Chapter 20: Interview Strategies
- Understand how to prepare for an interview
- Identify common interview questions
- Learn how to answer behavioural questions using the STAR method
- Understand how to write an interview thank-you message
Interviewing is the phase of the job search process where you go from being an applicant on paper to a real, 3-dimensional person. In one way or another, you are being evaluated on your verbal communication skills through this face-to-face (or phone) interaction. Employers want to see if you match up to the qualifications described in your résumé and they want to see if you have good interpersonal communication skills to get a sense of how you would function as part of their team.
Employment interviews come in all shapes and sizes. A potential employee may very well be screened by a computer (as the résumé is scanned) and interviewed online or via the telephone before the applicant ever meets a representative or panel of representatives. The screening process may include formal tests that include personality tests, background investigations, and consultations with previous employers. Depending on the type of job you are seeking, you can anticipate answering questions, often more than once, to a series of people as you progress through a formal interview process. Just as you have the advantage of preparing for a speech with anticipation, you can apply the same research and public speaking skills to the employment interview.
The invitation to interview means you have been identified as a candidate who meets the minimum qualifications and demonstrates potential as a viable candidate. Your cover letter, résumé, or related application materials may demonstrate the connection between your preparation and the job duties, but now comes the moment where you will need to articulate those points out loud. Interviews are often intimidating for job seekers who feel the pressure of being evaluated and feel uncomfortable with the interview format. While the nervousness may never go away, effectively preparing for the interview can make you feel more confident, and, with practice, you will be better able to stay in the moment and treat the interview like a conversation.
The right frame of mind is an essential element for success in communication, oral or written. For many if not most, the employment interview is surrounded with mystery and a degree of fear and trepidation. Just as giving a speech may produce a certain measure of anxiety, you can expect that a job interview will make you nervous. Anticipate this normal response, and use your nervous energy to your benefit. To place your energies where they will be put to best use, the first step is preparation.
Good preparation before an interview is based on understanding who your audience is—understanding the employer and the industry. This is not the type of information that you can memorize the night before. Take as much time as you can to read and absorb information from a variety of sources to get a thorough sense of the company—not just the basic information you find on the “About” page of their website, but the tone and personality they broadcast in social media, their achievements, and their community involvement.
Businesses hire people to solve problems, so you will want to focus on how your talents, expertise, and experience can contribute to the organization’s need to solve those problems. The more detailed your analysis of their current challenges, the better. You need to be prepared for standard questions about your education and background, but also see the opening in the conversation to discuss the job duties, the challenges inherent in the job, and the ways in which you believe you can meet these challenges. Take the opportunity to demonstrate the fact that you have “done your homework” in researching the company. Figure 20.1 presents a checklist of what you should try to know before you consider yourself prepared for an interview.
What to Know
Type of Interview
Will it be a behavioural interview, where the employer watches what you do in a given situation? Will you be asked technical questions or given a work sample? Or will you be interviewed over lunch or coffee, where your table manners and social skills will be assessed?
Type of Dress
Office attire varies by industry, so stop by the workplace and observe what workers are wearing if you can. If this isn’t possible, call and ask the human resources office what to wear; they will appreciate your wish to be prepared.
Company or Organization
Do a thorough exploration of the company’s website. If it doesn’t have one, look for business listings in the community online and in the phone directory. Contact the local chamber of commerce.
Carefully read the ad you answered that got you the interview, and memorize what it says about the job and the qualifications the employer is seeking. Use the internet to find sample job descriptions for your target job title. Make a written list of the job tasks and annotate the list with your skills, knowledge, and other attributes that will enable you to perform the job tasks with excellence.
Check for any items in the news in the past couple of years involving the company name. If it is a small company, the local town newspaper will be your best source. In addition, look for any advertisements the company has placed, as these can give a good indication of the company’s goals.
Figure 20.1 | Interview Preparation Checklist
Once you have prepared mentally and gathered information for the interview, it’s time to prepare for the interaction during the interview.
Dress the Part
Dress your best. In most business cultures, dressing professionally is a sign of respect, conveying that you care about the position and that you want to make a good impression.
Here are the basics:
- Wear your best professional clothing.
- Try on the complete outfit to make sure you’re comfortable. Does it fit? Stay in place? Can you sit down, shake hands, and move comfortably? You don’t want your clothing to distract you or the interviewer.
Even if you know the work environment is casual, you should dress “up” for the interview—more professionally than you would if you worked there. The exception would be if you are explicitly told not to—for instance, if the recruiter specifies that you should dress “business casual.”
Don’t Come Empty-Handed
Arriving at the interview with important documents and notes shows that you are prepared and thinking ahead. Organize all your materials in a nice folder or folio—presentation matters! Print out several clean copies of your résumé and any other documents you might want to reference, like the job or internship description or your references. You should also bring a few samples of your work, if possible, documents you’ve prepared or artifacts from projects.
Make the most out of all of that research and preparation by bringing notes. A nice notebook or paper and a pen are perfectly acceptable for you to have in the interview, and they can help you feel more focused by getting some of the information out of your head and organized on paper.
Follow these guidelines:
- Be organized. Re-write or type and print your notes so you can easily find the information you need. You don’t want to be shuffling through scraps of paper.
- Keep it simple. Write down keywords, brief phrases and ideas that will jog your memory, not a complete script.
- Prepare questions for the interviewer. You typically have the opportunity to ask these questions at the end of the interview.
Body Language & Interaction
As a general rule, it’s important to be observant and take your cues from the interviewer. Reflect their tone and pay attention to the dynamic they set. Are they very formal and professional or more conversational? It’s okay to make small talk, but you want to follow the lead of the interviewer.
- Shake hands. Most of the time, these professional interactions will begin with a handshake. Be prepared with a firm (but not too firm!) and confident handshake. It never hurts to practice!
- Be conscious of your posture. You will want to sit up straight and avoid crossing your arms in front of your chest.
- Make eye contact. Look at the interviewer while they ask you questions and give them non-verbal cues—smiling, nodding—when appropriate. Make it clear that you understand what they’re saying, that you’re listening.
- Speak clearly and thoughtfully. Adjust your volume for the environment and make sure the interviewer can hear and understand you easily. Don’t rush yourself and take the time to deliver thoughtful responses. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand a question.
- Project calm. Fidgeting and extra movement can make you seem nervous even if you aren’t. Be aware of your tendencies and try to minimize them. If you know you fidget, try to keep your hands folded and avoid clicking or tapping the pen. Don’t wear jewelry that you will play with or that will make noise while you move. Wear your hair in a way that will not tempt you to touch or play with it constantly. If seated at a table, sit towards the front of the chair and plant your feet on the floor. It can help keep you steady.
- Be yourself. With all of the previous tips in mind, you also need to feel comfortable and like yourself. If you are enthusiastic, if you talk with your hands, if you are shy, that’s fine. You just need to be the most engaged, professional version of yourself you can be in order to show the interviewer what you are capable of in the workplace.
Common Interview Questions
Employment interviews involve a degree of uniformity across their many representations. Here are some common questions you are likely to be asked in an employment interview:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Have you ever done this type of work before?
- Out of all the candidates, why should we hire you?
- What are your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
- What do you consider to be your biggest professional achievement?
- Give me an example of a time when you worked under pressure.
- Tell me about a time you encountered (X) type of problem at work. How did you solve the problem?
- Why did you leave your last job?/ Why do you want to leave your current job?
- How has your education and/or experience prepared you for this job?
- Why do you want to work here?
- What are your long-term goals? Where do you see yourself five years from now?
- Do you have any questions?
When you are asked a question in the interview, look for its purpose as well as its literal meaning. “Tell me about yourself” is an opportunity for you to introduce yourself and explain what makes you perfect for the position. The employer is looking for someone who can address their needs.
Tell me about yourself– Example Response
“Currently, I serve as the assistant to three of the company’s five executive team members, including the CEO. From my 12 years of experience as an executive assistant, I’ve developed the ability to anticipate roadblocks and create effective alternative plans. My greatest value to any executive is my ability to work independently, freeing up their time to focus on the needs of the business. It’s clear that you’re looking for someone who understands the nuances of managing a CEO’s busy day and can proactively tackle issues. As someone with an eye for detail and a drive to organize, I thrive on making sure every day has a clear plan and every plan is clearly communicated.” (Indeed.com, 2020)
In the same way, responses about your strengths are not an opening to brag, and your weakness not an invitation to confess. If your weakness is a tendency toward perfectionism, and the job you are applying for involves a detail orientation, you can highlight how your weaknesses may serve you well in the position.
What are your Weaknesses?– Example Response
“Earlier in my career, I noticed that because I was so enthusiastic about my work, I had a tendency to say ‘yes’ when I should have been saying ‘no.’ At one point I ended up so overwhelmed by my workload, taking on so many projects, that I was working evenings and weekends. It was stressful, and that stress affected my production quality. I realized this was counterproductive, so I started using workload management tools to set better expectations for myself and my teammates.” (Indeed.com, 2020)
Interviewers may ask behavioural questions to learn how you reacted in past situations as this will give them a good indication of how you will react in similar situations in the future. Here are some common behavioural questions:
Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure.
- Share an example of a time you had to make a difficult decision. What did you do?
- Have you ever made a mistake? How did you handle it?
- Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss. How did you resolve it?
- Give an example of a goal you reached and tell me how you achieved it.
When responding to behavioural questions, use the STAR method. With this method, you answer the question by explaining the Situation, Task, Action and the Result. Figure 20.2 explains the STAR method in detail.
You can also anticipate that the last few minutes will be set aside for you to ask your questions. This is your opportunity to learn more about the problems or challenges that the position will be addressing, allowing you a final opportunity to reinforce a positive message with the audience. Keep your questions simple, your attitude positive, and communicate your interest.
At the same time as you are being interviewed, know that you too are interviewing the prospective employer. If you have done your homework you may already know what the organization is all about, but you may still be unsure whether it is the right fit for you. Listen and learn from what is said as well as what is not said, and you will add to your knowledge base for wise decision-making in the future.
Questions to Ask the Interviewer
In addition to revealing your knowledge of the company, questions to the interviewer are also an opportunity for you to figure out if the employer and the company culture are a good fit for you. Think carefully about what matters to you, what would allow you to do your best work, and try to ask questions that will give you insight into those factors.
The following are some questions you can ask the interviewer:
- What are the primary tasks or responsibilities for a person in this position? What does a day in this job look like? Is travel required? Overtime?
- What is the orientation or training process?
- What are the goals/priorities for a person in this position? How will success be measured?
- What is the company’s assessment and review process?
- Does the company support professional development activities?
- How does this position fit within the team/department? What is the reporting structure?
- How would you describe the company culture or team dynamic?
- What is this company’s approach to management?
- What are the company’s overall goals and priorities and how do those affect someone in this department/position?
NOTE: This is not typically the best time to ask about salary and benefits. This is your opportunity to learn about the workplace and the position—the environment, how it’s structured, and employee support programs.
Figure 20.3 summarizes the interview process.
Remember that feedback is part of the interview process: follow up promptly with a thank-you note or email, expressing your appreciation for the interviewer’s time and interest. Email is a standard and expected vehicle for this message, and you will likely have already been in contact with the interviewers via email or will have their business card from the interview. An example of an interview thank-you letter is demonstrated in Figure 20.4.
The formula for this message is simple, but choose your words carefully and try to extend their good impression of your written communication here as well. Us the following format when writing your interview thank-you message:
- Relevant subject line
- Gratitude for their time and the opportunity
- Your continued interest in the position
- Something specific from your conversation (this is where taking notes comes in handy!)
- Reminder of your qualifications
- Positive and forward-looking conclusion
You will want to reflect the overall tone of your interaction. Try to make it consistent with the person they met the day before.
Subject: Design Engineer Internship – Thank you
Dear Ms. Tanner,
Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you yesterday. I feel like I learned a lot about the Design Engineer Internship role at ABC Innovations and I remain very interested in the position.
After hearing about the project I would be assigned to, I did some further research on your prototyping process and I can see interesting connections with the work I did in my previous internship. It would be exciting to build on that knowledge with your team.
Please feel free to contact me via phone at 778-111-2222 or email if there is any additional information I can provide. I look forward to hearing from you.
Figure 20.4 | Interview Thank-you Message
You may receive a letter, note, or voicemail explaining that another candidate’s combination of experience and education better matched the job description. If this happens, it is only natural for you to feel disappointed. Although you feel disappointed, don’t focus on the loss or all the hard work you’ve produced. Instead, focus your energies where they will serve you best. Review the process and learn from the experience, knowing that each audience is unique and even the most prepared candidate may not have been the right “fit.” Focus on your skill sets; if they need improvement, consider additional education that will enhance your knowledge and skills. Seek out local resources and keep networking.
Interviews can be stressful and intimidating because a successful interview can be life-changing. To reduce stress or anxiety, it is important to prepare thoroughly before an interview. Learn as much as you can about the company in advance, think about how your skills and qualifications are suited to the role, practise answering some of the common interview questions and finally show up dressed appropriately and with a positive attitude.
End of Chapter Activities
20a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
20b. Discussion Questions
- How does the employment interview serve both interviewer and interviewee? Explain and present your thoughts to the class.
- Find a job announcement of a position that might help you reach your professional goal. Write a brief statement of what experience and education you currently have that applies to the position and note what you currently lack.
- What are the common tasks and duties of a job you find interesting? Create a survey, identify people who hold a similar position, and interview them (via e-mail or in-person).
- What has been your employment interview experience to date? Write a brief statement and provide examples.
20c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Acing the Job Interview
You are one of the five candidates selected to interview for the role of marketing and communications manager at Walker’s Auto Sales Limited. You recently completed a Post-Degree Diploma in Marketing, and you are excited about this opportunity, which pays well and has several extended medical plus fringe benefits.
You arrive at the interview well-dressed, thoroughly prepared and on time. During the interview, you are mindful of your body language and match your responses to the skills and requirements of the job. The recruiter asks you several behavioural interview questions including the one below:
“Describe a time when you had to manage multiple tasks and had challenges meeting specific deadlines. How did you handle this?”
You want to ensure that your responses are clear and do not get lost in translation. Using the STAR method, share a brief outline of how you would respond to the interview question above.
20d. Writing Activity
Watch this video from TED.com on Why the best hire may not have the perfect resume. Summarize the video. Would you consider yourself to be a “Silver Spoon”, or “Scrapper”? Explain in detail.
This chapter contains information from A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin, which is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License and Communication for Business Professionals by eCampusOntario is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Doyle, A. (2020, March 6). How to Use the STAR Interview Response Method. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-is-the-star-interview-response-technique-2061629
Doyle, A. (2020, May 21). Top 10 Behavioral Interview Questions and Sample Answers. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/top-behavioral-interview-questions-2059618
Guffey, M. E., Loewy, D., & Almonte, R. (2019). Essentials of Business Communication, Eighth Edition. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education /Cengage Learning.
Indeed.com. (2020, May 29). 125 Common Interview Questions and Answers (With Tips). Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/top-interview-questions-and-answers
Indeed.com. (2020, May 29). How to Use the STAR Interview Response Technique. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/how-to-use-the-star-interview-response-technique