Founder of Big Interview, Pam Skillings, breaks down what makes an interview successful and how to best up your interview game.
- How to prepare without over preparing
- The best answers to the most commonly-occurring interview questions
- Your secret weapon for any interview
Pamela Skillings is an author, entrepreneur, and career coach who specializes in helping people find success and fulfillment in their dream careers. Her company, Skillful Communications, provides career coaching and training for individuals and training and development consulting for companies and organizations. Big Interview is her online job interview training system that helps clients ace their interviews and land big job offers.
She is also the author of Escape from Corporate America: A Practical Guide to Creating the Career of Your Dreams (Random House) and has been featured as a career expert by The New York Times, Newsweek, ABC News, and other media outlets . Additionally, she is an adjunct professor at New York University and a contributing columnist for About.com and other publications.
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Pam, thank you so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Thanks for inviting me. I’m excited to chat today.
Oh, I’m excited too. I understand you also have some excitement and enthusiasm for a particular dinosaur. What’s the story here?
Well, I have a five-year-old. As you can imagine, that’s where my love of dinosaurs has come from. When you asked me for a fun fact, I thought not too many people are going to share that the diplodocus is their favorite dinosaur, but it was fresh in my mind because I had just been having a very in depth dinosaur conversation that very evening.
I don’t think I can summon an image of what a diplodocus is off the top of my head. I think of the pterodactyl, the tyrannosaurus, triceratops, but I’m drawing a blank here.
I’m trying to be a little bit different, you know? I think the main reason is because it’s a lot of fun to say. Diplodocus. I don’t know, something about it.
Does it have any noteworthy features or abilities?
It’s kind of brontosaurus like. It’s big and it’s an herbivore. It’s definitely in the top ten I think of all time dinosaurs.
It’s funny, we have a new baby at home. The shirt he wears most days has three dinosaurs on it and one of them might be a diplodocus. I’ll have to double check.
Yeah, you’ll have to see if you can find one. You’ve got to start them early with the diplodocus.
That’s good. That’s good. Well, I want to hear all about your brilliance when it comes to helping folks with interviews. It’s impressive to behold. You’ve been doing this for a good while now. How long?
I’ve been doing this – well, career coaching since 2005 I guess. Yeah, and focusing, not exclusively, but mostly on interviewing for the last several years if not more. I hate to – it makes me feel old when I think too hard about it, but yeah, for a good long time. I kind of found my niche for a lot of people.
I still do coaching on other career issues, but I think I started out focusing more so on career change and bigger sort of career issues, trying to figure out the next chapter of your career. I still help people with that.
But I found that along with that, a lot of people, their biggest challenge was once they figured out what they wanted to do next, “Okay, how do I get someone to give me that job?” Most people are not naturally good at interviewing. Even if they’re not terrible, they could be better. They tend to get nervous. It’s a nerve-racking kind of experience.
I found I kind of had a knack for helping people with it. I think maybe because earlier in my career I worked in – I’ve worked in both marketing and human resources before getting into coaching and falling in love with sort of helping people with their careers and finding work that they love.
For whatever reason, I found that I had a knack for sort of listening to people and helping them figure out how to present themselves and their accomplishments and their strengths in the way that was really going to resonate with the interviewers. It was really rewarding to me once I started working with people on that because you see results right away.
I love ongoing coaching because you help people overcome big problems, but it takes a lot of time. With interview coaching I tend to even in one session, sometimes I’ll get a call the next day, “Hey, it went great. I got the job offer.” It’s really a nice feeling. It’s really rewarding to help people who have a lot of great things going for them just to get over this one hurdle, to learn this one skill, to kind of look at themselves and their own experience in a different way.
It’s hard I think to look at yourselves objectively sometimes and think about “What do I want to emphasize? What do I want to bring out about myself for this particular opportunity?”
An interview is kind of a different interaction than anything else we do in I guess normal life. People sometimes haven’t had training or it’s just not something that they’re comfortable with, but with a little bit of training, a little bit of coaching you can see people make a huge, huge difference.
Getting good at interviewing is a major life improvement opportunity. You can get a better job. You can get a job that you love more, make a lot more money. There’s so many things that you can achieve if you get good at interviewing.
Absolutely. The stakes and the rewards are substantial, which is how you’ve been able to command a 500 dollar an hour rate for years upon years, so congrats to you fellow entrepreneur. That’s really cool.
I’d love to hear then a couple of the gems that you share during these coaching sessions that make people say, “Yeah, that was totally worth it.” I’ll get specific shortly, but for now I’d like to go wide open in terms of those nuggets you share that make people go, “Wow, yes. That was the thing.”
Yeah, I think there’s a couple things that are recurring themes. I think most people are terrible at the whole ‘tell me about yourself’ because it’s just an awkward hugely open-ended question. It’s so easy to get off on a tangent or to stumble.
That’s one I’ve seen make a huge difference, just spending a little bit of time together kind of thinking about, “Okay, how do I want to open this interview?” You’re opening in an interview and almost always that first question is something along those lines, sort of open-ended ‘tell me about yourself,’ ‘walk me through your resume.’
I find just making improvements to that and how you open, because it’s kind of like how you position yourself with this person. What their first real impression of you? What do they focus on? Well, you kind of have some control over than in terms of what you emphasize and how you describe yourself in that ‘tell me about yourself.’
Now of course, you’ve got to cover the key facts on the resume, but there’s a lot of different ways that you can do that. I think that’s one of the things.
Just being able to give real objective feedback to people about how they’re coming across. I think it’s very difficult sometimes to know yourself and often in interviews, you don’t get real feedback. You might get a, “Well, we went another way,” or “Yeah, we really liked you, but-.” You rarely get told, “Hey, you could be doing this better and this could be-” so I think that’s part of it.
I use my time very effectively. I sit down with someone and I am 100% focused on them and hearing what their challenges are, hearing how they’re coming across. I do my homework before each session on their industry. At this point I’ve worked with people across a lot of different industries, different levels, and there are definitely some nuances and differences when it comes to different types of jobs.
I think that’s sort of where I add value in having done this a long time and having a pretty good understanding of where people go wrong and what hiring managers are looking for and being able to give advice on sort of all the steps along the way in the job search and interview process.
I’d love to dig into some of these matters then. When it comes to the ‘tell me about yourself’ or ‘walk me through your resume,’ what are some of the key do’s and don’ts there?
Well, I think one of the biggest ones is having a strategy. We have this three-part model that we recommend to people. It’s not the only way to do it, but sort of going in and knowing, like this is the chance to basically tell my whole story. I don’t know want to try to wing it and end up going off on a tangent or end up leading with the stuff that’s less relevant or interesting and losing the person after 20 seconds.
We have this three-part model. We have articles. We have lots of information and free advice on our blog, BigInterview.com/blog and Big Interview is our online training platform, so people who don’t have the budget or inclination to hire a coach to work one-on-one, we’ve put a lot of different lessons in terms of how I do things with my clients and there’s a practice tool and a bunch of stuff like that on Big interview.
‘Tell me about yourself’ is definitely one of the things that is most popular and that people are most likely to be looking for on our site. Really emphasizing what’s most relevant and interesting for this particular job.
I think a lot of people by instinct kind of walk in and start at the beginning of their story. It’s like “Well, I grew up here. I went to college here.” If you’re a ten-year seasoned executive, by the time you get to the stuff that I really care about in terms of are you the right person for this job, I’ve kind of checked out a little bit. That’s one of the things I see people doing.
I think one of the other things people do with the ‘tell me about yourself’ as well as the rest of the interview is they just don’t – I hate to say sell yourself because it sounds like not a very human thing to do, but the truth is that in a job interview, you really have to think about how do I sell them on the fact that I’m the best fit for this job. How do I really highlight my strengths, experience that I have that will make me great in this position.
A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that. Most of us are not taught how to do that. We’re taught actually that that’s obnoxious to say nice things about yourself or to be too forward or to brag, especially people who are introverts, who are a little more modest by nature. They kind of struggle with that.
Even if they’re trying to do it, even through, “I know I’m supposed to sell myself, so I’m going to try to say something here,” they don’t necessarily do it in the most effective way because it doesn’t feel comfortable. They hold back. It’s out of their comfort zone or they stumble.
I think being able to do the planning upfront in this sort of three-part model is a helpful way to do that. You really think about “What are my talking points here? What is my story?”
We’ll talk some more about this I’m sure, but storytelling I think is a huge sort of secret weapon in terms of job interviews because they can be sort of dry at times. I think if you can use storytelling techniques in interviewing, it really helps to connect with the interviewer and also just make you a much more memorable candidate.
Now, you talk about selling yourself. Could you provide maybe just a couple example sentences to orient us a bit like, “Oh no, that’s not going too far. That’s just right.”
Yeah. I think everyone has a certain comfort level. One of the things I tell people is, “Okay, you’re an introvert. You have a quiet personality. I’m not going to force you to memorize a script saying I am the greatest manager ever and I leave all the other candidates in the dust.” That’s not going to feel natural and that’s not going to make a great impression by going too far in that direction either.
I always talk to people about how to find a way to say it in their voice, way to talk about their accomplishments in their voice to make sure that the interviewer is hearing it and is suitably impressed, but without it feeling over the top for them.
That’s why practice I think is huge too for people who are a little bit uncomfortable with this idea of selling themselves because the first time you say it, even if it’s perfectly fine in terms of the language, it’s going to feel weird because you’re not used to talking that way.
But if you practice out loud a few times, then you tweak it a little bit, maybe you change a word here and there, and you just get more comfortable with the idea of speaking that way about yourself.
Some of the things I advise people to do if they’re feeling a little bit uncomfortable or having a hard time figuring out a way to do this in their own style is first of all think about factual statements that are impressive. You don’t have to say, “I’m the greatest ever. I’m fantastic. You should definitely hire me.” You can say, “I led a multimillion dollar project that we delivered two weeks ahead of deadline and got amazing feedback from the client.”
Yeah, you put a few adjectives in there. You give a little enthusiasm around it. But it’s basically just stating the facts of something that you accomplished. That’s one thing.
Another technique for people who struggle a little bit that I – there are others too, but another one that I found people find useful is quoting someone else. If you’re having a hard time saying, “I’m a great manager,” you can say, “In my performance review I got great feedback from my manager about my ability to mentor.”
Then you’re quoting somebody else and that gives it – first of all it gives it maybe a little bit of an extra credibility boost in terms of the listeners but it also doesn’t feel so much like you’re bragging as that you’re just sharing what someone else told you.
Yeah, I like that. I’m curious then in terms of sort of the tone with which you deliver these factual sentences or these quotations from others. Do you have some pro tips on calibrating that nicely?
Yeah, I think – you mean in terms of vocal quality and things like that?
Mm-hm. I can imagine that you can do it raw in a sense of “I delivered a multi-million dollar result.” It’s like, “Oh my gosh, I hate you. Shut up. Get out now.”
What’s the best way to say it?
Yeah, well those are the two ends of the extreme. The one end of the extreme is the person who’s just fumbling about it and then there’s the person who memorized this script that they’re reciting and that sounds totally canned and totally phony.
The best way to do this, finding that perfect balance between preparing and not over preparing to the point where it doesn’t feel true or it’s not at all spontaneous. I’m a big believer in this idea of the bullet-point approach. It’s about thinking about what you’re key speaking points are for the most important questions.
There’s a core set of questions that I think are the most commonly asked as well as the ones that I think maybe have the biggest influence in terms of the overall impression that interviewers have of a particular candidate.
Especially if there’s an area that you’re sensitive about or if there’s a gap in your resume or something like that, questions around more awkward topics, sort of preparing some bullet points. You’re not scripting word for word but you’re sort of capturing a few bullet points that allows you to really focus on the most interesting, relevant things you have to say for that question.
I use the metaphor sometimes about celebrities going on a talk show, right? They’re going on a talk show and they’re not going to completely improvise, but they’re also not going to get up there and read from a script, but they’re going to have, well probably their publicist, but somebody’s going to prepare these speaking points for them.
They’re going to get up there and they’re going to make sure to mention that fun story about their co-worker on set. They’re going to make sure to mention this other interesting fact about their favorite hobbies. So thinking a little bit about the bullet points.
Then practicing. Again, I think sometimes people – practicing gets a bad reputation because people feel like, “Oh, well if you practice too much, it’s not going to be authentic. It’s not going to be natural.”
For me it’s the opposite. I’ve seen it time and time again with people because everybody knows you’re supposed to practice. Every interview book is like, “Well, you should practice.” But a lot of people are like, “Eh, yeah. But it’s awkward. It’s weird. I don’t know. I’m just going to say it in my head.”
But I see it time and again in sessions. People go from stumbling to sounding really polished and confident after practicing it a few times. It’s sort of like – because an interview is a performance to some degree. You’re starring as yourself, so hopefully you’re being authentic, but you’re also preparing. You want to make sure you’re prepared, just like when you give an important presentation. You’re being yourself, but you’re being the best version of yourself that you can be.
I like that. That analogy to the talk shows, it’s true with like the anecdotes. It just reminds me of – there’s this goofy TV show called Nathan for You.
Oh, I don’t know that one.
It’s so funny. It’s out there. This comedian studied all the anecdotes shared at talk shows and then crafted what would be the perfect anecdote for him to share at a talk show and then elaborately constructed the events to unfold so that he wasn’t technically lying. We can link to that in the show notes.
Yeah, that sounds hilarious.
When it comes to these questions that show up a lot and have a big impact in forming the impression of a candidate, could you share a few of those right here, right now?
Absolutely, absolutely. ‘Tell me about yourself’ definitely is one of the top ones. I’ve already sort of talked at length, perhaps too much length, about that one. That’s really important.
Every interview is going to ask you some form of ‘why are you interested in this job,’ why do you want to work here.’ There’s different angles on that: ‘why this company,’ ‘why this position,’ ‘why this career path,’ sort of depending on where you are in your career and whether you’re making a switch.
Really being able to speak at length in a non-generic way about why this is the perfect next opportunity for you is very important.
Strengths and weaknesses both are very important and also tend to come up and maybe there are different variations on how they are worded, but these are things that are frequently asked about.
Even the weakness, and I do think the weakness question is a bit of a cliché and probably not something where you’re going to get a ton of truthful information from someone. Everyone knows to expect it at this point I think or most people do, especially if they read my blog. But it is still asked a lot.
I keep waiting for it to go out of fashion and for people to stop asking it, but I keep asking my clients when they come in after a new interview, they’re like, “Yup, yup. They asked me. They definitely asked me.”
Strengths and weaknesses. I think strengths even more so because preparing for the weakness question is more a matter of limiting the downside, where because it’s an awkward question and if you’re not prepared you could blurt something out that’s weird or just not ideal versus the strengths question, which is another example of where you’re sort of being forced to sell yourself and say good things about yourself.
If you’re not prepared, a lot of times people lapse into this very generic, vague, laundry list of “I’m a people person. I’m detail oriented,” but just not taking full advantage of the opportunity basically to say, “Okay, here are the top three reasons why I would be awesome at this job.”
Okay, I like that. You gave a little bit of detail there. You have some bullets for top three and not being shy about doing the sales when it comes to the strengths side. What are some components for the why are you interested in this company or this role.
You say you want to be non-generic, so don’t, I guess, parrot back the information that’s on the website and say general things. But what are some sort of particular examples that really make that come to life?
Yeah, there’s a couple things. First of all, you definitely want to do your research on the company. I think most people know to do that. You want to show that you understand what the company does and there are things about the company that you like. Doing some research and fining some things about the company.
If you can go beyond what you read on a website and talk about, “Oh, I have a friend who worked there,” or you have some sort of information that you’ve gained.
But even if you’ve just read about the company, but you have a couple of specific details that you pulled about they won an award for innovation or they’re CEO did this interview in the journal that you thought was really insightful. Being able to talk about something specific if you can.
Then I think one of the things that people sometimes don’t do that I think makes the biggest difference with this kind of question is they think about the company, but they don’t really think specifically about the job itself. I think that’s really important here.
You do want to make sure that it’s clear you did the research on the company, you think the company’s a good fit for you. But when it comes down to it, your success in this position is going to depend on what you do every day, the job itself. Being able to talk about how this job description is made for me.
I’m being a little over the top in the language, but being able to point to, “Hey, these are the things you’re looking for. This is why I’m a great fit because I’ve done this and I’ve got this strength and I’ve got this training.”
Being able to really speak to the job description and both the fact that you are a great fit for that job description and also that you would be excited about doing the work, that this is the kind of work that you love to do and thus, you would be motivated to succeed if they hired you for the role.
That’s super, so not just “I thought it was cool that you won these awards,” which is like front and center on the homepage, but particulars associated with this will get you fired up to go forward and do that. I like it.
It’s interesting, it seems like that is really a theme here is that in each of these instances, it’s not so much a matter of directly answering precisely the facts requested of you so much so as telling the story of your talking points about why you are particularly wonderful for this opportunity.
Yeah, absolutely and thinking strategically about – and that’s why I think sometimes – some people are good at winging it and good stuff comes out.
I’ve had lots of clients who have said, “Yes, I do pretty well when I get a good interviewer and they ask good questions and we have a good rapport, but then I have these other situations where I walk in and I’m like the person’s not giving me anything or they’re asking really weird, vague questions.” And they just shut down or they start blurting things out.
I think the preparation that I work with people to do allows you to be proactive, allows you to kind of take control of the experience, so you’re not scripting, but you’re thinking, “Okay, I know that these are the key things I want to convey about myself in this interview, so if they ask the perfect question, great. If they don’t, I’m going to find ways to work in the fact that I have these great leadership skills and I’ve led an international team of 25-“
Thinking about these are the things that I want to make sure I’m able to communicate gives you a little bit of control. It can feel a lot like you’re at the mercy of the interviewer in a job interview and you somewhat are, I guess, but if you go in feeling comfortable with your speaking points and the things that you want them to remember about you, it gives you a little bit of that opportunity to be strategic and proactive about it.
Do you have any pro tips for doing a smart segue there in terms of they’re asking you a question and you’re delivering your speaking points.
I guess I’m chuckling and thinking about politicians now. They’re asked a question and they just say what they want to say regardless of the question that is posed to them. I’d say, if I were an interviewer, that would make me angry. It’s like, “Okay, either you are not listening to me or you’re dumb, or you are sort of determined to railroad this in the way you like.” Whatever the interpretation, I don’t like it. What are some of your pro tips for making a smooth connection between the question and your talking point?
Yeah, I agree. I think you don’t want to completely ignore the question and basically just say what you feel like saying. I think that’s definitely not going to serve you well.
I always say you do want to answer the question. You don’t want to just sort of jam your speaking points in there regardless of what they asked. You’re looking for questions that legitimately provide an opening for what you want to say. Usually there are. Usually there are some open-ended questions where you get an opportunity to talk about what you want to talk about.
I do think you do want to answer the questions that are asked though. I definitely see some advice out there about “Seize control of the interview. Turn the question back on them.” I have heard many stories about how that has backfired. I would not advise it.
What are your strengths?
How do you feel about this position? Yeah, so you can ask questions and they’ll probably prompt you to ask question at some point in the interview, but there’s also a certain matter of respect to answer the questions that are asked.
This is their job. Their job is to hire someone great for this role. They’re not just trying to torture you. Some people are better interviewers than others, some are not great. But this is serious for them. They have to pick someone.
It’s a big risk factor. If they hire someone who doesn’t work out, it’s going to make them look bad. It might influence their bonus and promotion possibilities. You kind of have to think about their perspective too.
That’s one of the things I always talk about with people. Why are they asking a certain question? It’s not just because they want to be difficult, but thinking about where is it that they’re coming from and how you can address what their concerns are and what they feel they need to know about you.
I’d love to hear, you talked a lot about getting really specific about what you’re talking points are and what’s special about you and getting those out there and the research.
Can we zoom out a little bit to talk about some universals in terms of “Hey, no matter what your talking points are, no matter what the industry or the role, these are some things that always go over well in interviews, so be sure to do them or something that always don’t go over so well, so be sure not to do them.”
I love these questions. You don’t want to generalize too much, but there definitely are some things that you see time and time again.
I think one of the things that goes across almost all interviews, I would say all interviews, in addition to the ‘tell me about yourself’ thing and being able to talk about your strengths, but one of the things that’s really important that I think some people either don’t think about or they just have difficulty doing is really showing your sincere enthusiasm for the position.
I always use the analogy of dating with people. I always say, “Hopefully your dates are more fun than your job interviews.” As much as I think job interviews are important, there is a difference. But it’s about making it clear that you’re happy to be there and that you find the opportunity really interesting. You have enthusiasm. You’d be motivated to succeed if they hired you.
That’s why I think that question of “Why are you interested in this opportunity? Why are you interested in this company? What are you looking to do next?” they’re really trying to get a feel for what you care about, how this position fits into your career goals and into what you love to do, and trying to get a feel for whether you would be a passionate, strong performer if you were hired. I think that’s one thing that cuts across all types of interviews.
Some people struggle ether because they have a very low key personality. One sort of sub-group of my coaching clients over the years are people who have a very sort of poker-faced, low key kind of demeanor and they miss out on opportunities.
They’re getting feedback, “Well you just didn’t seem that interested. It didn’t seem like you were that excited about the opportunity.” They’re like, “I really was, but I’m just not someone who goes in there and says, “This is the greatest job ever.’”
We work on ways to bring out their personality and their enthusiasm a little bit in a way that still feels like them and practice helps with that too because they can see – on Big Interview we have a video practice interview tool. I also video record the mock interviews I do with coaching clients.
So they can see themselves on video and they can see that sometimes if you have a very low-key personality, every little bit of smiling or hand gestures feels, “Oh, that’s over the top,” but then you see it on video and you realize, “Okay, well, that isn’t as weird as it feels to me. I just have to kind of get used to it.” I think that helps with that particular issue as well.
Okay, yeah. That’s good. The enthusiasm is one universal. What else?
Let’s see, what else is a universal? I think asking smart questions is definitely a universal and preparing some questions to ask at the end of the interview that are smart, they show you’ve done your homework, not like, “So what does this company do anyway?” But also that focus on your ability to do a good job, so not vacation days and things like that.
But “What do you think are the biggest opportunities for the department this year? What are some of the most interesting projects that are happening at the company right now?” Questions that show your interest in the work and the company and the team and show that you’re already thinking about how can I contribute, how can I get involved in this. Asking smart questions I think is definitely a universal.
Another universal and we can go into more detail about this or not is I think the behavioral questions, being able to tell good stories about your greatest accomplishments because you’re going to get those behavioral questions in most interviews, ‘tell me about a time,’ ‘give me an example.’
Even if you don’t get those formally behavioral questions, having stories of your greatest hits, I call them your greatest hits stories, sort of having some stories prepared in a nice, concise way that kind of help to show, “Hey, here are some of the cool things that I’ve done that demonstrate my ability to do the work that’s required in this position.”
Mm-hm. I’d love to get your take, yes, when it comes to what makes a story great. How do we think about that in terms of I guess length or components or how do we story tell well?
Well, I think in an interview there are some similarities to telling a great story at a party and a story in an interview, although I’m sure the interview ones are maybe not quite as amusing as stories you might tell in other areas of your life. But there definitely are similarities.
You want to have a little bit of a story arc. You want to paint a picture and you want to make sure that you’re really sharing what you in particular did to contribute to the project or the situation instead of falling back on the generic ‘we.’
I think this might come from people who are a little bit more on the modest side. Instead of saying, “I did this,” or, “I came up with the solution,” it’s, “Well, we, we, we.”
I always use, I think it’s a tried and true approach until they come up with something better, the STAR format. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that from your career, but there’s something called the STAR format that you might see in career books in college career centers. I share it with students sometimes. I think it originated out of management consulting as a way to evaluate these behavioral stories.
The idea is that each answer should form a complete star. I take it a little bit loosely. The ST is supposed to stand for situation task. For me it’s like not necessarily situation or task, but it’s a little bit of backstory. Here’s the context. Here’s why this project was important. Here’s just enough background so that you can understand what happens. Not a whole history of the entire project, just enough to set things up.
The A is kind of the meat of the story. It’s approach or actions. Then you walk through just a couple bullet points. This is where it can get difficult. Sometimes you’re telling a story of a multi-month or even year project, so you’ve got to think about “Okay, what are the highlights here? What are the key things I want to talk about?”
Of course, being prepared to give more information if there are more follow up questions, they want more detail on certain things. Having a couple of those bullet points about what happened, here are some obstacles that came up, here’s how we address them, here’s some other things that I did.
Then all of that leading up to the R, the happy ending. Every good story has a happy ending. The result. Having some sort of positive outcome. This could be a concrete result and often that’s very effective being able to say, “We saved the company a million dollars,” or, “We increased revenue by 8%,” or whatever, but sometimes it can even be anecdotal. “I got great feedback. Everyone was really happy with the project. We got in under budget, under deadline,” etcetera.
Having a positive outcome that you can speak to, that gives it a nice story arc, a little bit of a hero’s journey from the beginning to the positive outcome.
So in sharing this story, it’s interesting. I think that in many ways you could complete a full STAR in one minute or ten minutes. What are your thoughts in terms of about how long is the right amount of length?
My go-to advice is for any answer, one to two minutes is a sweet spot. Two minutes is stretching it a little bit. There are some differences in terms of types of interviews. There are some types of panel interviews that are fully behavioral and they have a little bit more leeway for the stories to be a little bit longer.
There are some exceptions here and there, but I think after two minutes you’re going to start losing people even if your content is good. I think it’s just attention span, monologue versus dialogue. I think you’re trying to come up with a story that’s in that one to two minute range.
Then of course, being prepared and hoping by the way you tell your story that you’ve given them some interesting things that they might want to dig more deeply into. Then of course you can give that additional detail.
But I think one of the things people struggle with is being able to focus it down to something that’s concise and engaging and still making sure that they’re giving me enough information to show why this was a big success.
All right. Any other thoughts when it comes to body language or vocal pauses or how we’re presenting ourselves?
Yes, this is a big one. I think so many people come in after their first session and one of their biggest questions is, “Okay, well, how is my body language? Was I doing anything weird?” The answer is almost always, “Well, yes.” Because we all do. I do it too.
When we’re not focused on body language or we’re not 100% sure of what we’re talking about sometimes, we all fall back on things like um’s and ah’s, and fidgeting. I like to fidget with my hands. Everybody has different things that they do. I’ve had people who twirl in the seat, who play with their hair, who have the key phrase ‘like, you know,’ repeat ‘like, you know’ after every line. Most people are not hugely dramatic, but everybody has those little tells.
One of the things I tell people is that the practice, as tedious as it may sound to you, but preparing so that you feel good about what your key points are going to be and how you want to describe things in sort of a general way, not memorize word for word, but having done enough preparation and then practicing, doing a couple practice interviews. It goes a long way in removing those things.
I could tell you, if you look at some of the video recordings of people, their first practice interview and their first session or a new user on Big Interview, they record their first practice interview versus later on after they’ve kind of worked through some things and practiced a few times. It’s a huge difference. Almost always those little body language things go away.
Yeah, sometimes I do have to direct people’s attention to it because they’re not even sure that they’re doing it. But I usually tell people at the beginning, “Don’t overthink the body language thing yet. Let’s think about what you want to say. Let’s dig into that.” Then try it a few times and almost always I see it naturally either at least significantly reduced, if not go away completely.
Of course, you don’t have to be perfect. Even the best public speakers that get up on stage in front of hundreds of people, you’ll catch them in an um or an uh here and there I’m pretty sure.
That’s interesting. Most of the time you’re saying when you see weird body language that is largely due to just folks being unprepared and doing what their bodies do when they’re I guess feeling nervous or not rearing to go.
Nervousness and I think the other things is when you’re distracted by trying to think of what you want to say, you fall back on – you’re not even aware you’re doing that. That’s when people do things like stare down at the table or stare up at the ceiling or start fidgeting with the pen because they’re not even aware they’re doing it because they are nervous and most people are at least a little bit nervous in an interview.
Then they’re just distracted by – in their head they’re so caught up with, “Okay, well I could say this, but I’m not really sure. What did he mean by that?” or, “Oh, why’s he looking over there? I think he hates me,” all this stuff that’s going through your brain. If you’ve prepared in the way that I’ve tried to get people to prepare, there’s a lot less of that noise happening in your head.
You’re occasionally still going to get a curveball and you’re still probably going to have some nervousness here and there, but there’s a lot less of that.
There are some people who are just not as comfortable face to face, where we have to do a little bit more work. Maybe they haven’t had a lot of experience having to sit down and present and speak to people face to face, so there are people who need a little bit more sort of extra work and guidance, but for most people I think a lot of that gets smoothed out with the preparation and the practice.
Very good. Tell me, Pam, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things.
One thing sometimes people are surprised to hear and you mentioned in your last question things to do that are more universal and also things not to do that are universal.
I think one of the things not to do that a lot of people do is at the end I said it’s great, ask smart questions. There’s some advice floating around somewhere out there that says, “Ask a question like, ‘Is there anything about me that you have concerns about in terms of this position?’” There’s variations on that. Basically, getting the interviewer to tell you what objections do you have to me.
I think it’s a bad idea. I see where it came from. I think it came from sales because when you’re a salesperson this idea of surfacing objections so that you can address them makes perfect sense. “Well, why don’t you want to buy this product?” Well if they say it’s pricing, I have my thing I can say about pricing. But it’s just a very different situation in a job interview for a couple of reasons.
One is that most HR people and managers and especially at big companies, they’ve been trained not to give feedback like that on the spot. Sometimes they just don’t have that feedback on the spot. They need to take it in. They need to process. They’ve got other candidates.
You’re putting them in an awkward potion. I’ve so many HR people and hiring managers who have said that’s their least favorite question because it puts them on the spot, it’s awkward.
I think that ties into this whole idea of – I’m sure you’ve heard about there’s studies but there about sort of the peak end experience and how influential the end of an experience is in terms of how you remember it.
I think asking a question like this at the very end of the interview is just a perfect set up to say, “Okay, now think about everything negative you can imagine about me right at the end.” I think it doesn’t do people any favor to ask a question like that.
I think you could flip it and ask in a more positive way, something more like, “What do you think are the most important qualities for someone in this role?” something like that because that might get them talking a little bit about qualities that maybe you haven’t had a chance to talk about or give you an opening to talk about your experience in a different way.
The whole setup to critique me at the end of an interview is not a good way to go.
That’s interesting because I can hear how folks would very much want to say, “Is there anything else? I want to make sure I nail that for you,” so you can accomplish that by asking it differently, so that’s good.
I guess you – if you’re at the phase of the interview toward the end, which you’re asking the questions, it might seem a little off to say, “Oh, what are the most critical things?” “Oh, well, by the way, I totally have all of those.” What’s the next step do you think?
Well, yeah, I think you look for a way to naturally bring it up if you can. If they say, “The most important thing here is we’re looking for someone who’s an innovator,” and then being able to say, “Oh, that’s great. I thought so based on the job description and I think that that’s something that’s a great fit for my background because of the innovation that I’ve done at blah, blah, blah.”
I think trying to make a natural segue as opposed to, “Oh, oh, oh, that’s me. That’s me. That’s me.”
Okay, cool. Thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something that inspires you?
Yeah, I looked up – I was thinking about something that would be interesting. Sorry, I have to scroll down because I have all these quotes saved in my files. This is a Picasso quote that I like which is, “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.”
That one just stuck with me in general because so many times I found new things that I loved to do, that I’m good at doing by pushing myself out of the comfort zone even though earlier I thought, I could never do that. That sounds horrible. That sounds way beyond my capabilities.
I think that’s interesting. A lot of research backs up the fact that just the practice, the doing it, of putting yourself out there, may be you won’t be Picasso, but it’s a way of learning and a way of pushing yourself.
Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I think for me all the interesting research that’s out there about storytelling I find just fascinating. To try to pick one is difficult, but all the work that’s out there about how much more memorable you are when you give your information in the form of a story and how much more the person listening to you connects with you.
It ties into all this stuff about interviewing in terms of telling your behavioral stories because it’s true. If you talk about your strengths in a more generic way, that’s all well and good, but if you tell a story, you’re inviting the person to imagine you, to picture you, and to really feel like, “Yeah, I have a sense of how that person works. I could see myself working with this person. I can see how this person approaches a problem.”
A lot of really interesting research on storytelling and the power of storytelling. I nerd out with all of those medi-books and studies that are you there on the different aspects of that.
Oh great. Thank you. How about a favorite book?
A couple that I’ve been thinking about that apply to my work and I read a lot. I read a lot of fiction as well. But Daniel Pink’s Drive is something that has really resonated with me. Just thinking about as a coach, as someone who’s trying to teach and motivate people and even motivating a small child has a lot of really interesting insights about what motivates people and why people do what they do.
Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
Well, one thing, thinking about an app or – Zoom is something that I use with my clients and it’s something for anyone who is having meeting and Skype is lovely too, but Zoom is a similar video conferencing tool. I have all of my video coaching sessions with Zoom so that’s something that I use every day.
I just feel, yes, phone coaching can be great too, but there’s something about having someone – being able to see someone, having them be able to see you, and also being able to record everything so that they can go back and review their practice interview, review the advice, brainstorm so that I would say is something that has really helped make my life and my work much more efficient and effective.
I love Zoom as well and I’d love to get your professional take, do you believe Zoom has superior audio quality over Skype?
I think so and certainly in terms of reliability. I think that’s one of the things, aside from the video component and the ability to record in a reliable way, I find that the sound fades out and does weird things less often.
Okay, thank you.
How about you? What’s your take on that?
I think that the video quality is better with Zoom. I think it’s an interface I enjoy using more. I find that I guess – I’m on the fence right now in terms of should I jump on over and use Zoom for my podcast interviews. I certainly love it with coaching environments. I’m still deciding.
Yeah, let me know how you go because I haven’t used it a lot for sort of recording things that are being shared with lots of people like a podcast would be, but more for individual’s use, so yeah, I would be curious to see what your experience is if you test that out.
Okay, certainly. Can do. Do you have a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?
I think on the subject of interviewing, I think one of the things that resonates with people, this idea that interviewing is a skill. You get people who feel like, “Well, I’m bad at interviewing,” or interviewing is awful and interviewing is something that you’re either good at or you’re not good at. It absolutely is a skill.
I’ve had people who were objectively terrible and getting that feedback, were bad enough that people were saying, “You really need to work on your interviewing.” That’s how people find me sometimes.
It really is a skill like a lot of things that you can work on. There are actionable steps that you can take. I think that’s something that makes people feel a lot better. “Okay, I’m a quick study. I’m someone – if you tell me what I need to do and walk me through the steps, I can do it.”
If interviewing is one of the things that’s in the way between you and your dream job, it doesn’t have to be. You can definitely improve your skills no matter what level you’re at the moment.
Cool, thank you. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
BigInterview.com is our site. That’s where we have all of our information. I do coach people one on one. BigInterview.com is our self-guided learning platform where people can check out video lessons, the practice tool, all kinds of things like that.
Our blog has tons of free information, lots of articles on things like that, three-part model, and how to approach behavioral. I’ve got all kinds of articles about all the different pieces of the interview process. If anyone is interested in learning more, that’s probably the best place.
Excellent. Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Well, this is something that goes beyond interviewing. It’s something I’ve been saying for a while, which is I really feel like people should look at managing their career the way that they would run a business.
Really being proactive and being a good interviewer is part of that, being able to speak about your strengths and your experience, being able to connect with people, to find opportunities, but thinking about it in a very entrepreneurial way as opposed to sort of letting your career happen to you.
I’m sure that’s something that the people who listen to this podcast already are kind of thinking along those lines, but I think it’s important. You never want to be powerless and at the mercy of other people. You want to always be improving yourself, learning new skills, developing yourself, and positioning yourself for the next opportunity, whether it’s your current job or somewhere else.
Beautiful. Well, Pam, thank you so much for taking this time and sharing these perspectives. I wish you and Big Interview and all you’re up to lots of luck.
Thanks so much and you too.