skills, decided they like you and then adapt the role to suit your skill-set.  If you give up mid-way, your lack of enthusiasm will show and the interviewer will become frustrated that they’ve given up time to someone who clearly doesn’t want to be there.
You shouldn’t be in an interview if you know in advance that the role isn’t right for you.  Do your best to qualify the role before you interview – appreciate this won’t  always work.

  1. Tell the truth
I’ve got too many stories to tell on this subject…. Stick to the truth is my absolute advice.  In the North, it’s a small world in marketing, both agency side and in house.  If you go over-egging your experience, you’ll be found out.  People know people, increasingly so.  To be honest, let’s just say that you do get the job, you’ll soon be found out if you’ve overplayed your skills.  I do often come across people who jump ship every 12 months.  Clients are very suspicious that these are the people who oversell themselves at interview, spend the first 6 months still bigging themselves up and the last 6 months trying to find something else as they’ve been exposed.  Another specific area where people blatantly lie is on salary.  Whilst a client will pay you what you are worth, they’ll soon see from your P45 that you weren’t earning what you said you were.  It’s true that honesty is the best policy, generally!

  1. Play to the ego.  Without being smarmy
Last week I had a candidate who was perfect for a role but was rejected because the client thought that the candidate was too aloof.   That’s a new one, I thought.  The client said that the candidate was distant and whilst they liked him, they just thought he thought he was too ‘cool’ for them.  This is a leading digital agency and a bit of a cock up on behalf of the candidate.  I fed back honestly and I think he felt he’d missed an opportunity.  Fundamentally clients want you to want to work for them – and no-one else.  They want you to demonstrate that getting this job means everything to you.   ‘Are you interviewing elsewhere?’.  Well clearly you should say if you are, but you should also add that ‘this is the one I really want’ and why.  In this economic climate no-one would expect you to be only interviewing at one company.  BUT, they do want you to be enthusiastic and excited about their opportunity. If you’re not, someone else will be.  So on the other side of this, don’t go to the other extreme.  No-one likes Mr Sleaze who is obviously brown nosing.  You’ve got to get the balance right.  Play it by ear. We’re back to the different hats for different interviews…

  1. You don’t need to read 100 top interview questions, but you do need to be prepared.
I remember years ago, I did actually borrow the aforementioned book from an ex colleague. This was when I was an Account Executive and interviewing for jobs.  It was actually quite useful but if you do read it (or one of the other zillion similarly titled tomes) then you need to adapt the answers.  If you’re not so good at thinking on your feet then it can be useful but it’s mostly common sense.  Preparation is absolutely key to interviews.  Think around the role, the company, the market, competitors etc.  Try to second guess what they could ask you.  Google the interviewers, find them on Linked In, find all the recent relevant PR.  This gives you ammunition to use if they ask you something off the wall.  Every little helps.

  1. Some Golden rules:
    1. Never Ever say anything negative about your current role or boss.  This is a sure fire way for you to come across as a troublemaker or potential problem.  Managers want an easy life in terms of managing teams.  Even if you have the boss out of hell and that’s your reason for moving on, don’t say it!
    2. When interviewers ask what are your weaknesses, they don’t really want to hear that you hate being managed or that you hate having to be in the office for the dot of nine.  Don’t shoot yourself in the foot!  Come up with some classic weaknesses that could conceivably be strengths…..e.g:  I get frustrated sometimes if others don’t have the same sense of urgency to complete a project.  And you counter this by saying that you have to take a step back in these situations and ensure that you’re working at the pace of the team (or something similar!). 
    3. Similarly, when talking about strengths…..get the balance right.  I’m a genius, I saved the world etc etc.  Make the strengths specific to the role you’re going for.  If it’s managing a team, relate the strengths to keeping the team purposeful and motivated etc.  If you’re saying ‘I’ too much then it’s generally best corrected.
    4. Have some ready made answers that you can adapt – there are no excuses for being caught out.  Whilst some clients go for classic competency based questions: ‘Tell us about a time where you demonstrated your skills in time management’, there are others who go for off the wall ones: ‘if we were in the pub, what would your friends say about you’.  Clearly you can’t prepare for everything but do come up with several that you can work around.  In the advertising industry, you’d be a fool not to have a ready prepared answer for questions about your favourite brands, advertising campaigns, packaging etc.  I’m not implying you should revise and be faultless but you can practice general question themes and work around them
    5. Don’t say too much.  Rambling is a real turn off.
    6. Don’t assume that it’s in the bag.  Arrogance is detectable at 100 yards.  Nobody likes it.
    7. 2nd interviews – just as much to play for.  Preparation is absolutely essential.  Typically you’ll have a brief or a presentation to do.  Give it your absolute all. Don’t try and get it done in your lunch-hour.  Research it religiously!  If you’re putting a couple of hours into going to an interview, surely it’s worth putting a proper amount of time into preparing now that you’ve cut the field down.
    8. Take a notepad with your pre-prepared questions for them written down.  Throughout the interview, surreptitiously tick them off.  That way, when you get to the ‘Do you have any questions for us?’ (where everyone stutters ‘um, no I don’t think so’, you can point to your list and say, I think we’ve covered them all off actually’.  Again, this is just about good preparation taking away the stress of the moment.
    9. At the end.  Thank them.  ‘Do you have any reservations?’ can be an extra way for you to demonstrate that whilst you are there, you’d like the chance to counter any reservations
    10. It might sound obvious but…no cigarettes prior to the interview (I’ve had several candidates rejected due to the smell of fags on their breath at an interview.  Fundamentally that’s how you’d be in front of clients and it’s not acceptable).  You might think you’re covering it up with gum but it’s on your breath and your clothes.
    11. Turn your phone off…..
    12. If you’re trying to postpone an interview, once is acceptable, but twice, you’re pushing it.  The client will lose patience and will continue to interview other people.  Yes, these things are sometimes unavoidable but do your best to stick to pre-arranged times.
    13. Get there early – at least 15 minutes.  Being late, whilst sometimes can be justified, just makes you look unreliable and gets you off to a bad start.
    14. If you’re a creative.  Don’t bore a client with your portfolio.  Less is more. Show your best. Understand when they’ve had enough!
    15. Ask for feedback.  You can turn a bad interview into a positive by correcting where you went wrong.  Better to know now rather than after ‘any reservations’.
If you’re continually getting turned down after interview and feedback is negative. It’s worth looking for some coaching.  It is all about finding the right balance and tailoring your personal pitch to the situation and the client and the role.  I remember years ago, the consensus was don’t have an (alcoholic) drink in an interview but these days, many second interviews are done over a glass of wine.  You’ve got to get the measure of the interview and the interviewer and then tailor your behaviour accordingly.

Ultimately, it’s about finding the right job for you too so whilst all these pointers are towards selling yourself to the client, it is a two way process and you need to make sure it’s right for you too.  Be absolutely honest with yourself and your reasons for looking for a new job and what is it about this one that is right for you.   If you’ve been in your current role for a while, moving to somewhere new can be stressful and daunting.  Don’t forget the reasons you were looking for a new role in the first place and that the pressure of moving roles is temporary – if it’s the right role for you, it’ll be worth it. There is somewhere for everyone and if it’s not this one then give it more time to find the perfect job for you!