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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

The Secret to a Really Good Interview Is Simply Knowing When to Shut Your Mouth

One of the first things I learned as a recruiter caught me by surprise: Interviews are just as uncomfortable for a hiring manager as they are for a candidate.

The first question of any interview—the tricky “tell me more about how you got to where you are today” question—is an obvious icebreaker. Especially for the person asking the questions. A majority of candidates have well-rehearsed responses, which I usually welcomed, especially if he or she brought something up that I hadn’t planned on asking about, but was worth discussing in more depth. However, some of the most manicured responses to this question had one major flaw:

They were way too long.

When it became clear that certain candidates could’ve talked about themselves for 25 minutes out of a 30-minute phone screen, I often had to interrupt and politely (I hope) redirect the conversation back to the rest of the questions I wanted to ask. Not only was this uncomfortable, it gave me the impression that candidates were simply trying to “win” the conversation by selling themselves, which didn’t necessarily make me rule them out for the role, but it wasn’t a great look.

Of course, you want to do everything you can to make a hiring manager feel that you are the choice for the position. However, as the old adage goes, sometimes less is more. Way more.

For those of you who could talk for days on end (I’m one of them), here is what you should keep in mind when figuring out how long you should take to answer each question.

How Long the Hiring Manager Set Aside for the Interview

Most people I know are very specific when scheduling, especially initial phone screens. We understand that a candidate’s time is just as valuable as our own, so there’s no use in beating around the bush. If the first conversation should only take 30 minutes, a good talent department will make that clear early in the scheduling process.

Once you’re told how long it should take, you should also understand that not all 30 minutes are reserved for you to only answer the “how did you get here” question.

As a job seeker, I used to think that an interview that went over the allotted time was always an indication that the recruiter really liked me. Like, they really, really liked me. When I became a recruiter, I learned just how annoying it could be when a conversation went 10 to 15 minutes over what I had originally planned. Here are the logistics of what usually happened when a candidate spent too much time answering the first question:

  1. I started to tune out after a certain point in order to begin plotting how I could interrupt.
  2. I judged the (long) answer and decided that maybe I didn’t have any other questions—and not in a good way.
  3. I crossed my fingers that the answer to “Do you have any more questions?” would be “Nope.”
  4. I was late to my next meeting and suddenly not in a great mood.

Hiring managers aren’t looking for candidates who read their responses off a script (quite the opposite, actually). However, be mindful of the time. Although recruiters prefer having more natural conversations with candidates than formal interviews, they do need to get to know about your qualifications.

Which leads me to…

How Many Qualifications You’ve Gotten to Show Off

Early on in my career (before it was even my job), I was impressed by anyone who found a way to be friendly and energetic during an interview. When I became a recruiter, I fell victim to this even further, often letting myself be wooed by candidates who seemed genuinely excited just to be talking to me.

The problem? I had no evidence that showed these candidates could actually do the job.

Of course, people are going to gravitate toward candidates who make it clear they’re pumped to be in the room. However, they also need to know that if you come aboard, you’ll be a valuable part of the team. It’s impossible to learn anything to support that by spending an hour talking about how you planned your wedding (I’m guilty as charged), so the people who make The Decision need to ask you specific questions about what you’ve accomplished. And then there will be follow-up questions based on your responses. And then more follow-up questions. And, well, you get the idea.

It’s important for all people in charge of The Decision to ensure all hires will fit in and add to the overall chemistry of the team they would be joining. However, if an interview were solely a personality contest, most of us would be enrolling in acting classes ASAP. Hiring managers have an enormous amount of pressure to identify the right people for the roles they’re trying to fill. If they make a mistake, not only is it a huge bummer, it is expensive.

I’d be remiss if I told you not to be yourself. It would be ridiculous if I suggested that you self-edit to the point where you become a shell of the person you actually are. However, remember that after you leave, a hiring manager will have to present evidence that you are (or are not) the right person for the job, so leave room for him to ask questions that will allow him to do it.

Interviews are not easy for anyone, so it’s understandable when you go off the rails a bit with your answers. However, a little bit of consideration for the people interviewing you (and their calendars, peace of mind, and overall well-being) can go a long way, especially when you leave room to actually prove you’re the right person for the job. Stay your energetic self, but give hiring managers more than just your preferred ice cream or baseball team to make a decision from.

Photo of whisper courtesy of Shutterstock.