Rambling is a specialty of mine. Even my tangents tend to have tangents. I know—sheer talent. Sometimes, it’s because silence makes me extremely uncomfortable. (This is also why I end up at the snack table during networking events.) Other times, I can’t adequately communicate what I’m trying to say, so I just let all my thoughts trickle out into the space in front of me.
It’s an unproductive habit in all scenarios. And in interviews? Well, it can be a deal breaker. “The best job seekers don’t ramble,” states Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a founder and career coach at SixFigureStart. “‘The Rambler’ answers the question eventually but not before sharing additional background in painstaking detail. He or she does not realize that the best interview responses give just the right amount of information in just the right amount of time. It’s not about being short for brevity’s sake, it’s about being concise.”
If you frequently have trouble getting to the point, try utilizing the following strategies.
1. Prepare for Common Interview Questions
You won’t know every single one (unless “clairvoyance” is a skill you listed on your resume). But some “get asked so frequently that you’d be foolish not to prepare answers for them in advance,” says Alison Green, founder of the site, Ask a Manager. For instance, I’m pretty sure the hiring manager is going to want to know a little about who you are, what your background is, and why you want the job.
For those that are common interview questions, develop key points you want to touch upon. Being better prepared for as many as possible will help you fly through those and dedicate more brain power to the tough ones.
2. Don’t Reply Right Away
There’s nothing wrong with taking a beat prior to delivering your response. “Embracing pauses will help your interview feel more like a normal back-and-forth exchange which will help you relax and make you appear more confident,” explains Chelsea Babin, a content manager at Camden Kelly Corporation.
Repeat the question in your head, make sure you understand exactly what’s being asked, and start gathering your thoughts. If there’s any confusion, this is the perfect time to request clarification. It’s also a great opportunity to revisit your key points.
3. Follow a Specific Format for Each Answer
Having a go-to format for each question (no matter what the content) can be a big help. Reply as briefly as possible; let’s say in one to two sentences. Follow up with any necessary background detail—emphasis on necessary—and then wrap it up.
For example, in a recent interview, the search committee inquired as to why I wanted this specific position, to which I said:
Brief reply: “I’m interested because it allows me to utilize my education and prior work experience to directly impact those I’ll be working with.”
Necessary background detail: “After I earned my degree in public health, I worked behind the scenes in corporate wellness. It was hard for me to be so separate from the population we were trying to positively influence.”
Wrap up: “So, I really like that this opportunity would allow me to be on the front lines, since I’d be interacting face-to-face with the university students.”
4. Learn to Recognize Your “Rambling Signs” and Your “Why”
In order to change a behavior, you need to know when and why it’s happening. I often only notice I’m being longwinded when my sentences start to trail off. What are your clues? Are people’s eyes glazing over? Are they trying to interrupt you to change the topic? Are you saying “um” a lot?
Once you increase your awareness of the behavior, you can try to figure out the “why”—As in, “Why can’t I shut up right now?” Perhaps it’s because you’re intimidated and afraid of messing up in front of those you’re trying to impress.
Understanding the when and why is crucial for two reasons. First, it’ll help you prevent it. Second, you can put a stop to it if it happens again. You aren’t perfect. It’s hard to completely change the way you act overnight. So, if you do start talking in circles, squares, and [insert other shape], you’ll be able to recognize it, stop it, and recover.
5. Wear a Watch
These days, most people keep track of the time with a cell phone. But do not—and I repeat: do not—take your phone with you. At the very least, turn it off and throw it in the bottom of your bag.
Instead, rely on a good old wristwatch (or a brand new one, $5 one from CVS). Keeping track of the time is a great way to stay in check. Green believes that two minutes is a good time frame for most answers. And, again, if the hiring manager needs you to elaborate, she’ll say so. However, Green says, “Don’t go to the other extreme and turn into your opposite, the candidate who barely talks and make the interviewer pull information out painfully, sentence by sentence.”
Take note, though: Try to be as subtle as possible. There’s no need to stare at it as you speak.
Rambling is an understandable and common behavior in nerve-wracking situations. After all, there’s a lot at stake if you really want the gig. But unfortunately, it doesn’t make you look very professional or on top of your game. You don’t need to be robot, but you do need to prove you’re the best candidate while also preventing others in the room from being bored to tears or very confused (or both).