I was asked on Twitter for my thoughts on how to succeed in job interviews, particularly Civil Service ones, and thought a blog the best way of responding. So here goes.
Let’s get one thing clear at the outset: no-one is always successful in job interviews. That’s because there’s no guaranteed formula. Someone with a brilliant interview technique might, on that particular day, not be the best-qualified for the job. The reverse can of course apply, with many subtle variations in-between. The interview panel will also have other considerations, like the kind of team they want to build or the personal qualities they’re after.
It’s important then not to over-think these things, and to declutter the mind of extraneous considerations, like who the competition might be. You can only do your best, in preparation and on the day. And the ‘you’ I’m addressing here is a generic job candidate – everyone needs to originate their own, very personal template for success.
So here are just a few thoughts that might help. And first of all, bear in mind that the interview is a capsule of very special time, away from the normal rhythms and routines of life, in which you have the chance to change your life. It needs a particular frame of mind, and it needs preparation. You could almost think of it as theatre: you’re going on to a stage to perform in front of an audience. You need to know your part, and to perform it well.
You’re being interviewed by people who want to find someone they can work with. That means not only persuading them you can do the job, but also establishing an authentic human connection. Small body language cues like smiling (because humans like smiling) can make all the difference. Even a little bit of humour, at the right moment, can help. Emphasising open, positive body language in interviews has become a little hackneyed, but it’s true: folding arms or adopting a hunched posture just looks like you’re trying to protect yourself from the panel rather than engage with them.
Perhaps above all, you need to bring a certain energy to proceedings. That means being in command of the situation without being overbearing. Like that advert, ‘you, but on a really good day’.
It might sound a bit weird, but it’s worth rehearsing in front of a mirror to see how you come across. It can be quite surprising – the neutral, considered expression you thought you were transmitting might look more like abject terror. And there’s a mindset thing as well: thinking of yourself as someone who’s already doing the job but just hasn’t been appointed yet rather than someone desperate to get it. Being in that frame of mind feeds the confidence you need to carry the interview.
It can also be worth thinking through what your brand is. What is it you’re trying to sell here? What kind of leader, manager or subject matter expert are you? What are they looking for, and to what extent do you map onto that? How will your approach to the interview highlight the things they need to hear that will be material to your case?
You need to answer their questions with limpid clarity. Too short, and they’ll get frustrated. Too long, and you’ll lose their attention. There’s a sweet spot, and their body language can often be a pointer to whether you’re hitting it. It’s good if the whole thing feels like an energised, interesting conversation.
There’s also no point in letting nerves eat into your performance. Easy to say, I know, but much better to channel nerves into the energy you bring to the occasion – the adrenaline that sees you through. Just before the interview starts, your mindset should be poised, ready to go, not cramming or over-analysing what’s about to happen. A feeling of calm determination, bringing all your prep into the moment. And yes, the actual interview might be exhausting, but to win the prize, it’s worth expending the energy, and keeping going at the same energy levels right to the end.
Preparing detailed Q&A beforehand can help keep the detail in your head (and, correspondingly, help minimise reliance on notes, which can break the flow, and come across to the panel like inadequate preparation). If it’s a competency-based interview, then having good examples from your career hitherto is essential. You don’t need to have learned things by rote – and that would come across as too wooden anyway – but having some structured thoughts means you just have to trigger them in the interview, not create answers from scratch. There are a range of memory tricks for this, like mnemonics; and the STAR structure can help.
It’s also important to get across what you actually did when giving these examples. Of course, give credit elsewhere where appropriate (not least to demonstrate humility), but the interview panel are interested primarily in you, not in some process or what somebody else did. What personal qualities and skills enabled you to get the result you’re describing?
A key part of preparation can be the mock interview. It might well go horribly, but that’s good – better to get the mistakes out of the way than make them on the day itself.
I’m guessing that, at the moment, a lot of interviews are taking place over video links rather than in person. While this places some limitations on the extent to which body language can be employed to your advantage (eye contact through a webcam, for example, has a different quality), much of the above probably still applies.
And once that all-important date goes in the diary, make a plan. Do your research, think through your approach, find the time to prepare. Don’t make it a last minute thing – there’s too much at stake.
So, there you are – just some thoughts. One final one, though – if you don’t get the job this time, don’t lose heart, but learn from the experience.
That way, you’ve just built a stepping stone towards getting the next one.