Doing well at interviews is not nearly as difficult as many people
think. With correct preparation and a little practice, most people
who dread interviews can learn to excel. The important thing to
note is that performing well at interviews is a learned process. Highly
effective interviewees are not born with interview skills; rather, they
teach themselves what to say, how to say it and how to behave
during an interview.
Common interview mistakes
All of us have made mistakes during interviews, and most of us have
walked out of interviews thinking of all the great things we forgot
to mention and all the things we shouldn’t have said. But the most
important thing about mistakes is learning from them—and not
repeating them. Here are some common interview mistakes:
• Failing to express oneself clearly. Often, because of anxiety and
wanting to say things perfectly, we try too hard and turn what
should be simple sentences into convoluted nonsense. Simple
language is always the most effective. Avoid trying to sound
knowledgeable by using jargon or complex sentences.
• Not being aware of one’s body language. Many interviewees suc-
ceed in alienating the interviewer because they pay little or no
attention to their body language. Body language is an extremely
powerful communicator, and failing to use it effectively will
almost certainly put you at a significant disadvantage. Eye con-
tact, sitting position and facial expressions are all very important
aspects of interviewing, and need to be thought through before
• Failing to control those nerves. Sometimes people allow their nerves
to get so out of control that they fail to establish rapport and
even forget their answers. Feeling anxious before and during an
interview is common. In fact, a touch of nerves can be a good
thing. But there is no need to be the victim of debilitating nerves.
As you read through this book, you’ll gradually learn how to
lessen your anxiety.
• Failing to give appropriate examples. Failing to give examples, or
giving inappropriate examples, will spell disaster. Before the
interview, it is important to think of relevant examples of what
you’ve achieved and how you went about realising those
achievements. Saying that you achieved something without
being able to back it up with specific examples will only get you
a rejection letter. Your examples need to be easy to understand,
follow a logical sequence and be relevant to the needs of the
employer. None of this happens without preparation.
• Trying too hard to please the interviewer. Whilst building rapport
and trust during the interview is critical, few interviewers appre-
ciate interviewees going overboard with their behaviour.
Obsequious behaviours are generally seen as a form of deceit and
carry little weight—in fact, they can undermine your efforts to
There’s nothing wrong with you
You’ve probably committed at least some of the mistakes listed
above. It’s very important to realise that making such mistakes is
common. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you. In the vast
majority of cases, performing poorly at an interview happens because
of the very nature of interviews—it’s the interview process that is
So an awareness of the basic nature of interviews is the first step
in a step-by-step process by which you can significantly improve
your performance. A great place to start is to ask: ‘What does it take
to convince the interviewer that you’re the best person for the job?’
The answer to this question can best be summarised in four parts:
• correct preparation;
• knowing the things that are important to interviewers;
• practising your answers;
How well you perform at an interview will largely depend on how
well you have prepared for it. Failure to correctly prepare almost
certainly means you will not perform at your best. In some cases,
it will mean performing quite badly, which may contribute to the
erosion of your confidence.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be the favoured candidate, and
are almost certain to win the position by just turning up, you should
still take the time to prepare because the better you perform, the
greater the likelihood that you will negotiate a better salary—and
often the difference in money can be substantial.
We’ve all heard people boast that they’ve never prepared for an
interview in their lives and have done all right. Whilst this boast
may not be an idle one, closer inspection will usually reveal that
these people were:
• lucky—that is, in the right place at the right time;
• well connected;
• working in a favourable labour market where there was a huge
demand for employees coupled with low supply;
• applying for jobs well within their comfort zone—that is, not
stretching themselves to improve their position; or
• applying for jobs internally and competing mainly against
The case for preparation
The argument for interview preparation becomes compelling when
you give some thought to the basic nature of interviews. Not only
are you expected to sell yourself in a competitive environment, but
you’re also expected to compress large and often complex pieces of
information into neat and highly articulate answers that avoid any
negative connotations and contain the information the interviewer
wants to hear. It’s no wonder people’s stress levels increase. But it
doesn’t end there. There are three additional reasons that make the
case for interview preparation even more compelling:
• Interviews are rare events, thus making them unfamiliar and
• Many people find it very difficult to sell themselves at interviews
because they’ve been conditioned by family and society not to
blow their own trumpet. Making simple statements such as ‘I am
very good at selling xyz’ can be quite an obstacle to overcome.
• In most interviews, coming second isn’t good enough. It’s not
just a matter of performing well; it’s also a matter of beating
It is unimaginable that you would fail to prepare for an event that
is infrequent, competitive and requires behaviours not normally
used. Yet that is exactly what people do when they walk into an
interview without preparation.
What is incorrect preparation?
Incorrect preparation is any preparation that will not optimise your
performance at an interview. Rote-learning generic answers that
someone else has prepared has limited value. At best, they can give
you an insight into what may constitute a good answer; at worst,
they simply lead you astray. It is important to understand that, in
the vast majority of cases, there’s no such thing as a single answer
to a question. What may constitute a great answer for one employer
may be viewed as quite ordinary by another. One of the worst things
you can do is learn other people’s responses off by heart and repeat
them at an interview. Repeating other people’s so-called great answers
can make you sound disingenuous and make you look a bit ridiculous
when asked a probing follow up question. It makes a lot more sense
to prepare your own answers.
Advantages of preparation
Taking the time to correctly prepare for an interview will:
• improve your confidence levels;
• assist you in answering questions succinctly, as opposed to taking
forever to make a simple point;
• help you know what to say and how to say it;
• assist you in handling difficult questions;
• help you avoid saying things that will make a negative impression;
• improve your rapport-building skills.
Knowing the things that are important to interviewers
One of the keys to knowing what to prepare lies in understanding
the needs of the interviewer. Once you know the things that are
important to interviewers, interview preparation suddenly becomes
a lot clearer and a lot more manageable.
The vast majority of interviewers—whether or not they realise
it—want to hear three things from you. In fact, nearly all good
interview questions boil down to these three key generic questions:
• Can you do the job? In other words, do you have the skills,
knowledge, experience or potential to perform well in the job?
Most interviewers will spend the majority of the interview probing
you on this question. They’ll want to know what you’ve done,
how you did it and what the outcomes were. In the event you
have not performed a particular duty, they will try to ascertain
your potential to do the job.
• Are you the sort of person they can work with? Another way of stat-
ing this question is: Will you fit into the existing culture of the
organisation? Or, in the case of small organisations: Will you get
on with the boss? Whilst interviewers generally spend a lot less
time on this question, it is nevertheless a vitally important one—
that’s because no one wants to work with someone they don’t
like, even if they can do the job.
• How motivated are you? In other words, what energy levels and
drive do you bring to the position? You may not even be asked
a question about your motivation levels, but you fail to address
it at your peril. As we all know, highly motivated employees are
keenly sought after by employers—with good reason.
There are two significant benefits in knowing that interviewers are
keenly interested in these three generic questions, and that the vast
majority of questions they can ask fall under one or more of these
categories. First, it guides you in the preparation of your answers (a
large part of this book is based on answering these three key
questions). Rather than spending lots of time wading through
randomly selected questions in the hope that you will have prepared
the right answers, an understanding of the significance of the three
key generic questions provides a direction and platform for your
preparation. In short, you are able to plan your preparation around
the following issues:
• your skills, knowledge and experience—can you do the job? (see
Chapters 3, 4 and 5);
• your personal attributes—are you the sort of person they can work
with? (see Chapter 6);
• your motivation levels (see Chapter 7).
Second, it provides a useful way to deal with questions at the actual
interview. By sorting interview questions into one or more of the
three generic question categories, your answers will gain added
structure and a clearer direction simply because you know what the
underlying purpose of the questions is. By learning how to recognise
the real intent of a question, you minimise your chances of giving
the wrong answer and/or waffling.
The third aspect of convincing an interviewer that you’re the best
person for the job is practice. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts
to developing great interview skills. Once you’ve prepared your
answers, you need to sit down and practise them as much as you
can. The more you practise, the better you’ll be. As the old saying
goes, ‘success is one part talent and nine parts perseverance’. How
you practise is up to you. Do it in front of the mirror, sitting on
your couch, pacing your room or while driving your car—but avoid
practising in front of your boss!
Practising your answers aloud
It is important to practise your answers aloud, rather than just
mentally rehearsing them. That’s because the human brain
distinguishes between talking and thinking and you need to stimulate
the talking part of your brain. Thinking your answers at an interview
will get you nowhere, unless the interviewer is a mind reader.
Get some feedback
Ideally, you should do your practising at real interviews. The more
interviews you attend, the better—even if you have to attend inter-
views for jobs that you’re not really interested in. After the
interview—assuming you’re not the winning candidate—ring back
the interviewer and ask for feedback on your performance. Some
interviewers are happy to provide this feedback; however, many
prefer not to because they find it threatening and a waste of their
time. These people will either avoid you altogether or provide you
with such watered-down feedback that it will be virtually useless.
In some instances you may not be able to resolve this problem;
however, you can increase your chances of getting honest feedback
by making interviewers feel as comfortable as possible. You can do
this by a) assuring them that you only want five minutes of their
time; and b) telling them that the only reason you’re seeking feedback
is to improve future interview performance.
If you cannot get yourself to as many interviews as you would like,
it’s a good idea to set up mock interviews with someone you can
work with. The more closely you can simulate a real-life situation,
more benefit you will derive. An effective way to conduct mock
interviews is to get into role and stay in it for the entire interview.
No distractions, no small talk and especially no starting again. If
possible, avoid providing the questions to your helpers—let them
come up with their own. If your helpers are not in a position to do
this, give them lots of questions and ask them to choose the ones
they want. The important thing for you is to get yourself used to
answering unexpected questions. Furthermore, if you feel your helper
can provide you with honest feedback on your performance, do not
shy away from asking. You never know what you may learn. Often
it’s the small things that make a big difference. But be on your guard
for overly positive feedback. Chances are that your helper will be a
friend, and friends are well known for avoiding negatives.
The worst thing you can do when setting out to improve your
interview performance is give up because it all seems too hard.
Quitters invariably get nowhere. They certainly don’t land great jobs
and build great careers. On the other hand, people who persevere
very often gain valuable insights simply because they have the
stamina to stick it out.
The people we admire most are often those who face seemingly
insurmountable obstacles yet instead of quitting, quietly resolve to
overcome them. On the other side of the coin, the people we generally
least respect are those who are forever starting things without
finishing them. They tend to be the same people who make grandiose
claims but end up delivering little or nothing. One common
characteristic that chronic quitters tend to have is low self-esteem—
they don’t really believe in themselves. And if you don’t believe in
yourself, others usually don’t believe in you either—not a great place
to be when you’re trying to convince interviewers to believe in your
abilities. These are the people who are often heard saying things
such as: ‘That’s too hard’, ‘I can’t learn that’, ‘What will others
think’, etc. They also tend to be the people who are always
complaining about things but never seem to take any action to
correct them because there’s always an excuse.
You don’t have to be a chronic quitter or burdened with low
self-esteem to give up on working on your interview skills—there
could be any number of other reasons. However, if you’re reading
this book there’s a good chance that improving your interview skills
is an important priority in your life, and therefore should not be
let go easily. If you feel you might be one of those people who is
standing on the precipice of quitting, here is a little exercise that
can assist you to take a step or two back from the edge.
Suggested activity: Neurolinguistic programming
Based on neurolinguistic programming (NLP), this exercise is designed
to influence how you feel. People often quit because they associate
negative feelings with what they’re doing. People who persevere
have the power to feel good about their actions no matter how
tedious or unconstructive these actions may seem to others. If you
can make yourself feel good about the process of improving your
interview skills, then there’s a good chance that quitting will be the
last thing on your mind. Next time you feel like quitting, you might
like to find a quiet spot and take the following steps:
• Close your eyes and imagine yourself performing extremely well
in an interview. Take your time to view this picture in as much
detail as you can. Picture the faces of the enthusiastic interviewers,
noticing how attentive they are and how impressed they are
with your responses. Immerse yourself in the experience. Pay
attention to the details, including sounds, smells, colours,
temperature, and so on. Above all, capture the feeling of being
successful. Do not hold yourself back. The better you make
yourself feel, the more powerful the exercise will be.
• Keep on repeating this exercise until you capture that feeling of
excitement. You may be able to generate greater excitement by
picturing yourself in your new job. Imagine how good it is going
to feel winning a great job. Imagine getting that all important
phone call informing you of your success. Picture yourself in the
position doing all those things you’ve dreamt of doing. The key to
this exercise is to generate the great feeling that goes with succeeding
at an interview. Your only limitation is your imagination.
• Once you’ve captured that feeling, the next step is to recreate it
when you need it—in other words, when you feel like quitting.
An effective way of recreating the feeling of excitement is by
installing what NLP refers to as an anchor. An anchor is a stimulus
that triggers the desired feelings when you want them. An anchor
can be something you do, say or imagine. Action anchors usually
work best. For example, you might cross your fingers or jump
up in the air or pull your ears. It doesn’t matter what it is, as
long as you can do it easily when you want to and trigger the
desired feelings. Every time you’re afflicted with the scourge of
quitting, use your anchor and let your ability to influence your
feelings do the rest.
Summary of key points
• Because of their nature, interviews are inherently challenging. Making
mistakes at an interview is something that everyone does. The good
news is that we can overcome our errors by correct preparation,
practice and perseverance.
• Beware of faulty preparation. Avoid rote learning of other people’s
answers. Always prepare your own.
• Knowing what employers want to hear at an interview constitutes a
great start for preparing your own answers and simplifies interview
preparation. What most employers want to hear can be represented
by three key questions:
– Can you do the job?
– Are you the sort of person they can work with?
– How motivated are you?
• Get in as much practice as you can and always ask for honest feedback.
• Perseverance is everything.
• Banish all thoughts of quitting by teaching yourself to associate
strong feelings of excitement with improving your interview skills.