Shine A Spotlight In Your Next Job Interview

Photo of a spotlight beam cutting through a dark background.
Spotlight by Blondinrikard Fröberg on Flickr under Creative Commons by/2.0

As a job candidate, it’s up to you to shine the spotlight on the skills and experiences you’ve had that are relevant to the job or company you are interviewing for.

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It is not enough to have a dozen well-rehearsed stories that illustrate examples in response to the interview questions you anticipate. Invariably, you will get asked a question that you haven’t prepared for. In a few seconds you will have to decide which story fits the question best and start your answer. The danger is that you will tell the story as you’ve prepared it without tailoring it to your audience or the exact question. Interviewers remember when a response doesn’t answer their question. But they don’t remember that you took an extra few seconds before starting your response.

Focus on what your audience wants to hear

The AIM framework from Lynn Russell and Mary Munter is a great tool to employ when preparing any communication, including job interview responses. The acronym stands for Audience, Intent, Message. The audience is the person or people receiving the communication. The intent is both your intent: what you want to happen, and the intent you want to create in your audience. The message is both the delivery mechanism and the content.

When preparing for any interview, take the time to really think about your audience. Are you speaking with the recruiter, or the hiring manager? These are two different audiences, and your intent will be different. For the recruiter, your intent is to communicate that you are a strong candidate with relevant skills; you want to advance to the next round of interviews. The recruiter needs to believe that you are the right choice for the role she is trying to fill. For the hiring manager, your intent is to communicate that you have the relevant skills, right fit with the team, and ability to do the job; in this case, you want to get the offer. The hiring manager needs to believe that you are capable of doing the job, fitting in with the team, and growing to be a valuable asset to the company.

Start with “the end in mind”

Reminding yourself of your intent before preparing, and before your actual performance (the interview) will help you shine the spotlight on the right facets of your experiences and respond appropriately to questions that you did not expect.

This starts with the most common interview question: Tell me about yourself. The interviewer wants to know just the relevant details about what you’ve done that led you to this company and this role at this moment. For example, the fact that you used to build Contact Relationship Management systems for nonprofit organizations may have nothing to do with the work you do today. Your ability to analyze voter data and cut turf for political canvassers? Irrelevant. Scrum Master and Scrum Product Owner certifications? Who cares. But throughout your career, maybe you’ve always been committed to helping the people around you and your clients communicate more effectively. BINGO. I might be talking about myself here…

When answering behavioral interview questions (“Tell me about a time when…”) don’t get sucked into the trap of sharing a very procedural (and generic) explanation of the situation, and what you did filled with every detail you can think of.  Think about your intent: why are you telling this story? What does it demonstrate about how you think and work? What skill or competency does it demonstrate that is relevant to the role or company you are interviewing for?

It’s all about structure and focus

And remember that the human you are talking to is hardwired to look for structure. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. Gustav Freytag mapped out the classic narrative arch: Introduction, Initial incident, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution, Denouement over 160 years ago. People retain structured information 40% more reliably and accurately than information that is not structured.

When you are answering a question, make sure that the content fits into a structure and is relevant to the audience and the question. There are many interview answer structures or frameworks: STAR is the most common: Situation, Task, Action, Result. But I like CAR: Context (or Challenge), Action, Result. These are not the only two that are out there: sometimes you want to add a learning or a take-away (CARL or CART) at the end, or a summary at the beginning (SCAR).

Consider the level of detail, language and analogies that may be relevant to your audience. For example: if you are interviewing for a data analytics role, you might focus on the part of the story where you extracted insights from data. If you are interviewing for a role that focuses on interaction with customers and clients, you might focus on that part of the story where you determined what your client (internal or external) really wanted to know from the data and how you delivered the insights on-time. If you are interviewing for a role that requires cross functional collaboration, you might focus on how you worked with multiple teams to pull together the dataset you needed.

Think of these as different facets of a multi sided die. The die is the experience or story, but depending on what question you are asked and what role you are interviewing for, you will expose different facets.

That’s how you can shine the spotlight on the parts of your experience that are most relevant to your audience and, ultimately, land the job!