You could hear the oxygen leave the room after I asked the question.
The man across the table went white, looked down and fumbled through his papers. A few other people in the room shuffled in their seats uncomfortably. I felt bad, but I was there to do a job. And, unfortunately, he drove into a brick wall.
I was sitting on the selection committee for a company hiring an executive. The question I asked in this case was: “What’s your story and why should I care?”
On the surface, it’s the easiest of questions. It’s really just a variation on asking someone why he or she is the best person for a job. However, in the pressure of a job interview, unless well prepared and armed with communications skills, being asked a hard working open-ended question can often be a death shot for even the most experienced executive who knows their stuff. And, in most cases, this happens because of a lack of proper preparation. They’re nervous because, deep down, they know they haven’t put in the work, they haven’t rehearsed and now have a fear of the unknown.
With that in mind, here are a few insights to get you thinking about your next interview, how to prepare for it and ensure you’re ready to present the best version of you.
1. Research Means More Than “Google” – Although most executive job interviews are behavioural in nature, that doesn’t mean you can’t come in loaded with information and context. Start this process right away. Hard work early will pay off later. You can’t develop your ‘main message’ without truly understanding the company/organization, the trends in its sector and the people who work there. Start with an online search for a strategic plan, audited financial statements, vision documents, organizational chart, news stories, etc. Absorb that information. Learn what their key internal phrases are and learn how to speak using their language. Mimicking the language and phraseology of your interviewers is an incredibly valuable technique. Now, don’t just do online research. Nothing bothers me more than seeing that the extent of someone’s research for an executive role was “Google”. Once you’ve done the online research, identify people to speak with, like people who have worked for the company or, at minimum, in the same sector. You’d be surprised how willing people will be to speak with you, especially when they find out you’re a candidate for an executive position. There’s no such thing as too much research. Finally, contact the HR representative and ask them who will actually be conducting your interview. Get their names and then begin researching those people, what their roles are and interpret what they may be looking for by speaking to people who know them. This is your target audience and you need to know those audiences before you can develop your strategy and messaging for the interview.
2. Going In Without A Main Message – You’re going into an interview that could last more than a hour. There may even be multiple interviews for the job. There’s going to be lot of information flying. Through all of that, you could be at risk of appearing unfocused and all over the place (even though you’re simply responding to their questions). This is where having a main message comes into play. Essentially, in 20-30 seconds, you need to explain how you are going to help this company achieve their goals and be successful. It’s not about you. It’s about them. They’re not there to help you. You’re there to help them. This main message allows you to set the tone for the interview. It’s your focus statement. That’s why it’s crucial to get your main message into the conversation in your very first answer as well as your summary. It also acts like a bit of a life preserver when you get into an area where you may be weak or you may be rambling a bit. You’ve internalized your main message so that when you get into trouble in an interview, you can always pivot back to your main message. You don’t want to sound like a repetitive robot, but you want to ensure you come back to your main message in one way or another at least a few times. In many respects, you’re programming your interviewers through repetition techniques and the power of suggestion. You need to ensure they walk away knowing your value proposition to their company or organization. Don’t assume they are going to pull it out of you. You need to control the message.
3. You’re Not Telling Stories – As humans, we are programmed from infancy to listen to stories. Our parents read stories to us as babies; we read stories as children and adults and we watch stories on TV. We love stories. And, when you’re trying to teach someone something, stories are powerful. The old expression is “facts tell but stories sell”. So, rather than going into an interview and telling them you’re an excellent problem solver, tell them a story about a time you were faced with a problem and how you led your team to solve that problem. Facts tell. Stories sell. But, you can’t expect to make these up on the spot. Plan the stories you want to tell and why you want to tell them (the point of the story). Jot down the key factors of the narrative and practise telling those stories in an interview format. Stories are the Royal jelly of communications.
4. You’re Lying To Yourself – Be honest with yourself. No one is perfect. So, look at your resume and your experience and identify where you are weak in applying for this job. Deal with those deficiencies head on. Then when you’re done doing that, get a friend with senior leadership experience and a critical eye to do the same. You need to figure out where you are weak and identify the tough questions that are likely coming in the job interview so you can prepare for them. If it’s a big deficiency, you may want to consider dealing with the “elephant in the room” very early in interview rather than waiting for them to bring it up (because it’s going to come up anyways).
5. Not Rehearsing Properly – Once you think you’re ready, it’s time to do some dry runs. Ask a couple of friends or colleagues you trust, to prepare to interview you for this job. Give them the background and a few days to prepare. When it’s time to do the interview, be serious. Set up a smartphone, iPad or laptop and record yourself during the interview. Make sure it’s a full dress rehearsal, meaning wear what you’re going to wear at the interview. You will want to see what you look like under pressure because body language communicates as much (if not more) about you to the interviewers than the actual words coming out of your mouth. You want to ensure you look authentic, friendly and authoritative. Do the mock interview. Get their honest feedback. Watch the video. And then do it again a few more times until you feel confident and prepared.
A few final tidbits:
• Slow down your speech. Adrenaline can make you speak too fast and it makes you sound nervous and no one wants to hire an executive who appears nervous.
• Don’t ramble. Interviewers like answers to have some meat to them but ensure you’re not going on too long. Work through this during the mock interviews.
• Ask questions at the interview. They’ll ask if you have any and there’s nothing worse than someone who doesn’t have any prepared (don’t ask about money).
Good luck! And, feel free to add your own tips and experiences in the comments section.
Conway Fraser is the Managing Director of Fraser Torosay, a strategic communications company based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is also a Gemini Award-winning former CBC journalist. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @ConwayFraser