John Lees, author of ‘Job Interviews: Top Answers To Tough Questions’ reveals the secrets of getting past interview stress.
Why are interviews so nerve racking?
Even people who are good at talking about products and services find job interviews stressful. They stumble, say things that come out wrong, forget the stories they came armed with, and even say negative things about themselves. The reason? An interview is about you, which always places you in a vulnerable state with two major fears.
Even if you have a strong track record it’s easy to feel that some of your success has been down to luck or faking it. The second risk is that someone will say “no”. When it’s all of yourself on the line, “no” will always feel personal, no matter how robust you feel about being interviewed.
Rethink off-the-shelf advice
The usual interview advice is “just be yourself”. Making the exchange sound like ordinary conversation will help, but otherwise this is well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless advice. You have to be you on a good day. You have to be a slightly more outgoing, positive, more energised version of your everyday self. So, aim at a particular kind of performance.
Practice small talk
Learning how to talk amiably about the weather, traffic, or local issues is vital interview preparation. Interviewers decide very quickly whether you are going to be easy to get on with, well before discussion of your work history. If you communicate a reluctance to engage, for example, you will quickly talk yourself out of a job where you need to establish relationships quickly.
Being loud and dominating the room may suggest that you don’t fit easily into teams. Sitting back in near-silence letting the interviewer do all the work signals more than a little lack of enthusiasm for the role. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that easy conversation is simply a matter of personality - most of it is learned behaviour, so practice low-level conversation on a daily basis (incidentally, just getting to know people socially is also a great way of extending the reach of your job search).
Preparation sounds obvious, yet every day candidates turn up for interview without doing it: winging it is still the nation’s favourite strategy. The reason we don’t prepare well is that it’s uncomfortable visualising the interview experience, but of course the best antidote to interview stress is having most of the material you will need at your fingertips.
When predicting questions you need to be your toughest critic. You need to know the questions you really hope will not come up, and prepare for them carefully. A solid 80 per cent of interview questions can be predicted.
Take an A4 pad, draw a line down the middle, and on the left hand side list the things you know an employer is looking for (scrutinise all job documentation carefully, including the job ad). On the right hand side write down your matching evidence in bullet point form, and then compose mini-narratives in your head to cover all these elements. Don’t learn stories word-for-word as they will come out wooden, but do ensure that you know where a story will go and how it will end (ideally in less than three minutes).
Why does proper, point by point preparation, help with interview nerves? Because you won’t be floundering thinking what to say, and whether it will sound credible. With your evidence pre-packaged you will be able to focus almost entirely on what is going on in the room – listening carefully to questions, and keeping eye contact while you are talking. Short, punchy answers will help the interviewer keep to her checklist, and will also help you to stay positive when it comes to tricky question areas such as why you left your last role or why you didn’t complete a course.
Plan for the obvious
It should of course go without saying that you should not be thrown by entirely predictable questions such as “tell me about yourself”, questions focusing on career highlights or past decisions, and questions about strengths and weaknesses.
With all of these prepare answers that are focused on the job in question. For example, talking about career highlights emphasis achievements relevant to the role, and if asked about strengths match them to the top four or five strengths required by the role.
Don’t use real job interviews as a testing ground
Rehearse your answers carefully. That means doing a lot more than a vague “when I get there I expect I will talk about...". It means practicing real answers, out loud, at least three times. Don’t use real interviews as rehearsals – ask for practice interviews with anyone who has done any recruitment, and seek tough, objective feedback. Ask someone to video this practice performance, and try playing it back with the sound off to work out what non-verbal messages leak out from your body language.