How to shine at interview

Interviews are still an important part of the process of getting a new job.  Here we look at some tips and hints on how you can perform your best at interview.

Most candidates view the prospect of a job interview with some trepidation largely because the interview process is seen as an interrogation with all the negative images that evokes. In reality an interview is merely a discussion between you and the recruiters. A position is vacant, and you are coming together to see whether you are the best person to fill it. Seeing the interview from this perspective immediately relieves some of the tension inherent in the situation and leaves you to get on with the next big stress-maker - preparation.

Preparation is essential if you want to succeed at interview. The recruiters won't leave anything to chance and neither should you. Whether you are an executive or just starting out you will find that interviewers are applying ever more scientific techniques at all levels. Making mistakes is extremely costly so as little should be left to chance as possible. With employers being this thorough, it follows that you must tackle the process with the same degree of discipline and skill. You can meet this challenge head-on by drawing up, and following, a specific plan of action designed to get you the results you want.

  • Fine-tune your knowledge of the employer.
  • Revisit your skills inventory.
  • Rehearse possible questions and answers.
  • Practice relaxation and visualisation techniques. Visualise yourself appearing calm, poised and making a positive impression.
  • Devise a checklist of what to take with you e.g. directions, company phone number in case you are delayed, mobile phone.
  • Knowledge is power at all stages of the selection process, particularly at interview.

You would never go to an interview without doing some research but you now need to take it further. You need to check that you have covered all bases and your Zest consultant will ensure that they provide you with all the information you need.


You should also ensure that you know enough about the company to anticipate possible lines of questioning.  A leading industry figure says, "The approach we take to selection is to try and make it 'evidence-based'. Our selection processes are often designed to look for a range of evidence using different techniques; it may be 'immediate' evidence of competence using exercises and simulations or may be 'historical' evidence obtained using competency-based interviews." Since this type of approach is increasingly being used by employers, interview candidates need to think of specific examples of things they have said and done which illustrate how they typically go about achieving tasks and objectives. Candidates should therefore prepare to demonstrate their competence at interview using the "this is how I did it" approach rather than "this is how I would do it".

"Know your numbers - today's sales professional is a business professional - know what you achieved numerically, know how you got there and the critical issues on the route to success. Feel free to use graphs, charts and physical representations to support your explanations."


In addition, "research the company - really dig in deep to their history, current trends, successes and what they are doing in the market. We would estimate that fewer than 10% of candidates are really well prepared - and then, with subtlety, show what you have found out - and hence what is attracting you to their organisation". Think about the challenges and competition that they face. Then come up with ways in which you can make a meaningful contribution to their efforts. Sources of information to help you with this are:


  • Company reports
  • Web sites/the Internet/on-line databases
  • Directories
  • Promotional material/product literature
  • Network contacts
  • Trade and financial press
  • Job and other advertisements.

Thorough research also puts you in a position to impress when it's your turn to ask questions. Asking about holidays and benefits is still a faux pas, whereas asking how your potential new colleagues' department will be impacted by plans for expansion, for example, isn't.


Just as the interviewer is trying to work out what makes you tick, think about what motivates the organisation. Look at key phrases in their promotional material or application packs - what do they tell you about the organisation and the type of people they are likely to employ? How do you measure up? Do you speak their language naturally or are you going to have to do a spot of perception management. Either way, practice introducing some of their terminology at key points during your interview rehearsals until it becomes second nature. We strongly advise anyone to have a mock interview, or several, with someone who is experienced in the art of constructive criticism.  We are not suggesting that you rehearse the interview to the stage where you sound like an amateur actor reading from an autocue, merely that you concentrate on the key messages that you want to deliver. By focusing on key points that you want to get across you will feel more poised and relaxed, the interview will flow more smoothly and you will be in a position to think on your feet should the interview to take an unexpected turn. Remember to ask for feedback on body language and general demeanour too. Points to bear in mind when it comes to body language and demeanour are as follows:


  • Be courteous to the receptionist.
  • When you meet the interviewer(s), look them in the eye and shake hands firmly. Maintain eye contact during the interview but don't stare.
  • Decline coffee - you will not be able to drink it and hold a conversation at the same time.
  • No wild gesticulating!
  • Concentrate on good posture and a clear and confident vocal delivery.
  • Take deep breaths if you need to steady your nerves.
  • Look alert and enthusiastic, and smile from time to time.
  • Show you are listening by leaning forward and nodding at appropriate points.
  • If you are addressing a panel give equal attention to each interviewer.
  • Be careful when using humour - it can fall flat or offend.

If your interview is CV based ensure that you have the facts of your stated objective, relevant experience, education, etc. thoroughly memorized and mentally supported. Be clear on what you want, as well as what you don't want, from a job. You are not begging to be employed, naturally you will need to demonstrate a high level of enthusiasm but you are an entrepreneur seeing whether you can do business with these people!


Remember to listen to what the interviewer says - you do not want to give the impression that your mind has gone AWOL by answering the wrong question. Be sure to listen to what is coming out of your own mouth and correct mistakes if necessary. Better still, pause before answering to give yourself time to make a considered and measured response, and always make sure your responses match your claims. If, for example, you've completed specific role related training or certification, tie it into your narrative, for instance, "From my experience gained whilst undertaking the "Spin Selling Course", I learned that ...” Build on your CV, but don't refer directly to it (assume the interviewer has it in his or her possession); make sure the connections are there, but do it subtly.


You're almost certain to be asked questions pertaining to your strengths and weaknesses. Know your strengths and emphasise those that relate specifically to the position for which you're being considered. If, for example, you're applying for a sales position, you might describe one of your strengths (if it's true) as follows: "I've made a study of personality types and I've learned to quickly type people in terms of the kinds of approaches that might best attract them". Be prepared, in this case, to back up your claim if the interviewer suddenly asks: "What type would you say I am?"


If you are asked about your weaknesses, remember to reframe them as strengths. This is tricky, so let's think about why the question is asked. The interviewer probably wants to learn several things about you with this question, such as: whether or not you are arrogant, whether you know yourself and finally, what you are doing to eliminate your weaknesses. Here are two ways to answer this question so that you leave a positive impression in the mind of the interviewer: (a) Show that, in overcoming a weakness, you've learned something; (b) Pick a weakness that is really a strength.  If, for example, you're interviewing for a job in an organisation you know is hard-charging and unforgiving of average performance, you might say, "One of my weaknesses is that I tend to be impatient with people who aren't willing to pull their full weight and give 110%". In this case, your 'weakness' may help you get the job.


If you've been fired, be honest about it and explain the circumstances in such a way as to put the best spin on it for you.  Never, ever, criticise your previous employer, however dreadful you may think they were.


Remember that interviews are really designed to answer two simple questions:


  • Can you do the job?
  • How will you fit into it?


These questions are likely to be investigated by both the HR function and one or more members of the department in which you may be working. To quote a HR Manager, "We believe that the HR role in selection is to design and work through a process which assesses candidates on totally objective criteria based on a carefully prepared 'person spec". HR professionals should work with their internal client line managers to ensure that this objective process is used to prepare a short list of candidates, all of whom could do the job based on the defined criteria. Thereafter, and only then, line managers should be at liberty to use less tangible and subjective criteria (such as "how would he/she fit in?", "how well would I get on with this person?") in making the final selection decision."


Finally, remember to make an effort to focus on how you can help the interviewer to make the right decision for both of you. This simple tension-busting technique can dramatically improve your performance. Bear in mind that not all interviewers are trained to do the job so, if you are unfortunate enough to get an ill-prepared or aggressive interviewer, stay calm and treat the whole process as a game of strategy. Award yourself points for finding ways to introduce your unique selling points, whatever the official line of questioning.