Years ago, when I was interviewing for the job of deputy editor at Harvard Business Review, I thought I had carefully prepared for my full day of interviews. I had my favorite suit dry cleaned and ready to go. I took my older daughter (a notoriously bad sleeper) to my parents’ house so I could count on getting a full night’s sleep. I even did a dry run of the unfamiliar drive to the office on the Sunday before my interview. I was ready for anything.
Or so I thought. The night before the interview, my younger daughter, normally a sound sleeper, started teething and cried continuously. Far from well-rested in the morning, I somehow managed to slice a hole in the suit when I tried to cut off the plastic dry cleaner wrap. With my second favorite suit on, I headed out the door with my driving directions in hand (this was pre-GPS!). Unfortunately, the map directed me on a heavily trafficked route — something I hadn’t encountered on my Sunday dry run. After sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I ended up at the interview a solid half hour late — and seriously ruffled by my series of setbacks.
In hindsight, I can laugh at what happened (especially since I got the job) but I also realize that I had focused on all the wrong things: logistics and details instead of substance. That mistake could’ve easily derailed what was to be one of the most important job opportunities of my career.
Stress about job interviews feels like a given for most of us. And we often don’t make it easy on ourselves since we head into these critical moments with only a scant amount of preparation. “Even relatively smart people don’t prepare very well for interviews,” says John Lees, author of The Interview Expert: How to Get the Job You Want. Instead, we wing it. And that ends up making us nervous in the very moment that we’re most trying to impress. And as Lees points out, “nervousness is intimately related to underperforming.”
So, how do you manage the inevitable stress of a job interview and prepare correctly?
“Prepare yourself even more thoroughly than you think is necessary,” Lees advises. You may be perfectly qualified on paper, but presenting your best self in the interview room — someone who is energized and relaxed and easy to work with — is a rehearsed performance. Here’s how Lees advises you avoid the interview jitters:
Develop a real script. Most interview questions are utterly predictable, he says. You can probably sketch out the 10 or 12 things you will be asked. Why should we hire you? Why do you fit this role? I notice some gaps in your resume … and so on. Practice answers to those questions. Actually say the words out loud. It’s not good enough to think about how you’ll roughly answer. Lees calls that “false preparation.” Really do it. “It’s about building up small narratives,” Lees says, so that you have answers at the ready and you’re freed up to be far more present in the interview room. Plus you’ll probably give far more succinct and responsive answers. Remember that the interviewer needs to learn a certain amount about you in a short span of time. If you ramble on with one or two answers, you might use up all your time and you risk coming off as a self-absorbed bore.
Prepare for questions you want to avoid. If there’s something on your resume you’d rather not highlight, chances are your interviewer will be curious. You have a better chance of moving swiftly past the topic if you practice your answer ahead of time. “Keep it short and upbeat,” Lees advises. Let’s say you were laid off. You can say something like: “Like hundreds of other people, I lost my role when the company downsized. But that gave me a chance to look at the skills I’ve developed and identify new areas of growth.” Shift your answer from the past to the present and keep the conversation in a comfortable place.
If you are thrown for a loop by a question, take a minute to think about how you’ll answer before responding. Introverts, Lees points out, often need time to process a question. You can buy time by summarizing the question or framing it in your own way. “That’s a really great question. When I answer it, I’m going to discuss…” The worst thing you can do is look or act flustered. That communicates incompetence. If you have to, tell your interviewer: “Let me think about that for a minute…” and then only answer when you’re ready.
Make sure you’re actually listening. When people are nervous, they tend to focus on themselves, what they’re saying, how they’re responding. But anxiety can be a blocker that stops you from listening, or makes you miss something vital your interviewer just asked. Try to slow yourself down by taking slow breaths and focusing on the interviewer’s words, not your ruminations. If it’s a complicated question, it’s OK to repeat it and then ask, “Have I got this right?” before you start to answer.
Invent a conference call to give yourself a break. One of my former bosses once passed on an excellent tip. If you’re scheduled for back-to-back interviews, tell your contact in advance that you have a conference call you must attend and ask if there’s a private room for you to do that. That will allow you a small respite from the intensity of being “on” for several hours in a row. This trick is especially helpful for introverts but could help anyone who is likely to be exhausted from a long schedule of interviews (and who isn’t?).
Pre-script your own questions. You know you’re going to be asked if you have any questions for the interviewer. “No” is always the wrong answer. Have one or two good questions ready about the future of the company or the future of the role you are interviewing for.
Ask a trusted friend to mock interview you — and videotape it. If there’s anyone in your life with real world interview experience, ask them to practice with you. But both of you have to take it seriously. It’s a great dry run. Lees suggests videotaping the interview (your phone camera will likely do the trick) — and then watching it without the sound. Body language can be a critical component of your interview and “you’ll see how you present yourself,” he says. With practice, you have a chance to observe and correct your nonverbal messages before you’re in the hot seat.
Of course, being nervous is normal but don’t dismiss your jitters. Instead, be as ready as you can by doing the work of the interview well before you get into the room, says Lees. And he suggests you ignore anyone who tries to calm your nerves by telling you to “Just be yourself.” Of course you want be authentic, but you don’t want to present an anxious, sweaty-palmed version of yourself. You want to be the best version of you — calm, confident, and prepared.
Karen Dillon is the former editor of Harvard Business Review and co-author with Clayton Christensen and James Allworth of New York Times best-seller How Will You Measure Your Life. She’s also the author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics. Follow her on Twitter @KarDillon.
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