Here’s something my parents never would’ve guessed: There’s a lot of overlap between the strategies great candidates use to impress hiring managers and the tricks great improvisors use to keep audiences in stitches.
To prove it, I’ve compiled my top four tips for killing it in an interview—all unapologetically stolen from the people who taught me improv.
And if you’re “not the improvising type,” rest assured—you don’t have to be a quick-witted SNL cast member to benefit from these lessons. Anyone can implement these tips.
1. Act Like Your Interviewer
So, how do you find the right middle ground between appearing confident and appearing cocky? Here’s a trick: Look to your interviewer and copy him. In improv, this is called mirroring.
Mirroring puts your interviewer at ease and makes her feel like she’s connecting with you more. It’s simple psychology. We’re wired to trust people who behave like us.
Notice the position of your interviewer's body and the pacing of her speech. Is she reclining, sitting up straight, or leaning in? Is he bantering or choosing his words carefully? Does she speak particularly fast—or slow?
Let your interviewer’s behavior rub off on you. It’s a subtle thing, but a little goes a long way to leaving the impression that you already fit in.
2. Use Specifics
Many improv scenes fall flat because of a lack of specifics. Imagine this scene: “What are you doing here?” “Oh, just thought I’d stop by…”
Boring. Who the heck are these people, where are they, and why should we even care?
“Nurse, quick I need the—wait, are you playing Candy Crush again?” (Now we’re on to something.)
The same thing happens in interviews. “I'm a results-oriented person” isn’t wowing anyone. And your interviewer has no reason to believe you. Anyone can say he or she’s results-oriented.
Instead, use specifics. Tell a story about a time you pushed forward to get results. And don’t just stop there: Mention any negative impacts of your actions and the lessons you learned from them. It makes your story more real—which means your interviewer won’t feel like you’re just telling her what she wants to hear.
For example, “I kept the whole team working all weekend so that we could hit our deadline. I could tell some people were close to burning out, and in retrospect I should’ve treated everyone to dinner on Saturday night to keep morale going strong. However, hanger pains aside, that streak’s become a point of pride that really pulls our team together.”
Now, of course, that specific answer is a risk. Yes, at the company that values customer satisfaction at all costs, it’s a winner. But at an organization that’s all about work-life balance, you might not seem like a fit. So, instead of prepping your stories by just thinking about your attributes, be sure to research the company so you’ll be able to tell stories that make you sound perfect for this exact position.
3. Have a Mantra
One trick improvisors use to create engaging characters is to enter a scene with a mantra. Anything from “I love you,” to “Am I the only sane one here?” to “That's fascinating!”
This gives you an “anchor”—a starting point for deciding what to say next. Instead of trying to make stuff up out of the blue, you can focus on doing the obvious thing that someone with that saying would do.
For an interview, it helps to first decide what kind of person you want to be, and then use that to create it. Perhaps it's “I love solving problems with data,” or “Things should look beautiful.” Just make sure it's something you really believe in!
From there, answering questions is much easier—instead of pulling things out of thin air, you're doing the obvious thing that flows from your mantra.
Now you have an anchor. In the heat of the moment, if the interviewer asks you a question you weren’t expecting, you can always come back to these few words and start your answer there.
4. Ask Yourself, “If That, Then What?”
Speaking of mantras, one of the main things improvisors say over and over in their heads is, “If that, then what?” This helps with building off the previous line to create a detailed and interesting world.
Here’s an example: One player starts a scene by saying, “I heard the food here is excellent.” The other player asks himself, “If that, then what?" If there's buzz about the food being excellent, maybe the restaurant is so hip that George Clooney is at the table next to them.
How does this apply to interviews? It’s a recipe for asking excellent questions!
This is for the part where your interviewer tells you about her role, how she does things, how the company works, and then lets you ask questions. As you listen to your interviewer, ask yourself, “If that, then what?” By just saying this to yourself, you’ll find it easier to ask specific questions that make your interviewer feel like you get it.
For example, suppose your interviewer says, “We never deliver a product unless the whole team is 100% happy with it.”
If you ask yourself “If that, then what?” you might say something like, “Interesting! Does that ever cause any tension with strict timelines? How would you say the company balances input from the entire team with delivering a final product on time and budget?”
Whether you’re going for a clap or a call back, an ovation or an offer, a laugh or a job, these tips will help you tap your full potential. And hey, you might just be better at improv than you think.