Yes, it’s critical to know your resume inside and out and to be able to speak intelligently about whatever appears in it. And sure, you ought to research your prospective employer, the position you have applied for and, where possible, the individual interviewers before you walk into the room (don’t spend hours memorizing tiny details; get a general feel for who/what you’re dealing with, plus maybe one fact that interests you about the specific group/team/position).
This stuff is “Interviewing 101.” It is necessary, but not sufficient, if you want to stand out from the many highly qualified candidates typically competing for a given job. In order to distinguish yourself, you must integrate all of this preparation into a plan to address the three key concerns that reside (often subconsciously) in the minds of all interviewers:
Why are you here?
You must demonstrate your credibility as a candidate for the position. Why are you leaving your current job? Why now? Why us?
Can you do the work?
You must demonstrate your capability to do the job at a high level. How smart are you? What experience might indicated that our work will not overwhelm you? What successes can you point to as an illustration?
Do I like you?
You must address your compatibility with the team or organization. How pleasant are you to be around? Would you be easy to work with? Are you a team player? Will you fit in with our culture? Would I feel comfortable putting you in front of my clients?
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Now for the surprising part: Effectively addressing these universal concerns means assuming your interviewers will never explicitly ask you about them. It means weaving your answers to all three questions into every phase of the conversation.
With that in mind, here are the 7 secrets to distinguishing yourself in interviews for competitive jobs:
- You be you
There is no shortage of advice about how to impress an interviewer, but the reality is that all of it falls flat if the story you’re telling is not genuinely yours. Only two things can happen when you try to say what you think the interviewer wants to hear, and neither is good.
Typically, he or she will have a hard time trusting you (credibility and compatibility). The subtle vibe people give off when they’re inauthentic, embellishing or altering their qualifications will usually raise a red flag. On the rare occasion you circumvent the interviewers’ instincts, you may end up with a job you’re unlikely to enjoy and in which you’re unlikely to be appreciated for the qualities that make you valuable in the first place.
It is easy to underestimate how impressive your actual experiences and qualifications may seem. Putting you best interview foot forward is about framing those qualifications in a favorable way, not exaggerating them. After all, to paraphrase Mark Twain, if you’re telling truth, there’s a lot less to remember.
- Drive the action
Interviewers come in dozens of varieties, most which are not characterized by outstanding interview skills. Most open with some form of the dreaded “Tell me about yourself.” While such non-specific openers are often cited as an obstacle by job seekers, they actually present the best opportunity an interviewee will get in a typical interview.
This is your chance to set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Simply acknowledge the breadth of the question, defer to the interviewer (“if it’s OK with you…”), and tell her why you’re here (credibility). The very best answers will not only put your interviewer at ease (compatibility), but will demonstrate your capability in a key area — distilling broad, complex issues down to the most important, critical components.
- Leave modesty at the door
While it’s crucial to be honest and authentic, your objective in an interview is to “sell” the value you will bring to the position for which you’re interviewing. Practice self-praise and set your experience in the most positive light (capability). If you’re allergic to saying nice things about yourself, be prepared to recite the praise past bosses, supervisors, colleagues and/or professors have bestowed upon you.
- Show me, don’t tell me
Where possible, prepare and use anecdotes liberally. The best stories illustrate your skills, experience, and/or knowledge (capability). Anyone can claim to be persistent or detail oriented, or to possess great initiative and leadership skills, but the interviewee whose stories demonstrate these qualities, not to mention high emotional intelligence (compatibility), doesn’t need to say it or explain it.
- Dabble in the art of self-awareness
Confidence vs. humility need not be a zero-sum game. Cultivate self-awareness by addressing questions about “weaknesses” in terms of areas in which you have been “working on improving” or “growing.” Be prepared to offer an example of your efforts.
Tactical Note: If pressed to cite a specific “weakness,” never offer an explicitly professional weakness. Point instead to an aspect of your personality, a foible or idiosyncrasy your friends might poke fun at (e.g., nervous tic, shyness, excessive modesty, loquaciousness, etc.). A timely bit of self-deprecating humor, along with an awareness of how the quirk may relate to job performance (credibility) and a demonstrable effort to address the issue, will go a long way toward exhibiting professional competence (capability) and generating rapport (compatibility).
- Own the awkward
Self-awareness is the key to outstanding communication and a great mentor of mine forever convinced me that the key tool in the self-awareness kit is “owning the awkward.” Everyone, at some point, will face a Snickers moment in an interview (want to get away?). Whether you’re addressing a weak mark on your transcript or a fumbling an answer that should have been straightforward, the urge to curl up in a ball or run and hide will not get you the job.
As with absurdly expansive opening questions, tough questions and even your slip-ups in the course of answering them are golden opportunities to separate yourself from the applicant pack. Rather than evading the awkwardness, embrace it. Take the initiative and accept responsibility for the mistake or faux pas. Where possible, start over or re-frame the issue. For extra credit, ask the interviewer for feedback on how you’re handling this challenge.
Employers aren’t looking for (and don’t expect) perfection. Most would rather hire someone who’s faced adversity and seen the opportunity in the experience (capability) than someone who thinks (or pretends) his poop don’t stink (credibility).
- But enough about me
Far too many interviewees make the mistake of robotically answering questions without engaging the human being sitting across from them. HINT: People, especially those in positions of authority, enjoy talking about themselves and sharing what they know. Give your interviewers the gift of this opportunity (compatibility).
While this applies throughout the interview, it is never more critical than at the widely dreaded finale. You know, when the interviewer shifts abruptly in her seat and asks, “So, do you have any questions for me?” Never mind that if you’ve been doing your job well, you already will have asked numerous insightful questions. This is your chance to build on earlier parts of the conversation and go deeper than other candidates think to go.
Ask about what the interviewer wishes she had known when she first started on the job. What advice would she give her less experienced self? What would an outstanding employee be expected to accomplish in his first 3 or 6 months on the job? What does she enjoy most about the team, the company, the work? Follow up on personal details the interviewer has shared directly (in the conversation) or indirectly (e.g., in the form of a photo, news clip or decorative element in the office) and about which you might share common ground.
- Close strong by recalling the beginning
Make no mistake, it is the interviewer’s job to end the interview, not yours. So the classic quandary arises when the interviewer keeps asking “Do you have any more questions for me?” rather than dismissing you when time is up. This is a subtle point and while you could be forgiven for responding, “No, I‘m good, thanks,” this could come off as inappropriately curt. In any event, whatever warmth may have existed throughout the conversation will be sucked straight out of the room if you presume to end the meeting.
So make it easy on them. Once you have exhausted your genuine questions about the position, company and (don’t forget!) the interviewer herself, express gratitude for her insights, renewed enthusiasm for the position and a commitment to providing whatever other information might be useful to the interviewer.
Tactical Note: A response to the repeated “Do you have any more questions?” may look something like this: “Actually, I just want to thank you for the conversation. You’ve given me incredibly thoughtful answers to my questions and answered a few questions I didn’t realize I had. I’m even more enthusiastic about the opportunity now than when I walked in the door. If anything, my only remaining question is whether or not there is anything I have left out (or unclear) that would be helpful in your evaluation of my candidacy?”
Nine times out of 10, the interviewer will recognize that this is where the conversation should be concluded or give you an opportunity to clarify a point that may otherwise have gone unaddressed–a true no-lose proposition.