Having conducted hundreds of interviews—both mock interviews with career coaching clients and real interviews as part of search committees—and seen what the outcomes are, I can say with confidence that getting through the hiring process and landing a job is not just about whether or not you can do the job. It’s also about how well you interview.
Interviewing involves a whole set of skills that can be completely separate from the skills you need for the actual job (though, of course, sometimes there’s overlap). The good news is you can definitely acquire and hone interview skills, even if you feel you’re not naturally that great at interviewing.
If you’re reading this article because you have an interview coming up and you searched online for resources that would help you prepare, then I have some good news for you: You’re going to be great at this first skill because clearly researching something you need to learn more about comes naturally to you. Conducting research on a company prior to an interview makes a huge difference in how prepared you’ll sound on the big day when you get a question like, “Why are you interested in our company?”
So how do you go about using your research skills ahead of an interview? You’ve probably deduced that doing a quick online search and reading up on the company is step one. Step two is to find out what makes the company special. You might be able to find an “About Us” page on the company’s website that will spell it out for you. Or if they have a Muse profile, you can watch or read employee interviews about working at the company. Their differentiating factor could be something like their unique approach to collaboration or the way they’re disrupting the market with a specific product or service—whatever you can say about them that you can’t say about their competitors. Next, learn more about the backgrounds of your interviewers by finding them on LinkedIn. Finally, to be extra prepared, read up a bit on the company’s competitors to see what challenges your prospective boss and colleagues might be facing and think about what you might bring to the company to help address them.
All this preparation will not only help you explain why you’re so enthusiastic about the role, but also allow you to subtly show that you know a lot about the company throughout the interview. You want your interviewer to know you did your homework. Putting in this extra effort never fails to impress. And as you go through this process for multiple interviews, you’ll start to get better at zeroing in on what makes a company special, spotting what sources and types of sources will give you the best info, and weaving your learnings into your conversation naturally and effectively.
2. Small Talk
Small talk—that casual conversation you have right after meeting someone or while you’re being escorted to your next interview—can feel unimportant, but it’s not. Mess up one of these exchanges and you might be remembered for the wrong things.
The goal of small talk isn’t really to stand out—it’s more about getting the other person to feel more comfortable chatting with you, so it’s fine to play it safe during this part of your chat. If you did your interview research, then bringing up something you might have in common is a good idea. Or if you’re walking around the office, commenting on things like a wall of awards or a unique mural could be a good segue into a light conversation about the company. If all else fails, having a few easy open-ended questions ready is a good idea. Something like, “I’m so glad it’s finally summer. Do you have any vacation plans?” is perfect.
Yes, your ability to do the job is (or at least should be) the most critical consideration for whether you get the job, but it does help if the interviewer finds you generally nice to be around, too—after all they’ll likely be working with you every day. So even if it feels kind of awkward, practice your small talk whenever you have the chance. Do it when you’re waiting in line in the grocery store, when you run into a neighbor on a walk, or even when you see friends. Get comfortable striking up a conversation and pay attention to how people react to different things you say. Everything gets easier with practice.
Of the clients I’ve worked with, the ones who unfailingly nail their interviews tell great stories. And I don’t just mean responding with a good story for each interview question. Great storytellers can also craft a larger overarching narrative for their entire career.
A good place to start when preparing your narrative for a particular interview is to figure out what main points—personal experiences, skills, or qualities—you want to get across to show the interviewer you’re right for this job. Then, look for opportunities to tie these points together in a cohesive way and find supporting stories from your work experience that back these points up. Connecting your career story to the job you’re applying for to create a bigger narrative is the goal. For example, maybe you’re a copywriter with a track record of catchy ads and a passion for travel who is now applying to write for an airline as a natural step to unite these qualities. Or maybe you’re an expert at data analysis who has a knack for child-friendly data visualization applying to create educational tools, and you can craft a career narrative highlighting the experiences where you built up these skills.
As for using storytelling in your individual responses, prepare a few stories ahead of time that you can draw on to answer common interview questions, especially behavioral questions. You can and should come up with versatile stories that can be adapted for different questions, since you don’t know exactly what the interviewer will ask. But once you’re answering a specific question, keep the scope of each story fairly narrow and highlight some kind of struggle that you ultimately overcame or learned from.
Like most things related to interviewing, practicing your stories will make a big difference. In particular, it’ll help you navigate the tricky line between giving enough context for a story to make sense and sharing too many details that muck up the main point you’re trying to make. Working through some of your interview answers with a friend can help a lot in terms of finding the sweet spot of covering the necessary backstory without letting it get too tedious.
4. Active Listening
For the uninitiated, active listening seeks to go beyond listening for content, it also focuses on the intent and feelings of the speaker. It’s useful in pretty much all contexts, and interviews are no exception.
With active listening you’ll be able to ascertain what points are most important to your interviewer and how well the conversation is going. You can also demonstrate that you’re engaged and invested in the conversation. One way to do this is to paraphrase or rephrase the question you’ve been asked. This not only shows that you have a good understanding of the question, but it also gives you a bit more time to think about what you want your response to be. You can also ask follow-up questions that show you’re eager to learn more.
You can improve your active listening skills with practice. The best part is you don’t really even need to go out of your way to get some practice in. You can apply the above strategies in any conversation you have. For instance, rather than rephrasing an interview question, you can instead paraphrase anything someone says to you by saying, “It sounds like you’re [insert paraphrase].” Once you master that, you’ll want to start focusing on non-verbal communication.
5. Non-verbal Communication
Non-verbal communication goes hand in hand with active listening. In fact, looking for and offering non-verbal cues is a fundamental part of active listening.
In an interview, make sure you maintain eye contact. But you’re not a robot, so don’t lose your personality in an attempt to be overly professional. When discussing something amusing it’s good to laugh or at least smile. Nodding a bit while the interviewer speaks can also show that you’re listening closely and understand what they’re talking about.
Aside from being mindful of your own body language, pay attention to the interviewer’s non-verbal cues. You may discover additional information like which parts of the job they are most concerned about finding the right match for or what skills are most critical for success based on how closely they are listening to your responses and what their facial expressions and body language might tell you.
Similar to small talk, this is something you’ll get better at the more you do it. In fact, any time you’re out practicing your small talk is a great opportunity to also pay attention to non-verbal communication—both yours and others’.
Empathy is a core piece of “emotional intelligence” that involves putting yourself in others’ shoes, trying to understand how they feel, and responding generously and graciously.
In an interview, rather than thinking only about what you would get out of the job—whether it’s higher pay, a better title, or a sense of fulfillment—consider what you can offer the company. Companies hire because they have a problem they want solved, whether it is a specific technical problem or simply the need to split up an overwhelming workload among more people.
By empathizing, or showing that you understand their plight, you can better demonstrate how you’d address the issue and speak directly to their needs. For example, if the company is suddenly growing their sales team a lot, you could say something like, “It’s so exciting to see so many open sales roles. I imagine that must mean the company is growing, but I know growth also means the team is feeling stretched. Given my previous experience, I’m confident I can hit the ground running and lighten the load.” Using your empathy during the hiring process will also show your interviewer that you would be an understanding coworker and teammate if hired.
Empathy is one of those skills you’ve likely developed throughout your life, but you might not realize how important it is in a job interview. So getting better at it in this context is in part a matter of awareness. And you can get a head start by putting yourself in the shoes of your interviewers as you’re researching the company and making educated guesses about what their needs and challenges might be.
7. Speaking with Confidence
The final skill that ties all your other interview skills together is simply speaking with confidence. You want the hiring manager to feel confident in your abilities and that starts with the way you talk. It may feel quite daunting, but it can be mastered with practice!
Nerves can get the best of anyone and interviews tend to feel like they have pretty high stakes, so it’s understandable if you struggle to convey confidence in this setting. Remind yourself that your goal in an interview is to sound calm but curious. You can even make it a little mantra: “Calm and curious!” Speaking at a measured pace will help with sounding calm. You can get your enthusiasm and curiosity across by showing that you’ve done your research and asking follow-up questions. If you tend to talk a little fast when you’re nervous, practice speaking a little slower than normal so that it will even out on the day of.
Ultimately, this is a skill that is vastly and quickly improved with practice. Schedule a mock interview with a career coach or, if you’re a student or recent alum, check out your college’s career office to see if they offer this service. Or you can just get a friend or family member to ask you some sample questions. In short, do whatever you can to practice, practice, practice. You’ll sound like a natural before you know it.