Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Interview Prep Matters...A Lot

A slightly belated Merry Christmas. My blogging "optempo" has fallen off quite a bit lately, given work requirements, so thanks for keeping faith and tuning back in.

Last week I had an interview up in New Hampshire. I would say it went really well (but then again, studies show most interviewees overstate their performance), but could have been a Hindenburg-style disaster.

The week before the scheduled interview, a buddy of mine who is a) slightly older; and b) much wiser about such matters, called me. He insisted I come down to Boston to do a mock interview.

"You may think you can just wing it by being friendly and generally well-spoken, but trust me, you can't," he insisted. He couldn't have been more correct in that statement.

By no means was he out to sucker-punch me in that practice session, but he still had me squirming and stammering a bit on even some of the most standard interview questions (i.e. Tell me about yourself, walk me through your resume, and describe a professional failure of yours).

After we wrapped up, he started off, "Well, there's a small percentage of interviewees who absolutely blow it, either by being obnoxious, or standoffish, or timid, or whatever else could tank a person in 30 minutes' time. You're not in that category, but..."

He was being nice about it, but the fact was that I had put forth a "C+/B-" effort, and had come off as rather amateurish. A good interviewee has already thought about how he or she might answer such questions and also has several "hip-pocket" anecdotes ready to go for the inevitable follow-up questions like, "Oh, really...tell me about a time you acted that way," or "How have you implemented that concept in a real-world setting?" etc. A varsity-level interviewee has an idea of how he might crisply and confidently answer a wildly open-ended question like "Tell me about yourself" in under 30 seconds. If the interviewer wants to probe further, she has the freedom to do it, but under no circumstances would the interviewee be stammering and "uhh-ing" wondering whether to wrap-up or keep rambling.

I took his advice and spent the next couple of nights Googling likely questions and then thinking about how I might answer them. I came up with 8 or so "hip-pocket" examples of ready-made stories I could tell if asked about a success, a failure, or a difficult boss or subordinate, etc. The idea, of course, is not to sound rehearsed or too polished, but to not have to mentally *fish* for the answer you'd give to a 101-level question.

This preparation was worth its weight in gold.

After a little distraction about the snow falling outside (which may have been a test to see whether I'd sit down first...I didn't), my interviewer started off with, "So...walk me through your resume," and then a dozen or so boilerplate-type questions. I didn't answer them robotically or recall them from memory, but the fact was I never had that "uhh....uhh...." sort of moment that would've sent things downhill in a hurry. As a result, I stayed confident and relaxed, which fed itself into a neat little positive feedback loop throughout the interview. Concise, crisp answers, 30-45 seconds apiece, with follow-up only as requested.

That may all sound really obvious to you, but unless you're a frequent participant in job interviews (from either side of the table), it might not be. The trap that I think many people could fall into is this: "I'm friendly, I make good eye contact, I'm articulate....I can wing this -- what could go wrong?" The answer to that is that plenty could go wrong. If you haven't taken the time to at least ask yourself -- and then answer out loud -- some questions about your personal work history that require some introspection and follow-on analysis, you definitely don't want to be doing it for the first time in the booth. You might think you sound great, but much like the amateur stand-up guys who suffer from what Jay Leno calls "Laugh Ears" in the book Leading With My Chin, you might not sound so hot from the other side of the room.

As the buddy in Boston was telling me today in an e-mail, all people who are great at anything prepare. Michael Jordan shoots lay-ups and free throws during the shootaround. Punters stay limber with practice kicks along the sideline. Opera singers go through the scales in their dressing rooms. And so on and so on.

People who study performance psychology -- whether in academic, athletic, artistic realms, or wherever else -- consistently report that it's the people who are *slightly nervous* who perform the best. Not the Nervous Nellies, but also not the people who think they can just coast through without a care.

If you're getting ready for an interview, whether for a graduate school, a professional board, a new job, or whatever else, you should get a few butterflies. Then, you should try to anticipate the dozen or so most likely questions you'll be asked, and then make damn sure you're not a deer in the headlights on Gameday.

With a nod to John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, anything else is preparation for failure.

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