8 Interview Tips
Personal and career development involves the technical aspects of improving your career. Until now, the Begin Within blog has primarily focused on self-improvement. Self-improvement is the foundation of happiness your personal life and the foundation of career success. My first piece of career guidance involves interviewing. No matter how fantastic your resume, if you blow the interview you’re done.
Interviews require a lot of preparation and practice. To cover my core tips on interviewing, I’ve modified an excerpt from my book “Find a Federal Job” which I will publish in the next few weeks. My book primarily focuses on obtaining Federal employment, but the interview techniques are universal and will help you with any job interview.
1. Be Positive
Do not talk negatively about past work experience. “I really hated my boss” is a quick way to lose a good opportunity.
Sometimes bad things happen during your career and you may be confronted with a difficult question during your interview. For example, if you were recently terminated or laid off and the interviewer asks, “Why did you leave your previous role?” You need to carefully address the nature of your termination, own up to any mistakes that you made and explain how you learned from the experience and will not repeat those mistakes. Use positive language and avoid any inflammatory or emotionally charged language.
This example is not appropriate:
“My boss was known for giving vague and unclear instructions. Because of his poor communication I created a presentation that was completely off-topic and embarrassed him and myself in front of the company board.”
This is a more appropriate response:
“I made a mistake and did not ask for clarity about a presentation for the company board. This mistake was my fault and it lead to my resignation. Before I was let go, I always used to blame others for being unclear. I’ve since learned the value of asking for help and clear communication on my part. I now consider my communication style a strength and have worked diligently to mentor my team on the value of transparent communication.”
If you have a difficult time describing previous managers and/or colleagues positively consider de-humanizing them in your interview answer. In the example below, I use “standard” to replace the human element.
This example casts blame and victimizes you:
“My team always underperformed, and I had to carry all the weight. I had to do four times the work to make up for their inefficiency and get projects done by their deadlines.”
This example demonstrates that you rise above expectations:
“Our company standard was to complete 1 project per day. I always challenged the standard and made efforts to complete 4 projects per day.”
When discussing negative experiences, never end on a bad note. Always conclude your answer with a positive experience. Emphasize the positive ending during your interview by using strong eye contact, smiling and leaning forward.
2. Use Positive Body Language
Use your body to portray confidence. I recommend watching Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language to help you display confidence.
Being nervous is normal. During one of my first job interviews I picked my fingers so much they started bleeding. If you are fidgety it is a tell-tale sign that you are nervous. Combat your nervous ticks by giving your hands something positive to do. Use hand gestures, take notes or fold them neatly in your lap when not in use. Avoid picking at your fingers, do not touch your hair and do not adjust your clothing or tie excessively.
3. Dress Professionally
Believe it or not, your clothes directly impact your behavior.
Do not only dress your best for interviews, do it all the time.
My preference is to be conservative and timeless. More trendy advice is to ‘dress like you already work there.’ I have heard stories of people who camped out in the company’s parking lot to see what the employees are wearing. Attire for the Federal government for example, is not t-shirts and jeans like at tech start-ups; most people wear business professional attire.
What to Wear:
Men: Wear a neutral colored (grey, navy, black, charcoal) timeless suit with a conservative tie, minimal jewelry such as a watch and a wedding ring, no cologne or pungent smelling deodorants, professional shoes and tall socks matching the suit, trimmed clean nails, conservative haircut and clean shaven or well-groomed facial hair. If you would like to bring in a bag, make it a clean professional briefcase.
Women: The interview is no time to look sexy or sloppy. Wear a conservative dress or suit avoiding bold colors and patterns. Wear professional timeless shoes, preferably flats or up to 3-inch pumps and no stilettos. Wear conservative, small, quiet jewelry. Wear panty hose matching your skin tone. Keep your hair tidy and pinned back so you do not touch it. Avoid perfumes and wear natural looking makeup. Carry a small nondescript neutral colored purse and/or a clean professional briefcase.
The interview is your chance to shine. Interviews take a lot of preparation, I’m not a believer in the Hail Mary or, “let’s see what happens” method. Practice for your interviews.
How you should prepare for an interview:
Research your field for commonly asked questions and create answers. Many Federal agencies have lists of interview questions posted online if you search for them. I practice in my car, because I drive a lot. Another way to practice is in the mirror so you catch any nervous ticks or distracting hand gestures or facial expressions.
A good practice is to create categories and come up with a response for each one.
- Short Term Goals
- Long Term Goals
- Previous Positions
- Problem Solving
- Taking Risk
- People Skills
- Working Under Pressure
- Bottom Line
- Impacting People
- Prioritizing Competing
5. Create an Elevator Pitch
Almost all interviews begin with a variation of: “Tell me about yourself.”
An elevator pitch is a nice story that lasts the duration of a quick elevator ride. The elevator pitch needs to be a summary of how your professional experience and skills add value. This means that the pitch changes some with each interview because every company needs to use your skills in a different way. I recommend practicing a story that lasts about 30 seconds at home (when you are nervous at the interview it will stretch out to a minute or longer). The best way to nail an elevator pitch is to thoroughly research the company and find out what their pains are and how you can alleviate them.
This story needs to be professional. The interview is not a good time to ramble about your personal life.
An example: “I’ve worked for a decade as a supervisory project manager in the defense contracting industry. I admire companies who encourage professional development in their employees and ABC Company is well known for doing that but has a high turnover among its young employees. My specialty is developing and mentoring young talent, so they stick around and learn to be successful in the contracting industry.”
6. Tell Stories
Stories have perpetuated mankind’s traditions for thousands of years because they are easy to remember. Do not memorize your interview stories, conceptualize them.
Federal interviews often ask situational questions, answer them with a story about how you handled that situation in the past and conclude it with a victory.
The classic format of a story is: beginning, middle and end. The beginning provides the context, the middle is the conflict and the end is the victory.
The STAR and CAR method are common interviewing tactics:
STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result
CAR: Context/Challenge, Action, Result
Example Question: Can you tell me about a time when you handled inter-office conflict?
“I think of conflict as a symptom of deeper issue…..
I had a difficult situation with an employee. Out of the blue, he was lashing out at clients and his colleagues over minute issues. This was completely out of character, so I had a conversation with him and gave him a verbal warning.
I said “I’ve received a few complaints about your behavior and it’s not like you. I have an open door so if something is bothering you, in the future I want to come to me instead of lashing out at other people. I’m concerned about you, when you have some time I want to have a private conversation with you in my office… But in the meantime, I need to you act pleasantly to your colleagues and especially our customers.”
A few hours he told that his wife was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and he was not handling it very well. We agreed that he should take some time off work to be with his wife.
This validated my gut feeling that there was a deeper issue and I did not know what to do for him.
Later, when he made the announcement to his colleagues, they got together to cook the family meals and raised over $5K to help with her medical bills.
I’ve always prided myself with putting together great teams, but that situation made me realize that my teams become a family. Families have their ups and downs, but they stick together through thick and thin, and I couldn’t have been prouder of the way our team supported him and his family.”
This example provides context in the beginning with a quick snapshot, so the interviewer can clearly follow along and understand the problem and how the victory is relevant.
This is a powerful and emotional story that will be memorable to the interviewer and demonstrate your emotional intelligence as a manager, how you interacted with the problem employee and how the rest of your team handled it.
I recommend telling several powerful, memorable stories during an interview. Some interview questions are lighter do not need an impactful, heavy-hitting answer so use your best judgement.
7. Ask Questions
I recommend asking some question during your interview. If at any time you do not understand a question or need clarification, ask on the spot. Research any known interviewers online as well as the mission statement and current events about the company or agency. If you have a difficult time finding agency information, research current events in the town that could potentially be relevant to the job.
Always take a bottle of water, a padfolio or nice black journal and a pen with you to an interview. In advance, write the job title, agency name and acronym and any known names of interviewers in your notepad and also pre-write your questions. People get nervous and forget important details during interviews; having them in front of you can be helpful.
Always ask permission to take notes; in some cases companies may want to safeguard sensitive or proprietary information. Remember that some people are very territorial about their desks, so if you are in their office in lieu of a conference room with a shared table, take your notes on your lap.
The interview is just as much for you to ask questions about the job as it is for them to determine if you would be a good fit. Ask questions about how they enjoy day to day life working there but avoid the buzz word ‘culture.’ If you ask a generic question, you will get a generic answer, so asking ‘Describe your company culture’ will invoke a response like ‘we all get along and the job gets done.’ You want to know more detail and ask questions that will get the interviewer(s) talking so that you can pick up on cues that could be good signs or red flags.
Here is a list to of sample questions get you started:
Can you tell me about the remainder of the interview process?
Tell me your favorite thing about working for the company.What about your least favorite thing?
I read about ____ in the news, how do you believe this will impact the company?
Are there any new projects coming down the pipeline that will impact the position?
Do you have a rough estimate for when a selection will be made?
8. Be Memorable
The hiring manager is likely interviewing a group of 5 to 10 candidates. Interviews can become a blur, especially if you interview via phone because there are no faces to associate with names. The hiring manager will form a list of favorite and least favorite candidates, then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle. The folks in the middle likely played it safe with their interview answers, did not take risks and failed to make a meaningful impression.
Be who you are; authenticity will land you the right job. If you are normally assertive and make snap decisions under pressure, own it. If you are emotional and creative, own it. You want to highlight your strengths, even if it creates a risky interview answer because it will demonstrate who you really are. If the interviewer strongly likes your risky answers, you will probably get the job. If the interviewer hates your risky answers, you may not get hired, but you would have hated working with that person.
If you do not take any risks or highlight your personality strengths during the interview you will blend in and be average. To stand out among the competition, take the risk and show your cards.