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How Job Hunters Should Prep for the New Interviews

Tips for video interviews, group gropes, cattle calls and Trained Bears

(This article is adapted from the new book Don’t Wear Flip-Flops to Your Interview: And Other Obvious Tips That You Should Be Following to Get the Job by Paul Powers.)

When I meet with job hunters to debrief them over a couple of celebratory drinks after a successful job search, the greatest laughter usually emerges from the things that didn’t go so well — the errors, the mistakes, the glitches. They occur in every job hunt.

With luck, you may never run into an interview format you’re not familiar with. But just in case…

The Phone Interview

One common job interview format these days is the telephone interview. It is often used as a tool to screen applicants before a face-to-face meeting is scheduled. Because you use your phone every day for mundane purposes, it is easy to take this interview casually. Huge mistake!

You’re not ordering Chinese food here, bucko, you’re trying to get your foot in the door with an important job target. This phone meeting is as important as a face-to-face meeting because if you don’t do well in the first one, you won’t even get to try the other.

The number of job candidates having video interviews is doubling every two years, so you’ve got to develop your skills in this area.

The two keys to mastering the phone interview are preparation and physical setting. Before your phone interview, review your research notes, your resumé and the short list of questions you want to ask. Have a clean pad of paper ready and put the interviewer’s name and title on it. That way you won’t use the wrong name (it’s easy to do when you’re not actually looking at someone), and you’ll have a convenient place to take notes.

If an unexpected call for a phone interview comes in, try to reschedule it. Say you were just on your way out for a meeting. You wouldn’t go into a face-to-face interview on the spur of the moment, so why would you wing it now? Even if you bump the call out for just 10 or 20 minutes, you will be that much better prepared.

Speakerphones are great as long as they don’t sound as if you are underwater or on a police bullhorn. If you have a speakerphone, try it out on someone who will give you brutally honest feedback before you ever use it in an interview. If yours sounds clear and crisp, use it, because it will allow you to take notes and use your hands to gesture with as you speak.

Dont Wear Flip Flops to Interview Book EmbedYou may not have noticed it before, but hand gestures and facial expressions add variety to your voice and make you sound more engaged and easier to listen to. I know this may sound corny, but you may want to take a lesson from successful telemarketers and keep a mirror on your desk to remind you to smile. A person on one end of the phone can tell when the person on the other end is smiling, because smiling uses muscles that change the tone of one’s voice — for the better. As with video interviews (which I’ll cover shortly), I suggest you write the words “smile” and “breathe” on a sticky note and post it where it will jog your memory.

Using a speakerphone presupposes that you have a private, quiet place from which to take phone calls. I have never had an interviewer tell me that listening to a screaming baby, yapping dog, or whining vacuum cleaner made a job candidate sound more professional. It may induce pity, but not a job offer.

Never conduct a phone interview (or, God forbid, a negotiating session) on a cell phone. Imagine your panic after answering a question brilliantly only to hear your interviewer saying, “Are you still there? Can you hear me? Are you there? Hello?”

The Video Interview

As the cost of video conferencing technology has come down and the quality has improved, more organizations are using it in the hiring process. It is time-efficient, saves on travel expenses and allows for the screening of more candidates and candidates from remote locations. If used effectively, it can improve the quality of the interviewing and hiring process.

Because it requires preparation on the hiring side of the equation, often a uniform set of questions is prepared that will be asked of all candidates, thus increasing the fairness of the process. Interviews can be recorded and reviewed later for a more accurate comparison of how candidates answered identical questions without relying on vague impressions, illegible notes, or faulty memories.

One recent study showed that the number of job candidates having video interviews is doubling every two years. I expect that this trend will continue, so you’ve got to develop your know-how and skills in this area.

If your computer does not have video and voice capability, it is time for an upgrade. If this is impossible, try to find a local employment center, college, library, family member, or friend with a video-friendly computer that you can use in privacy.

Before the video interview:

Practice. Use your own Webcam or find someone else’s to use to assess and adjust your overall appearance, demeanor, mannerisms, eye contact, and sound. Make sure the camera is not pointing right up your nose! Adjust the lighting: a little bit bright is good, but avoid too much from behind or the sides that can give that Twilight Zone look.

Instead of using the camera and microphone built in your computer, get a special set-up. You’ll want one with an HD camera, microphone, mic holder, and tripod — available for less than $100 at online retailers.

When practicing, use the picture-in-picture feature so you can see what the person on the other end is seeing. But just before the interview, disable this feature so it won’t distract you or cover it up with the previously-mentioned sticky note reading BREATHE/RELAX.

Plan your attire as you would for any interview. Dressing appropriately helps you feel the part. Avoid busy patterns and stick to neutral colors. Don’t assume that only your top half will be seen. What if you need to get up for a document or adjust the equipment?

If interviewing from home, remove from the camera’s view anything that anyone might consider inappropriate for a business interview. You don’t want to lose the job for a silly reason like having an off-color poster on the wall.

Send any requested materials well in advance of the interview. For example, a resumé, application form, portfolio pieces and so on.

Review any video instructions you’ve been given. Feel free to ask for help with anything you don’t understand.

Clear your desk or workstation of clutter, distractions, and anything that might make noise or distract the interviewer. Having a few (not-so-obvious) notes is one of the benefits of this type of interview. Just don’t pick them up and read aloud from them.

Arrange to be in place early to assure that everything is working and to relax a bit. That way, when the video call starts, you’ll be cool and ready.

During the video interview:

Feel free to ask for a quick review of the equipment. Ask if you can be clearly seen and heard.

Confirm that they have any materials you have sent. Have back-ups ready to go just in case.

Stay calm if the system freezes up. Reboot your system and wait a callback. After five or 10 minutes, you can try reaching the interviewer. Technical difficulties can happen; it’s how you deal with them that counts. Watch the salty language.

Look at the camera; this is the video equivalent of eye contact. If you look down at your screen, keyboard, or desk, all your interviewer will see is the top of your head.

Don’t fidget, check e-mail, play with paperclips, click your pen, or make any distracting noises the microphone will pick up. These will annoy your interviewer.

Use active listening. Responses such as “Uh-huh,” “I see,” “That’s interesting,” and “hmm” lets the interviewer know that you’re paying attention and that the equipment is working.

Use hand gestures sparingly. On video they can be distracting. For emphasis, use vocal/tonal variety.

Before signing off, ask about next steps. Then, express thanks and appreciation as you would for any interview.

After the video interview:

Double and triple check to make sure the equipment is turned off.

Do a post-interview review; an invaluable tool, if your system has one, is a record feature.

Plan for how you will improve your video interviewing performance.

Send a thank-you note.

The Panel Interview

I call panel interviews The Group Grope and I truly dislike them. You meet with a group of three or more interviewers, and each of them takes a turn asking you questions. Not completely unlike the Spanish Inquisition.

Sometimes all of them are interested in every answer, sometimes some of them are interested in all of the answers, sometimes some of them are interested in some of the answers and sometimes they are only interested in the answer to the question they asked. And sometimes there’s a poor sap in there who doesn’t know why he’s there or what he’s interested in because he only showed up because his boss told him to “sit in.” So you don’t know who wants to hear what.

You’ll end up directing your answer to the person who asked the question while looking around and trying to make some eye contact with the others who seem interested without having your head swivel around like that girl in The Exorcist.

Although you know who arranged the interview and who is likely to be your boss, it is impossible to know the relationships (personal or reporting) among all of them. Sometimes there will be people in a group grope who have competing agendas or different ideas of what they are looking for, or even disagreements on the dimensions of the job itself.

If you learn beforehand that you are in for a panel interview, do your best to find out who is participating, why they are participating, and what, if any, specific interest they have in how this job is filled.

If something like this is sprung on you when you arrive for the interview (which already gives you some not-so-great feedback about the organization), make it your first agenda to go around the room asking for (and writing down) people’s names and titles. Be pleasant about it (because you can’t do anything about it anyway), expressing pleasure in meeting them, and, if you can manage it, also ask each of them how they or their department will be involved with the person to be hired.

If you’re able to do this, you can probably tailor your responses appropriately. If you end up answering questions pretty much in the dark about whose agenda is what, just play it straight down the middle and hope for the best.

The Serial Interview

My name for a serial interview: The Cattle Call. As grim as this interview sounds, it’s a heck of a lot better than the group grope. The formal name is serial interviews — you complete one interview and then move right on to someone else.

Typically, this doesn’t happen until a second or later interview, but if you find yourself being walked down the hall to “meet” someone else after your first interview, you can bet it’s good news for you. Either somebody else saw your resumé, was impressed, and asked to see you when you came in, or that person told your interviewer to bring you around if she was impressed enough to think about hiring you.

Serial interviews are draining, but they are a great opportunity for using your job interview skills. It is important to keep your energy level high because you are actually making a series of first impressions. As in the panel interview, the key is to get a quick read on who these people are, what their agenda is, and why they are interested in this new hire.

You can ask similar questions of multiple folks, and, as you think about the answers afterward, you will learn a lot about the organization. Remember to ask each person for his card so you have the correct information to send personalized follow-up letters.

The Trained Bear Interview

This is the interview in which you are asked to perform. This could involve role-playing a sales call, answering an angry customer’s phone call, or responding to an e-mail or memo that just (hypothetically) arrived. As long as these exercises are within the area of your expertise, they represent a great opportunity to display your skills.

Afterward, express your interest in the exercise and ask why that particular example was chosen and how the interviewer thought you might have handled it differently. That way, regardless of how you actually did, you are demonstrating your interest in the problems of the organization as well as showing your willingness to take feedback.

When these trained bear interviews can be abusive is when employers use the interview process to troll for new ideas that they may use with or without you. I have seen marketers asked to submit two or three concepts for a forthcoming product launch. Graphic designers are often asked to design something “on spec” that the firm will turn around and try to sell. Although assessing your skills as accurately as possible is perfectly acceptable, pilfering your ideas for profit is not. Some companies are well known for this, and your contact network should be able to help you identify them.

The Offsite Interview

Job interviews can take place in such different places as hotel lobbies, restaurants, airline lounges, or convention hospitality suites. The biggest problem with these settings is the excess audio and visual stimulation. This makes concentration difficult and can obscure your ability to completely observe or hear your interviewer.

Also, because some of these settings are ones in which you might tend to relax, you may let your guard down and treat the meeting with less formality than it deserves. In any of these settings, do your best to establish appropriate eye contact and do not hesitate to ask your interviewer to repeat a question if you are not sure you heard it completely. There’s nothing so confusing or as frustrating as giving a great response to the wrong question.

An interview outside of the interviewer’s office is usually a good sign that he is trying to fit you into a busy schedule. On the other hand, a lot of executive recruiters are road warriors of the first degree, and hotel lobbies or airline lounges are de rigueur interview locations.

Meals can be tricky, but are easily handled with a few simple rules. No finger food (ribs, corn on the cob, raw shellfish), nothing messy (salads, cereal, runny eggs), no booze (sorry), no sending food back, and no ogling or verbal abuse of the wait staff. Order something similar to that of your interviewer unless it’s from one of the categories mentioned here. Don’t gesture with your cutlery as if you were a knife thrower from the circus. Oh, and keep in mind all that other stuff your mother told you — keep your elbows off the table, don’t talk with food in your mouth and no making a party hat with your napkin.

I always get a ton of questions about drinking at a dinner interview, so I might as well go into a bit more detail. Don’t. It dulls the mind, it slows your responses, and it makes you think you can sing. Despite the relaxing setting, you are not there to have fun; you are there to land a job.

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