The Firing Squad: How to Survive a Panel Interview
If your palms start to sweat before a one-on-one interview, you can imagine the nerves that come when a potential employer says you’ll be meeting with not one, but four people—all at the same time!
Four-on-one hardly seems fair—that means fknoour times the interviewers, asking four times the rapid-fire questions. But fair or not, it’s best to be prepared—“interview by firing squad” is a common way for companies to speed up their hiring process, not to mention see how candidates will react in a group setting.
Yes, building a rapport with multiple evaluators is that many times harder than connecting with just one—but it’s definitely possible. Here are a few survival tips for your next panel interview.
Know Who's Firing Questions at You
Typically, your panel of interviewers will represent multiple areas of the company, so each representative will consider you through a different lens. For example, if you’re interviewing at a tech company for a project management role, your panel might include the department manager (your potential direct supervisor), an HR manager, and team leads from the engineering and marketing departments, whose teams you’d work with on a daily basis.
Because your interviewers come from different backgrounds and roles, each one will consider your resume and responses differently. The department manager might be most interested in your project management background, while the engineering supervisor probably wants to hear about your technical experience.
So, to prepare best for this type of interview, find out who your interviewers are in advance. Simply ask your company contact (whoever you spoke or emailed with to arrange the interview), “Can you tell me a little bit about the panel I’ll be meeting with?” More than likely, she’ll at least be able to give you their names.
If not, start brushing up on your memorization skills. On the day of the interview, your initial introductions with the panel will be vital—you’ll need to recall (and use) each interviewer’s name and role throughout the meeting. In fact, you may find that writing down this information is easier than committing it to memory. Taking notes is generally acceptable in an interview—just ask your interviewers, “Is it OK if I jot a few notes down?” first.
Engage the Group With Your Responses
Once you have a solid understanding of who’s in the room, you can build rapport by connecting with the interviewers, both as individuals and as a group.
To do this, answer each question directly, but then elaborate further by adding points to address the perspectives of the other interviewers. For example, one interviewer may ask you about how you effectively manage a team—but you know the managers from other departments are more interested in how you would engage their teams and work interdepartmentally. So, you could respond with, “Holding weekly team meetings are a must, so that everyone has clear priorities and expectations. I also apply this when I’m working with different departments, by scheduling standing meetings with those teams. This really enhances our communication.”
By taking a role-specific question and molding it to apply to each person on the panel, you’ve strengthened your rapport with the entire group—instead of just the question-asker.
Mind Your Body Language
As you’re speaking, be aware of how you’re communicating with your body language, too. You may be tempted to focus your attention solely on the interviewer who holds the most senior position, asks the most questions, or has the most say in the ultimate hiring decision, but it’s important to make a connection with each representative.
When responding, direct your initial answer to the person who asked the question, but as you continue to elaborate and provide examples, address the other interviewers. And don’t just make eye contact—shift your shoulders so that you’re squarely facing each individual. Even if they look down to take notes, continue to move your gaze from interviewer to interviewer to establish a more conversational atmosphere.
Defend Yourself Against the Rapid Fire Questioning
As you sit on the other side of the table, you may feel like the interviewers are shooting each new question at you faster than you can fully answer the previous one. And, well, they are—hence the name “firing squad interview.” Each interviewer wants to get his or her questions answered, but has to compete with the other panelists for air time.
To succeed in this interview format, you have to control the pace of the conversation. Don’t rush your answers; when asked a question, pause for a second to really consider what you want to say before responding. But make sure you answer briefly and get to the point quickly—in a panel interview, you will probably get asked another question before you’ve fully responded to the last.
If an interviewer cuts you off to ask an unrelated question and you haven’t finished your thought, immediately assess whether what you had left to say is critical for the interviewers to know. If it’s not, then let it go. If it is important information to share, then politely say, “Before I answer your question, I’d like to share a final thought on the last,” and then complete your previous response.
Prepare for Follow-Up Questions
Beyond the fast pace, this type of interview also usually evokes more follow-up questions than usual. Multiple panelists means multiple perspectives—and what satisfies one interviewer’s question may spark additional inquiries from others. To avoid coming up short on content, make sure you’re armed with multiple examples and anecdotes to explain your background and experience.
You can prepare for this by recruiting some friends to host a mock panel interview. Go through some typical interview Q&A;, but encourage your pretend panel to dig into your answers by asking extensive follow-up questions. This will not only improve the quality and depth of your responses, but it’ll also help you get more comfortable with the panel interview format.
It’s never pleasant to think of yourself on the receiving end of a firing squad—even if the ammunition is only interview questions. But by building rapport with your panel of interviewers, you’ll convey that you can confidently handle any situation.
Oh, and even though they put you through the ringer, make sure to express your appreciation by sending each interviewer a personalized thank-you note. Then, breathe a sigh of relief—you survived!
Photo of interview courtesy of Shutterstock.
Nicole Lindsay is a career development expert and working on her first book about women and business school. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, who is the coolest guy in the world, and loves traveling to new places on planes, trains and automobiles. Connect with her at www.DiversityMBAPrep.com.More from this Author