Interview Skills 101 for Your Life and Career

Recently I volunteered at Gastown Vocational Services, Work Readiness Group, assisting with Mock Interviews for clients in the Career Preparation Module. This step is an important component of their individualized Vocational Rehabilitation Plan. As with most volunteer work, it was a very rewarding experience. In less than two hours, I gave 10-minute interviews to six candidates with five minutes of brief one-on-one feedback between each interview. The following day I returned to sit with a wider group of program participants and we gave more detailed feedback in a group setting, as the sessions the day before had been recorded on video camera. The objective was to help the six candidates practice interview skills, and to help all participants learn from the experience of the candidates who had volunteered to be interviewed and taped.

While this is not the first time that I have given at least six interviews in one day, it is the first time I have done so for such a short duration (10 minutes per interview) and in such rapid succession. What was interesting to me is that the activity highlighted commonalities regarding areas of improvement for the candidates in their interview skills. While not every candidate needed the same feedback, it made me reflect on sessions with my own clients and what we discuss regarding interview skills. There appear to be some common themes to which most of us can relate. These themes are not original (and the list is far from exhaustive), but sometimes we take it for granted that everyone already knows where the interview challenges are. For those who do not know or may need a reminder, here are some of my recent observations of common interview challenges: nervousness and anxiety, presentation skills, talking too much or too little, self-promotion, determining when to ask the interviewer for clarification, and asking appropriate/relevant questions of the interviewer.

Here is a brief explanation of these themes and solutions to consider:

Nervousness and anxiety – interview anxiety is normal and should be expected. The majority of candidates find the interview experience to be anxiety provoking. Thankfully, most interviewers realize this fact and typically make some compensation for nerves. However, if you can mitigate interview anxiety, it will help to positively distinguish you from other candidates. Being prepared for your interview is one way to help overcome your nerves. One excellent way to prepare is to practice interviews with a family-member, friends and/or colleagues, as well as in front of a mirror on your own. Prepare a list of different styles of interview questions and have someone practice being the interviewer for you. Ask the person helping you for feedback too. For practicing in front of a mirror on your own, rehearse responses out loud, paying attention to your intonation, expressions and gestures.

The more you practice, the more you will find that you refine your answers and you will sound more confident in an interview situation. If you can video yourself and review the footage, this is another great way of preparing for an interview. You can become aware of speech patterns or body language that you may not have otherwise noticed. Other ways to prepare are to further research the company, including seeing if you know anyone in your network who had worked at the company or with the company in some way. Of course, you should make sure you know where the interview is located and give yourself time to arrive early. It is also a good idea to have the contact information and phone number of the person you are meeting, at hand.

Presentation skills – in addition to the basics such as good grooming, personal hygiene and making sure you are dressed appropriately for the role to which you are applying, looking organized is also part of how you are perceived by your prospective employer. One effective way to convey being organized, is to take two copies of your resume, a copy of the job posting and your application letter or application form (if applicable) and to have this in a folder or portfolio. The reason I say two copies of your resume is so that, should the interviewer not have a copy of your resume, you can give a copy to the interviewer and also have yours for your own reference. A notebook and pen may also be a good idea if you feel that you may want to take any notes. If you do not typically take notes during a meeting such as an interview, you may wish to leave the notebook out of your folder. You may make yourself more nervous trying to take notes inappropriately, if it is not natural for you.

Talking too much or too little – it can be a fine balancing act to respond appropriately to questions in an interview situation. The ideal is to answer questions in a manner that is concise and to the point. Some candidates try to over-explain or belabour topics and literally talk themselves out of a job. Think of a time when you have been with a salesperson that has talked so much, you felt you no longer wanted what was being sold. You only wanted to extricate yourself from the conversation. Another mistake is to try to fabricate a reply when you do not know the answer. If you do not know something, be honest and admit that. If appropriate, you might include that you enjoy learning new skills, etc or you would be willing to research to find the answer. If you enjoy being challenged by a steep learning curve, this may also be a good time to highlight the fact. The interviewer should appreciate your integrity and enthusiasm.

Self-promotion – when you do respond to questions, also try to naturally work in examples of relevant experience from your background that reflects the findings of your research for the role and company. This is what I call self-promotion. It creates a clear picture for the interviewer why you have the relevant skills and experience for the job. Make sure that you are not being self-gratuitous in your self-promotion. Once again, there is a question of balance to be considered.

Asking for clarification when necessary – if the interviewer says something and you are not clear as to the intent or the meaning of the question, politely requesting clarification is acceptable. You could rephrase the question beginning with words such as, “Do you mean…?” Overcoming ambiguity when communicating is important in any relationship including in the workplace. Interviewers are not infallible, so it is not unreasonable for you to ask for more information if you do not understand a question. It also demonstrates your communication skills and that you are able to speak up and assert yourself, as needed.

Asking appropriate/relevant questions of the interviewer – this is a part of the interview where you have the opportunity to ask questions to further demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm in the job. If you can think of relevant, creative questions, you can engage your prospective employer and create a memorable impression at the end of the interview. During a first interview, it is not a good idea to ask questions pertaining to compensation, benefits or vacation unless the interviewer has requested this information from you directly. Should the question arise regarding your salary expectations, it is a good idea to have researched what the salary range is for your role in the market, if you do not know the salary range of this particular employer. If you do need to have this conversation with the interviewer, it is preferable if you can offer a salary range rather than a fixed figure. Don’t think that the employer will necessarily offer you the lower range. Salary negotiation and expectations will vary with different roles.

My observations are a brief note on what I have experienced as common challenges with clients and in my recent volunteer experience. I could probably write a book on all the topics of interview mistakes, tips and tricks, but this handful of examples is a sample of some common mistakes that I have experienced with clients. I will be writing a future post on creating an interview “Elevator Pitch” for interviewees, which is another way to create a positive impression on your interviewer. Until then, good luck to all those applying for new roles, promotions and opportunities. I hope that some of the words from this blog post have been helpful!