In the July 26, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter says butterflies interfere with interviews. What can be done?

I consider myself a fairly intelligent and eloquent person with strong skills in my field. Yet, when I go into an interview I turn into Elmer Fudd! I tend to make such comments as, “I think I could be real good at this job!” I’m sure I’m like most people: I get the proverbial butterflies in my stomach.

Only after the interview do the things I should have said start flooding into my mind. (I’ve tried role-plays, but they do not seem to help.) I’m sure this has cost me opportunities. What can I do? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Butterflies are very common, even among some of the most talented people I know (including executives). I’ll offer two suggestions to help you control butterflies.

1. Read Don’t Compete With Yourself. This article will teach you some simple ways to avoid pre-interview tension, and how to stay calm during your meeting.

2. Try The New Interview. Prepare a 20-minute presentation for the employer, and show how you’re going to contribute to the company’s profitability. This might sound daunting, especially to someone who gets nervous, but once you learn to do it for one employer, the next ones will be a lot easier.

The power of this approach lies in the fact that once you’re this prepared, you’ll never again get butterflies in your stomach.

You see, people get butterflies when they’re not completely prepared. They consequently (and naturally) feel unsure of themselves. I know what you’re thinking: “But I am prepared!” I doubt you are prepared to the extent I’m talking about.

Prepared means being able to outline two or three specific problems and challenges the employer faces, and then presenting a plan to handle them. (Don’t provide too much detail, because then you’d be working for free and giving away your assets.)

When you truly understand the business… (This is where some of my advice is omitted. To get the whole story next week, subscribe to the newsletter. It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)…

If you think this level of preparation is a huge investment, you’re right. The employer thinks hiring you is a pretty huge investment, too. If you’re not prepared to do the job in the interview, then your competition — the candidate I coached to do what I suggest above — will blow you out of the water like a dead fish.

Consider this carefully: You can’t do this level of preparation for the 400 companies you’ve sent your resume to, because there aren’t 400 jobs for you. Thus, you must pick your targets very carefully.

When you achieve this level of business interaction, you are not interviewing. You are in a meeting where you’re doing the job. That’s such a liberating experience that nervousness almost completely disappears. It works. Try it.

Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you interview? Why do you think? Or do you have nerves of steel and demonstrate confidence? How do you do it?

Where does a good job candidate’s power come from? And how can you develop yours?

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  1. Just a guess: If you get butterflies in your interview, you’re thinking of it as an interview.

    Don’t do that. Think of it as a conversation between two professionals on a subject of mutual interest, which is what it should be anyway.

  2. @Bob Lewis: My, how far afield of our objectives we’ve come in business, if we have to remind people that a meeting about a job is a conversation and not an interrogation!

  3. @Nick: Unless, of course, the “conversation” starts out with “I just have a list of questions I have to ask every candidate.”

    Tho to be fair, at this point you, and every other candidate for the position are in the wrong place, and wouldn’t want to work there anyway.

  4. Use your network to determine who is going to interview you and what their styles are. Sometimes each interviewer has a ‘tasked’ set of questions. For example, one will focus on how you handle ambiguity, another on your past experience, another on behavioral, antother highly technical, etc. It could also be just one interviewer who is very casual. By using your contacts, you should get an idea of what type of person the interviewer is, what their problems are, and what type of questions they like to ask.

    No connections? There are some sites that collect questions job seekers have been asked at different companies. Also, feel free to speak to the HR rep who set up the interview. Or, if this is an interview beyond the first one, ask the person who just interviewed you. You obviously impressed them enough for them to recommend you go to the next round, and they WANT you to succeed since it shows they picked a good candidate.

  5. I have never understood the Corporate America style of interviewing. It demeans both parties, rarely shows critical thinking or logic and takes ages to achieve its stated purpose.

    More signs of the times:

    “The Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011, sponsored by Democrats Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Henry Johnson Jr. of Georgia, would prohibit employers and employment firms from rejecting applicants solely because they are unemployed.”


    In 2011, Congress actually has to tell employers not to discriminate because someone in this economy doesn’t already have a job?

    As Ben Franklin was fond of saying, “Common sense is not so common.”

  6. @Steve Amoia: We’re in what’s arguably the biggest talent glut of all time, with incredibly skilled people on the street. And dopey employers are ignoring them. Pathetic.

    Wonder if anyone has told this to the board of directors… Meanwhile, companies flush billions into the big job boards, wasting time on “candidates” they don’t know and who don’t know them!

    There is no talent shortage, except among managers who demonstrate no talent in hiring.

  7. @LT: that is far more typical–to get standard, rote questions (already answered by the résumé, cover letter, and/or sales letter) rather than a conversation. Sometimes it does feel more like an interrogation. More than sometimes, actually…more often than not. I think it might be because the interviewer doesn’t see it as a conversation but an interrogation, or is inexperienced, or has been given a list of questions that s/he must ask because HR requires these questions to be asked.

    Yet, as a job-seeker, I would never ask questions of the interviewer that I could learn by researching the company myself. I see it as my opportunity to get behind the spin, behind the slick marketing, behind the pretty website or glossy brochures, to find out what it is really like to work for that company. Do their values match mine? What is the culture like? I also want to know about the job and why it is available–is it a new position? if yes, then I have a set of questions I ask that go to my work style, to flexibility (important because with a new position, no one knows how it will work/it may have to be tweaked), if no, then how long was the previous person in the job, why did he leave (was he promotted, did he leave the company, etc.), how many people have held this position in the last 6 months, year, etc. I cannot find the answers to those kinds of questions on the company’s website.

    @Steve Amoia: yes, it is astounding that anyone, particularly Congress, should have to tell employers NOT to discriminate against the unemployed. I don’t understand the thinking (of companies) either…their management teams and HR depts. must not have access to radio, tv, print media (newspapers, magazines, journals), and the internet if they believe that the sole reason people are unemployed today is because they’re incompetent, lazy, stupid, all of the above or some permutation of the above. Unemployment is over 9%, much of it long-term (a year or more); many more are “under-employed”, meaning they are working part-time, seasonal, or doing project jobs or aren’t working in the field they trained for or have experience in. Granted, there are unemployed people who are incompetent, but there are also many, many more unemployed people who had good jobs, were excellent workers who contributed to the companies’ bottom lines and productivity and who through no fault of their own have been laid off, forced out, etc. Older workers have a harder time because many employers prefer to hire youngsters–they’re cheaper and employers get away with more.

    I think it is sheer laziness on the part of employers–they’re getting thousands of résumés for each job, and they’re taking the “easy” way out to screen out as many candidates as possible. Unfortunately for job-seekers (I’m one of them, out of work for 9 months now), it is a buyers’ market and legally, the unemployed are not a protected class (like African-Americans), so it is perfectly within a company’s rights to post requirements that they require you to be employed in order to consider you for a position. I imagine that if this bill passes, corporate America will howl with indignation, and that if they challenge it in the court system, the employers will win. The Supreme Court is very conservative and very pro-business, siding with businesses and companies vs employees. I honestly don’t think the bill has a snowball’s chance in hell even assuming there are any Republicans willing to sign on to it.

    The best we can hope for is that the economy turns around sooner rather than later, that there will be more jobs than qualified candidates, and then I’m sure that companies won’t be put off by candidates who were let go or forced out during this depression.

  8. @ LT and Mary-Beth: I remember going to a government interview where the interviewers asked rote questions by HR. Instead of the 60 minutes allocated for the interview, we were done in 20.

    It was only during the Q&A part that the interviewers relaxed to get to their true selves. Bestest 40 minutes ever as we talked about their problems and challenges in an informal setting (I still declined the job).

  9. @Thomas Bell: you’re right–rote HR questions isn’t limited to the private sector–gov’t gets sucked into that mentality as well.

    I hope you don’t mind me asking–what was the job and why did you turn it down?

    I’m still thinking about the “butterflies in the stomach” issue. I think it is natural to get nervous before and during an interview because so much is riding on it. You wouldn’t be interviewing if you were happy in your current job, or if you weren’t worried about budget cuts, being laid off, etc. You want to make a good impression.

    What is important to remember is the only thing you can control is YOU. You can’t control the questions you are asked; you can’t control the tone of the interview; you can’t control who will interview you–you could get an experienced person who has a conversation with you, or you could get an inexperienced person who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow (nor what to ask you). You could get someone who doesn’t care…you could get HR. You could get the rote questions because HR and/or the hiring manager have already decided who to hire, and it isn’t you, but to keep everything looking transparent, they have to interview others, hence the lack of imagination, the boredom, the inexperience, the use of HR question.

    Before I went on interviews, I practiced, practiced, practiced. I thought about what they might ask me, then how I would answer. I read up on interviewing strategies to learn some of the “common” questions people are asked as well as how to handle the weird questions “what kind of animal would you be” sort of thing. When I had my answers, I practiced in front of the mirror so I could see my body language, or practiced with a friend who would tell me if I fidgeted, if I played with my hair, etc. and made of point of correcting those bad habits. I realize that most (probably all of us participating in this blog) are not trained actors or even wanna-be actors, but an interview is also a performance to a certain extent. You need to be honest, and you hope that the employer is honest with you, but you’re also putting your best face and accomplishments forward. Salespeople do this, and so do attorneys (they write out their opening and closing arguments, practice them beforehand so they know how they sound and how they look). You can still be nervous, but I think if you can anticipate questions and your answers, and if you practice, then you will find that the butterflies are more manageable with the more interviews you have. Of course, if you are lucky and get an experienced interviewer who doesn’t interrogate you like a prosectutor but who has a conversation with you, then you might be able to relax a bit, but still keep in mind that you’re selling a product–you. And you’re a buyer, too–the employer. You have to be happy where you’re working too.

  10. It’s harder to be confident in an interview when you see it as you answering a series of questions. You’re always anticipating another question that may be difficult to answer in the ‘best’ way so you’re always on guard.

    One of the benefits of the presentation method, where you are telling the interviewee what you can do to solve a business problem, is that you are controlling the conversation for a little while.

    Most people gain confidence in speaking as they get a few sentences into their topic. You don’t get this effect when you’re just answering questions.

  11. @ Mary-Beth -> security clearance clerk for companies; I turned down the job as I was getting bad vibes from the interviewer during the interview (body language and attitude) even though he relaxed at the end.

    It came down to this – is this the type of person I’d like to work with? No…

    And stay positive during your job search Mary-Beth – Nick’s advice does work!

  12. @Thomas Bell: thanks! Good idea to listen to those bad vibes–the last thing you want is to work for a micro-manager or for someone you think isn’t telling you the truth, or is just a jerk.

    At least you were interviewed by a prospective boss or colleague. At my last employer, the “business office” started taking away that right and handled the selection and interviews, keeping the person you would actually be working under out of it entirely. Big suprise that people turned down jobs–you can’t get a sense of what your boss would be like if you don’t even meet him or her during the interview process but instead are interviewed by a nasty person. You don’t walk, you RUN (away as fast as you can, bad economy and all).

    Thank you….and you’re right about Nick’s advice–it is solid, on point, and common sense, something that is lacking in the whole process. I’m just hoping that something will come along where I’ll be able to put his advice to good use.

  13. @ Mary Beth – add on -> 1 boss, 1 inexperienced underling. Ditto for the business office aspect -> I remember another federal government interview where it was 2 people on a panel who gave me the interview questions on a sheet of paper, allowed me to compose my answers and a few minutes later, all they did was ask the questions while I spouted out my answer (huh?).
    I would have preferred being interviewed by your last employer -> at least there was some sort of give and take.

    I’m positive something will come along soon for you Mary-Beth -> I’m making a transition into another industry and I refuse to go through HR; if I find a job opening (5% of my time; the other 95% is reading presentations and journals written by experts and locating the associations I want to explore and emailing the authors questions about their presentations), I’ll find the person in charge to pitch my skills to him or her instead of going through the HR black hole…

    Think tiny, baby steps -> they’ll lead up to giant ones soon :-)

  14. @Thomas Bell–wow! Talk about the blind leading the visually challenged! If that’s the case, then why bother with the interview aspect at all? Why not just put the names of the people they’re interested in into a hat and pull one, and that’s the one they hire? If they’re not going to put any kind of effort into the interview, then all this energy and time looking for a new employee is a waste of time. The interview aspect gives BOTH the employer and the prospective employee a chance to meet, to suss eachother out, to have a conversation, to decide whether they suit one another.

    Unfortunately, in the case with my last employer, the business office manager knew nothing about the jobs for which she was interviewing these candidates, so if they had questions for her, I am told that she got rude and either yelled at them or blew them off. Gee, that makes the dept. look good–you have an interviewer whose knowledge about the job for which she is interviewing you is limited to the job description; she doesn’t permit you to meet with the person who will be your boss; she doesn’t know anything more than the job description, so she can’t tell you what part of the day you’ll be spending with students, with faculty, answering general inquiries, or putting out fires due to problems that blow up. She can’t describe what a typical day is like for that particular job. She can’t tell you when the crunch times are, who else you can rely upon for help, how much control other depts have or even where you can find university policies….geez….if I had an interview like that, I’d run screaming and never look back. That kind of interview by that interviewer tells me the job as “major screw up” or “big fat disaster or debacle” written all over it. The way it is being handled now, there’s no give and take. The business office manager asks mundane questions and picks the person most likely to irritate the most number of people, particularly those she hates the most and offers the job to that person. She’s not the supervisor, so she can’t tell the person anything about the job. She won’t let candidates meet the actual boss, and she doesn’t tell them the truth about that job (that it is a job for 6 people and 1 person can’t do it).

    Thank you for your kind words and positive thoughts. I’m trying to avoid HR too, although I’ve found far too many jobs that REQUIRE me to go through HR, even when I’ve found the hiring manager and have spoken with him. A lot of hiring managers are wimping out too.

    I actually liked my last job, or at least parts of it. Then management changed and didn’t support the workers, then there were massive budget cuts (and layoffs) and general stupidity (the person running the entire dept. lost over $600,000 of our profits–profits from the program I was in charge of). Not good. I’d like to stay in the same line of work, but the challenge will be finding a better job, or at least better management.

  15. @ Mary-Beth -> According to a government friend “this technique is suppose to relax the interviewee and allow him or her to compose their answers to the question” (official government speak (lol)).

    Optics is everything and when your former business manager yelled or became rude at the interviewee, I’m positive he or she told their friends not to interview at your previous employer ever again.

    Also try; I love this website – you can select the areas you want to follow (Accounting to Travel and Hospitality) and each morning you’ll get the daily digest of all the news happening in your area(s) plus you’ll start to get a sense of the major problems it faces. Best of all, you’ll have a list of names of people to talk to. And if you start cross referencing with your local business pages, even more names.

    In addition to Nick’s website, read Art Sobczak’s and subscribe to his free email tips – priceless advice (nb -> Nick: both you and Art are mavericks and even though the two of you are in different fields, both of you compliment each other).

    Art is an experienced sales trainer who teaches sales people how to reach the people you want to reach; I find that the same lessons apply to job hunting.

    I’ll agree with your HR comment Mary-Beth -> it seems that once it’s gone through the formal process (job posting on website), the managers become “silly” and if they’re not receptive to people calling them, then something’s very wrong.

  16. Butterflies and Portfolios of Accomplishment
    Another good discussion touching on points frustrating many people, many of which I’ve gone through, especially being excluded because of long-term unemployment, age, education. And of course, “purple squirrel” job descriptions (the actual term HR uses for the ideal candidate) and silly interview questions. (Don’t get me started on rudeness!)
    The one thing that keeps me going in all this is my portfolio of accomplishment, better known as my “brag book”.
    I am the world’s worst conversationalist. When the conversation in the interview begins to fade, usually fairly soon, I whip out my presentation book and point to pictures, graphs, charts, memos, blueprints, schematics, diagrams, procedures, forms, the actual paper napkin with the original concept scrawled on it—everything done in my career created by me.
    I once kept a hiring manager tied up for over an hour.
    One the other hand, one decision-maker (not my direct report) once squinted at my pride-and-joy productivity worksheet as though I were asking him to solve quadratic equations in his head. (I’m glad I didn’t have to work in his arena.)
    I first used this to grab a gig over thirty years ago, and became disheartened when I erroneously thought that this tool was useless in the modern worksearch. (My 30 year gig abruptly ended with a buyout.)
    In 2010, I came across the only book on this (it wins my award because it is the only business book that uses the word “esoteric”) that might be useful for someone unfamiliar with this important tool. Published in 2003, it is The Career Portfolio Workbook by Satterthraite and D’Orsi, 0-07-140855-X.
    But you don’t need the book to get started. Just get a ring binder and a bunch of sheet protectors.
    Start stuffing the sheet protectors with interesting stuff. When you’ve decided what stuff to use, MAKE COPIES. (You want to protect your originals—lock them up somewhere waterproof and fireproof.)
    I started out by organizing my stuff in the order of the accomplishments on my resume, as an expansion of thought on that document to keep the conversation going; later, after a few interviews, I found 5 or 6 areas that seemed to recur, so I organized it to support those topics of conversation.
    Most commonly, the portfolio is customized to reflect the job or work requirements. For my first interview, I start out with my basic icebreakers; future interviews have portfolios crafted to demonstrate proficiency and imagination in the arena that I will be most likely performing.
    Getting back to the interview, I have just one rule: never turn one down. This is where you get your practice. Since I was out of work, I had to check out everything. In this economy, I could really count the interviews on one hand in a year and a half. Two of them resulted in jobs; the interviews I had in between were invaluable in navigating the process.
    Unless the company is one you really want nothing to do with, consider the first interview an “informational interview”, which is usually a screening interview, anyway—after all, they contacted you. As the process continues, and it’s clear you have no interest, politely bow out. But practice whenever you can. After all, they don’t know whether you’re pursuing or exploring—and neither should you.

  17. @Thomas Bell: thanks for the tip re Art Sobczak’s website. I’ll check it out. I’ve been reading a book called “Break the Rules” by Thomas Cohen. The book is 10 years old, but he makes the same points–avoid HR, don’t ever send your résumé, talk to the folks who actually do the hiring, write a sales letter (detailing your accomplishments and what you can do for the prospective employer). Much of what he writes makes sense. The only difference is that although the internet and computers were prevalent in 2001, programs for screening people out electronically have dramatically increased between 2001 and 2011. In 2001, there was still a good chance (better than good) that your résumé would be read by a human being rather than a machine, and while HR was already known for being a black hole, it has gotten worse in 10 years.

    Either way, it is still a matter of selling ourselves, but with the economic meltdown and so many qualified people out of work, it is more competitive and employers have the technology available to screen out eve3ryone except the person for whom the job description was written.

    Thanks again for the tip. Nick has solid advice too. And I wish you luck, too.

  18. @ Mary-Beth: See if your library has a copy of Art’s book “Smart Calling: Eliminate the Fear, Failure, and Rejection From Cold Calling” (the website is exactly the same as his book)

    Also, if you need a good survival/temp job, see if your local college/university bookstore needs people for their fall/winter academic rush (when all the students arrive on campus to buy their books) to help students find their textbooks or as a cashier.

    And thanks for the book tip (Cohen book) as well – I’ll definitely see if my local library has this. I wish you good luck a well Mary-Beth!

  19. @Thomas Bell: excellent idea, and if they don’t have it, I’m sure that one of the libraries in the inter-library loan system does and I’ll be able to get it.

    Thanks for the tip re potential temp jobs–I had a tip recently, sent my résumé to my contact, who passed it along to her boss. I know it is seasonal, but I’d take it. I’ll look into working in the local college bookstore too (good idea).

    My apologies re the Cohen book–the author’s first name is William, not Thomas. The title is correct, so if you search by title you’ll find it. I see the book is available at Amazon, and you can probably find it at your local public library too. I’m sure that much of it will be familiar–he mirrors much of what Nick writes in his blogs, and sometimes, even though we know it, it is good to hear it/read it as reinforcement.

    Thank you….we’re here to find work, and if we can help eachother, so much the better.

  20. @ Mary-Beth: ditto! I’m getting a copy of the Cohen book through inter-library loan. And one of the benefits of the college bookstore (I’m in this as a seasonal job) -> discounts on products and college courses. Something to investigate for sure.

  21. @marybeth & @Thomas Bell: I don’t know the Cohen book, but I’ll look for it. Thanks for the discussion about it. It reminds me of another convention-breaking classic: Richard Farson’s “Management of the Absurd.” High recommendation.

  22. Thanks Nick. I’ll add Farson’s book to my reading list.

  23. @ Mary-Beth -> don’t forget to ask for an opinion of the company you want to work for. I’m emailing with a Director of Research (think TV ratings analysis) at the moment. In 1 of those emails, I explained my background, wrote of the 2 job postings I saw and asked which company would be the better one. This person gave me his frank opinion so I started using Nick’s techniques to see if I can get into his dept. I hope this inspires everyone!

  24. This is a really helpful article for me. I’m interviewing with a very innovative vocational school this week, one with very limited openings. I’m SO nervous about it even though I’m rarely nervous for job interviews. I’m trying to break into a new industry and this school is my best chance at being successful very quickly, and I will be disheartened if I’m not accepted (though will persevere). My favourite piece of advice was to open the interview by asking them a question – as I play out the interview in my head, I feel much more relaxed. Hopefully this will be the case in real life too : ) Asking a question right away shows how much you’ve been thinking about it and demonstrates initiative (vs. talking about how you take initiative). The other thing I will add to being prepared – if a 20 min presentation isn’t appropriate, at least have talking points written down so you don’t forget anything (and to combat nervous babbling).