This is not a news flash to anyone that reads your website: The flood of resumes and job postings makes job seekers feel like cattle while they’re applying for jobs. We know the hiring process is even more impersonal and bureaucratic the farther we get into it. We can’t control this out-of-control cattle drive, but once we’re actually in a job interview (ring the bell!) how can we exert some control so we can stand out among even more competition? It’s clear the rules of interviewing don’t work! Companies have so many applicants to choose from that they hesitate to hire anyone at all!

Nick’s Reply

rules of interviewingWhen the rules of interviewing don’t work, agile job applicants change the rules. I’ll tell you the story of a job seeker I met during an intense 1-hour Talk To Nick consultation I did recently to help her break through an employer’s hesitation.

When the rules of interviewing don’t work

Jing came to the U.S. from China on a work visa only to lose her job during the recent downsizings. She has rare technical skills but suddenly found herself adrift in a very weird job market. (“We can’t find the specialized candidates we need! But we’re flooded with job applications!”)

For several months she applied the rules of interviewing she’d learned from her American friends. It was the same-old advice we all know — put the right keywords in your resume, recite your strengths and weaknesses, study up on the common behavioral interview questions, tell them you’re flexible on salary, let the interviewer lead, try not to be nervous, and so on.

Because of her job skills, Jing had plenty of interviews. But, she told me, it always ended after one or two rounds. She really felt she was following all the rules. She always got compliments after her interviews. So why was she getting no offers?

Control the interview: Make it a conversation

Jing is smart, insightful and grasps things quickly. But she couldn’t get past the barrage of rote interview questions — her language barrier put her at a disadvantage. So I showed her how to turn away from the rote Q&A script managers usually follow, and to have a slower, more casual conversation with the hiring manager instead.

Later, she told me that was the secret sauce for her. She felt she was coming off as very stiff and overly formal because she was doing her best to follow the prescribed script.

“In all my interviews I could not make myself relax and do my best because I was trying to follow all the rules my friends taught me about interviews. By changing my tone to conversational, the manager relaxed, it was friendly and we were able to really talk! That made me able to show my best!”

Two days after our session, Jing went on her next interview. At first the manager was uncomfortable with Jing’s accent, but Jing compensated by speaking more slowly. Then she then expressed her interest by asking the manager about his team. While he talked, she relaxed.

She asked the manager what he needed a new hire to accomplish. He told her that in spite of her weak English language skills, he was impressed with her communication skills and by her focus on the job tasks. The rest of the interview was about the work, and she had a good offer in just hours.

“I didn’t know I could control a job interview like that just by asking the manager to talk about himself!” Jing said to me later

There are many ways to control a job interview by breaking the script that makes interviews so awkward. Two of the most important are (a) change the subject, and (b) focus on deliverables.

Change the subject

Job candidates are naturally self-conscious in interviews because they’re on stage. They are the focus. They must perform by answering questions. This interview script, which the manager and candidate buy into, can create immense stress and actually weaken the candidate’s presentation.

A candidate can take control of the initial part of the interview and break the script by encouraging the manager to talk about themselves. In fact, research reveals that “letting someone share a story or two about their life instead of blabbing about yours could give them more positive memories of your interaction.”

(There’s science behind this tactic! Studies in social psychology suggest that when we express interest in another person they are more apt to like us. That may seem obvious, but few people know how to apply this fun fact of psychology to a job interview.)

With a big, friendly, curious grin, ask the manager, “So, what brought you to this company?” Or, “Have you found the challenges of your job have changed since you started working here?”

Be polite, be gentle and friendly, be curious, and — like Jing — be conversational!

By changing the subject temporarily, you can nudge a stress-inducing interview toward an engaging conversation that reveals to the manager how different you are from other applicants. That is, it makes you stand out positively. As long as you’re also ready to talk about how you’ll do the job, this brief respite can change your meeting dramatically for the better.

Deliver deliverables

A job candidate can also break the interview script — and control the meeting — by helping the manager think in terms of deliverables. (We discussed this at length in Stupid Interview Questions: #11.) Ask the manager, “What do you expect your new hire to deliver in the first month, 3 months, 6, 12 and then at 18 and 24 months?”

This is another way to make the manager talk and to put the focus on the job rather than on you.

Managers are hampered by the standard, rote questions they’ve been taught to ask. Helping them see that your focus is on deliverables changes the way they view you. You suddenly stand out because you’re showing you’re all about the work.

Change the rules of interviewing

The rules of interviewing don’t work because they rely on a artificial script. Like Jing, you can take control of your interviews by having a real conversation with a hiring manager. Just change the rules!

What are the rules of interviewing? Which ones work, and which don’t? Do you control your interviews so that you’ll stand out from your competition? What’s the best way to do that?

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  1. Any interviewer who insists on sticking to a script, or “the same questions we ask everyone” is probably interviewing for a position that he or she doesn’t know anything about, doesn’t care about, or both.

    OTOH, one of the favorite responses to my question “Why did the last person in this position leave?” was “Oh, he committed suicide.” I didn’t get that job either.

    • I’ve unknowingly filled “dead [wo]man’s shoes”…

      It worked out ok, but it was definitely uncomfortable at first, and the previous person had been gone for 4 months before they brought me on board. At least she died of natural causes.

      I’ve lost a friend and colleague to suicide. It hurt to walk past his cubicle, never mind trying to talk to his replacement. Fortunately, she was in a different division, so I wasn’t required to interact with her. :-(

      And somehow it keeps falling on me to clean out the cubicles of fallen colleagues (twice now). For Goddess’ sake, do NOT keep your personal journal on paper at work!!!!!!!!! Her family did NOT need to see that, and she clearly didn’t want them to see it (which is why she had it at work), so it went in the secure shred.

      Sorry for going off-topic; that just hit a nerve.

  2. Nick, I have nothing substantive to add to the discussion. What I want to say is that this latest piece from you is yet another example of what I would call a “perfect’ Nick C column, in that you clearly and precisely identify a key job interview irritant and then help everyone think through ways to skillfully navigate around it.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. This is timely information for someone like me, who was laid off last year and currently preparing to re-enter the workforce. I get nervous thinking about having to engage in the interview process, but the pointers to gently change the direction of the interview to a conversation and focus on deliverables makes me feel more confident. I even almost look forward to getting out there to talk with prospective employers! (Almost.) :-)

    • @Lisa: I hope you’ll report back on how it goes!

  4. Great topic!
    Spot on turning an interview into a conversation. As a hiring manager I’m not into canned Q&As. I do have some favorite questions, but they are aimed at giving you an opening to move into a conversation. And in turn I don’t want to sit through rehearsed Q&A’s from you.

    Here’s some other ideas.
    1. Employ the shameless Psychology of using the interviewers first name. They are likely using yours, so slip into using theirs.

    2. Sure share personal info & stories. We humans like to talk about our favorites subject…Me

    3. Move past the job ,into context. Move the Hiring Manager into their “mission”. What does their organization do? But more important, what do they want it to do? Managers LOVE to talk about their roles, what their departments do. And unless they’re asleep at the wheel, they have ideas about growing their influence, to their company & possibly beyond to their profession. Managers really love to get into this. Take them there. This isn’t idle chatter for you either. Jobs can get routine. But the context in which you will be working has the most impact on growing your career. And this where you will likely see opportunities beyond the current job that brought you together. And share where & how you’d like to take your career. This is useful info for the manager, that could pay off later when you come aboard.

    4. As a manager I loved hearing applicant’s stories. In the context zone ask the manager what the active projects are on the plate, and more interesting what’s in the queue. Yeah you can cut code and I want that skill, that’s what the job’s all about . But, if the manager starts talking about projects and it’s similar to one you worked on, seize that opening & do what Nick did here, tell them an applicable story. Tell them about it. Not propriety info but how it came about, what you did in it, the issues (there’s always issues) how it went etc. You’re talking high level shop. For example back in the day I was interviewing a guy for a project manager’s job. I asked him if he ever pulled anything off i.e. accomplished something even he thought wasn’t possible. He responded with an enthusiastic story about a process improvement project that he spearheaded, reeking of problems, resistance etc. Not knowing that my company was about to try the same thing. Yeah his resume noted PM experience in a bland one liner bullet, but the story behind it was way more useful info.

    5. It sounds hokey, but asking a manager what’s keeping them up night is a good context question. While we have our blue sky ideas, day to day obstacles and issues bog you down from moving onward & upward. Especially if they won’t go away. Again based on your experience you may be able to offer useful insights and stories.

    6. Make an effort to move the interview boundaries. It’s not over until it’s over. And “over” can go beyond the formal schedule of your visit. Get business cards, contact information, Take what you learned. Do some research on the professional challenges, opportunities, and come back at that manager with more questions, your ideas about mission, applications. Keep the conversation alive. Send links to articles on same. Keep in touch.

    7. Akin to asking expectations & timeline on what a manager expects of the person hired for that job. Flip it. After you’ve conversed enough for you to get insights on the job & the context…offer up your own onboarding plan. e.g If I join your team here’s what I’d do…week 1 I’d do this, by end of 1st month I’d have done this ….don’t worry if it’s not perfect, I guarantee you’ll likely be the only one who offers this up. For example, I did this for an internal promo application & I got an offer. The HM told me after talking with a # of other contenders, I was the only one who told him what I’d do with the job.

    • @Don: All great suggestions for hacking interviews! I especially like (5.), which I cast this way: “Where does it hurt?”

  5. Great information Nick. I always coach my clients to ask the interviewer questions in order to turn the “interrogation” into a conversation.

  6. Great advice, as always, Nick! I’ve got an upcoming interview, and will try this. I also really like Don’s #5. That’s a good way to get managers to talk about the job, the company, and workflow.

  7. Who creates the questions to be asked in an interview?

    A ridiculous example was asked of someone applying for camp counselor for special needs adults:
    “Would you be comfortable being assigned aggressive campers who may kick, scratch, bite, or hit you, or spit on you?”

    Who else but a masochist would be ‘comfortable’ being kicked, bit and hit etc.?

    A better way of phrasing this would be to ask whether the interviewee would be able to ‘tolerate’ such a situation.

  8. While many questions are utterly ridiculous and irrelevant, THAT was actually a good and pertinent question, but it was inaccurately worded.

    It should have read “How would you handle a camper who hit, bit, spit at, kicked, scratched or was otherwise aggressive toward you or others?” because there are specific techniques and best practices to manage that kind of situation, and the interviewer actually wants to know if the applicant would react appropriately or not. The original version was a sloppy, indirect attempt to get very important information.

  9. This is great information. It gives myself a different perspective on conducting interviews. When you have someone coming in to be interviewed and they are nervous because getting the job could mean if they will be able to food on the table for their family or not. You wont be getting the best version of them. So by taking your advice by talking more about the company and management style and making the person more comfortable could bring out assets that they didn’t know they had and make them more confident.

  10. Generally, I think everyone should present themselves to an employer in terms of the additional profit you will bring in. As a software engineer, I did the work of three, reliabily, therefore the employer shoukd at least pay me the rate of two! As a software project abager, i rescued projectgs that were many, many months behind schedue and facing financial penalities for late delivery. Therefore, the employer shouls pay me more, a lot more, a lot more. And so it goes. I am a profit consultant. Secretaties and assemblymen can also contribute to ptofit from their unique perspectives on the company operations. I have show many such how to do that, and they did! Find how YOU deliver prtofit and emphasize that with approprite examples. (Don’t share confidential corporate detqils.)