You can make all the great impressions in the world on paper, but where the rubber meets the road is when you meet someone face-to-face. Once you get the nod for an interview, it’s show time.
Here’s some interviewing advice from my new Great Jobs for Everyone 50 + that can boost your image and your chances of nabbing the position. There are no do-overs in the interview process, so you have to get this right the first time out of the gate.
Much of what makes a great interview is intuitive. It’s chemistry between two people. Each situation is unique. And regardless of how practiced you are, there’s plenty of room for improv when you’re in the hot seat.
Click here for Forbes column: Want An Unbeatable Interview? Read These Tips.
I’m not going to even try to tell you how to actually answer some of the more bizarre questions that interviewers are tossing out these days. The job web site Glassdoor.com published a list of 25 oddball interview questions of 2011 that interview candidates shared.
Here are a few:
- “Just entertain me for five minutes, I’m not going to talk.” Asked at sales and marketing firm, Acosta.
- “What do you think of garden gnomes?” Asked at Trader Joe’s.
- “How would you cure world hunger?” Asked at Amazon.com.
- “Does life fascinate you?” Asked at Ernst & Young.
I’m sticking to the old-fashioned nuts and bolts of an interview. The things you can control. The interviewer is leading the dance, but if you’re prepared, you can follow along smoothly and with confidence.
Dress appropriately. If it’s a “business casual” office, what does that really mean? I lean toward the more formal approach, even if you’re told that everyone wears blue jeans and sneakers. Pick something that you feel good in and that’s comfortable. Skip the super-high heels or open-toe shoes. You do want polished footwear, though. If you’re all scuffed, buy new shoes or pay for a professional’s elbow grease. Shoes count.
Take the time to really look in the mirror before you head out. A quick pit stop in the office building’s restroom, or the Starbuck’s next door, before you enter the firm’s actual domain is a good idea. Check for rogue dog hairs, missed buttons, undone zippers, or bits of bagel in your teeth.
True story: I once interviewed for a job with aluminum foil wrapped around all the brass buttons on my red blazer. I had pulled it straight from the cleaner’s bag without checking. Yikes. The interviewer never mentioned it. I still laugh sheepishly about it today. I got the job, but ahem, attention to details, please.
Don’t be late. Your interview starts way before you shake hands. Arrive 10 or 15 minutes early. It’s more than a case of punctuality, too. When you arrive early, you have a chance to take a breath and center yourself. It removes one layer of stress. If you’re skating in under the bell, it’s probably evident in the tension-taut lines of your face and your damp handshake.
Begin your interview at the door. Greet the receptionist with the same respect as you will the person who is interviewing you. You’re on stage from the instant you state your name at the front desk. Most one-on-one job interviews last between 25 and 30 minutes, so your total on-site performance time is precious. Since it’s short and sweet, milk every minute of it, from the waiting room onward.
Don’t spend your time in the on-deck area gabbing on your cell, for example, or responding to e-mails, or even tweeting. Focus on why you’re there. It’s okay to review a list of questions you want to ask. Soak up the office atmosphere. Look around. It will give you clues to whether this is a place you might want to hang your hat.
Start with a relaxed meet and greet. Step up with a firm one-handed handshake. Two hands can be a little forthright and maybe even too familiar. Kick off the first few minutes of your interview as you would a conversation with someone you’ve just met at a reception. Keep it relaxed and conversational, yet professional and not too personal. Direct eye contact is important. My standard advice: Commenting on wall décor or a desk accessory is acceptable, but saying you like someone’s tie or shoes may be stepping over the line.
I personally like to scan wall and desk photographs, say, and see if I can find a common bond. A framed image of a Labrador retriever or a horse always sets an instant connection for me. These initial moments are where the chemistry between the interviewer and you can spark. Think speed dating.
Offer your paper resume before you sit down. Presenting an actual resume to an interviewer is akin to bringing a gift to a host or hostess. You’re passing along something of value in exchange for the invitation to meet and his or her time. By taking it out in the opening moments of the interview, it becomes an interactive asset. If there are areas or responsibilities that you want to emphasize or explain, the interview is your chance to draw attention to them.
People often think if something is on their resume the significance is clear to the interviewer but those bullet points don’t always speak for themselves.
Follow the leader. Synch up with the interviewer’s rhythm. It’s important to go at his or her tempo. Don’t try too hard and talk too fast. Answer concisely and with a confident, calm manner. Pause before you respond—even repeat the question if need be—to buy yourself some moments to gather a measured answer.
Watch your language (body language, that is). Leaning forward can cue that you’re interested. Look people in the eyes when you’re talking to them. I’m not trying to sound like your mother. But this is important. It’s fine to glance upward, or off to the side, if you’re forming a thought, but a clear, direct gaze portrays candor and sincerity.
Your body language counts here, so pay attention. No slouching. Sit straight, take some deep breaths, and relax. Stroking your neck and throat unconsciously can make you look nervous. A confident, loose (unclenched) fist lightly tucked under your chin is okay in small doses. Pressing your fingertips together in a steeple formation is also a simple sign of self-assurance, but don’t overdo it. Be careful about folding your arms across your chest. You might think it makes you look serious, but it can come off as a defensive stance.
If you’ve got a point you want to play up, a hand gesture is fine, but keep those to a minimum. Your best move is to keep your hands laced together with your thumbs on top, sitting calmly in your lap, or propped lightly on the arms of the chair. Avoid twisting and spinning your pen, rings, necklace, or bracelets. You might even do this inadvertently, so be mindful of what your hands are up to. For an interviewer, it sends off a signal of nerves or even anxiety.
Keep focused on your interviewers and the reality that you’re sitting in that chair to sell solutions to their problems or challenges, not what you want to say next about yourself. At the core of a job interview, it’s about them, not about you. Listen closely to what they’re saying.
Don’t make rapid-off-the-top-of-your-head answers. This isn’t Jeopardy. There’s no race to push the buzzer. You might come off as flip without meaning to do so. Don’t talk so much that you go on for 10 minutes answering one question. Crisp and to-the-point answers allow interviewers to get to all their questions and gather as much knowledge about you as they can.
Also be sure to ask what they see as the biggest problem that someone in the job needs to solve. If you have some ideas of what can be done to address that, here is your moment. You can also file it away to slip into your thank-you note.
Be enthused, but not fawning. You’re a pro, remember. Act interested and dignified. Interviewers really want to know what interests and intrigues you about their company, too. Be forthright and clear about why you are motivated by what the organization does and the challenges of the position you’re interviewing for, plus why you think you would be a good fit with their culture.
It’s a two-way street. Yes, you’re there to sell yourself, but they’re selling the job too. It also makes them feel good about their own good fortune to work there. Even the most jaded hiring manager has a glimmer of insecurity.
Subtly slip into the conversation that you’ve done your background check—information you’ve gleaned from the Google news alert for the company and the specific industry you’ve already set up. This insider knowhow will show that you’re aware of the state of their business right now. It will make it easier to respond to questions about why the job is something that’s a good match for both of you—that you have the key skills to solve their challenges today and moving forward.
Stick to your main selling points. It’s easy to veer off topic in an interview. Write down and practice at home three main selling points about yourself to help you stay focused. Have specific examples that highlight your strengths to share with the interviewer.
I recommend that toward the end of the interview, you click through your mental checklist to make sure you’ve covered each of your topic points during your discussion. If not, don’t leave until you have. If the interviewer is wrapping things up, and you can sense this, politely interject that you want to make sure you mention X, Y, or Z, and why.
Don’t be thrown off if asked if you think you’re overqualified for a position. You might be. Here’s your canned answer: What matters to you at this stage is having the opportunity to work with top people in a firm whose values and products you trust and where your experience can be used in a significant way.
Keep in mind, however, that no one wants to hire someone who will in time resent working at something they feel is less than their talents, or for pay lower than what they believe they merit. You can’t blame them. This is a tricky area, and you must be comfortable with the repercussions. It’s easy to say it will be okay, but what’s that really going to feel like if it comes to pass? Can your ego handle it?
Use your mentoring skills as a selling point. This is often a back-door way of dealing with the concerns someone might have about how you will deal with the younger boss dilemma. If you can slip it into the conversation, explain how mentoring has always been a part of your work and management style. It’s a process that you have benefited from over the years as a mentee and a mentor and hope you can continue to give back by guiding less-experienced co-workers. And, importantly, you’re open to learning from them too. Again, mentoring helps both people.
Final questions. In the end, your interviewer will probably ask if you have any questions for them. Be prepared with at least two or three to toss out. Otherwise, you look as if you’re not all that interested. But whatever you do, don’t bring up salary at this stage. Save that for your next visit—either in person or on the phone, when they’re close to making a selection.
Here are a few things you might want answered if they haven’t already been covered in the course of your discussion: “What do you think are the key elements of the job? What are the firm’s goals for the division the job is in? Why is the position open?”
You may have to use your judgment if this last question is appropriate. It’s possible that it will make the interviewer defensive. “Is it a new job or did someone leave the company? Is the interview process just getting rolling, or is it wrapping up? What’s a typical day like, or is there such a thing?”
If this person would be your boss, and you feel at ease, you might ask, “What’s your management style? Why did you come to work here? What challenges make you excited to come to work each day? What do you like the most about working here?” These kinds of questions let somebody see that you’re genuinely attracted to the job, plus, you can get a better read on what’s next in the hiring process, and if it’s a company you would fit with.
Ask for a business card. In this age of e-mail, a business card seems a little quaint, but it’s a tangible gift exchange. You can leave yours, while accepting a card in return with appreciation. It intrinsically shows you’re interested in the interviewer’s contact information, as well as the job. Ask if they prefer to be contacted via phone or e-mail.
Good manners count. No hugs here. Go for a firm handshake, look your interviewer straight in his or her eyes with a warm smile, and offer genuine thanks for their time. And call me old-fashioned, but never forget to write a thank-you note to everyone you interviewed with.
Follow me on Twitter, @KerryHannon I’m the author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills (John Wiley & Sons), available here www.kerryhannon.com. Check out my column at AARP. My weekly column at PBS’s NextAvenue.org is here.