Candidates need help to take control of job interviews, says Jane Oakshott
It is a paradox that the most employable students are often those most fazed by interviews. Being conscientious and self-critical, such students foresee multiple possibilities for tripping up and, once in the hot seat, seem barely capable of connected thought.
Much has been written on interview technique - the right questions to ask, how to direct the interview, how to negotiate successfully for the top salary. Such strategies are excellent for those established on the career ladder. But they are counsels of unattainable perfection for the average final-year student approaching a first interview with little work experience and a paralysing awareness of competition.
Interview training must begin by suggesting areas in which a candidate can take control. Planning is crucial (see box right). Skills, knowledge and qualifications can be assessed from the CV. The purpose of interviewing is to complete the picture, to find out, quite literally, whose face fits.
The point of the interview is personal communication. The candidate's task is straightforward: to make sure that nothing interrupts or obscures his or her communication with the interviewer.
It is no good giving the right answers if the interviewers cannot hear what you say. Fully focused communication ensures the best possible exposure for the candidate's qualifications and is a clearly defined aim within the sphere of control of the most inexperienced or nervous candidate.
But how to achieve it? Two main signals - visual and aural - are involved. Emotion tends to be communicated visually, while the voice communicates the facts. Visual signals have most impact, hence the vital importance of the first impression.
Eye contact is the strongest of all visual signals. The candidate who looks directly and often at the interviewer is remembered more positively than one who does not.
Advice to students
* Look carefully at the person asking a question to make sure you understood
* As you answer, keep your gaze moving along the panel
If one person seems worried, bored or irritated, look more at him or her during that answer
Nerves can make even the best qualified and brightest students perform badly
* If you find eye contact difficult, look at the bridge of the nose - it is less embarrassing and has the same effect.
Aural clues work in both directions. It is almost more important to listen carefully than to talk because of the nuances of tone that put a spin on the simplest words. In English, the meaning of words is carried in the consonants. It is vital to pronounce all consonants clearly, especially at the beginning and ends of words. Unfortunately, nerves can badly affect clarity of speech by tensing the tongue and jaw: simple exercises such as lip stretches and raspberry blowing can help.
Advice to students
* Speak at a slightly slower rate than normal to avoid tripping on or swallowing words
* Use lips and tongue firmly to ensure consonants
* If you are asked to repeat something, go from the beginning. They have usually caught the last bit.
In practice, such as in answering a difficult question, all the visual and aural signals should work together.
Advice to students
* Take your time with difficult questions - but do not go blank
* Have some useful delaying phrases up your sleeve, such as "That's difficult to answer briefly" or the all-purpose "It depends what you mean by"
* When you have given a respectable full answer (never just "yes" or "no" on its own), ask if they would like more detail on any aspect of the answer.
The end of the interview is almost as important as the beginning. A hangdog expression will not retrieve a bad interview, but a cheerful exit will leave a positive impression.
Advice to students
* No matter how you feel, keep your back straight and head up
* Thank them with a big smile
* Leave with minimum fuss.
Interviews are as individual as the people involved and there can be no blueprint for a perfect performance. Getting the basic communication skills right allows individual personality to make an impact. As in learning to drive, the mechanical skills have to come first: confidence and style can then follow with practice.
Don't sweat an interview
* Remember that an invitation to interview is fair proof of your being a serious contender
* Find out all you can about the company, particularly areas of concern, competitors' work or recent policy decisions
* Review your CV in relation to the demands of the job
* Think of yourself positively - if you are bad at routine, think of yourself as flexible; if you can't stand computers, perhaps you're people-orientated
* Try it from the other side of the desk. Interview three friends for an imaginary job. Which of the candidates stands out as the worst? Which was the best and why?
* Make travel arrangements well in advance, allowing plenty of time for delays
* Set out clothes, documentation, and journey entertainment the night before
* Arrange something in the area to look forward to after the interview - visit a friend or a special shop so the interview becomes part of a good day.
Look the part
* Dress simply in two colours (clutter free for best impact)
* Wear one memorable item (such as an unusual tie or scarf)
* Well-ironed shirt, clean nails, polished shoes
* Shiny hair, kept back from face so as not to come between you and the interviewer
* No jangling or dangling jewellery to distract interviewer
* Stand tall with head up
* Keep your back straight to maximise breathing capacity. This gives impression of health, alertness and confidence
* Stand a moment in the doorway and take in the scene
* Smile at the interviewers as you take in a good breath
* When seated, angle your chair so you can see everyone
* Keep upright posture throughout the interview. As 80 per cent of people over 25 are slightly deaf, most interviewers will, perhaps unconsciously, prefer candidates who make it easy for them to lip read
* Illustratory gestures are fine, but avoid empty fiddling. Jane Oakshott is a voice and performance coach who owns and runs Presentation Plus. She also teaches a module at the University of Leeds on BA broadcast journalism.
'IF I HEAR "THANK YOU, IT WAS VERY CLOSE BUT..." AGAIN'
Katie Gardiner graduated from Trinity and All Saints College, University of Leeds in 1999 with a 2:2 BA honours in history.
"Now that I have a job, I can say that if I hear the phrase 'Thank you, it was very close but...' one more time I would scream so loudly they would hear me on the set of Neighbours.
"Having experienced several interviews and being told the same thing on each occasion, I did not know where I was going wrong. I had listened to the lecturers and guest speakers at college who told us how to dress and to present ourselves, and after my first interview I also took on board the feedback I was given.
"Although I felt demoralised at each subsequent interview, I had to treat it as the first and present a persona of confidence.
"As it turns out, the interview that got me the job was the most unusual; not the standard panel of teachers and governors.
"I was given a day to prove myself by going into the classroom and teaching. This is a much better way of seeing what I was really like because I was not placed in the false environment created by an interview where you spend most of the time trying to give the answers you think the interviewer wants to hear."
Emma Burge graduated from Trinity and All Saints College, University of Leeds in 1999 with a 2:1 BA honours in
media and management.
"A career in the media is not easy to come by, so I started looking early in my final university year.
"In November, I received a list of advertising and public relations companies that were recruiting graduates and began to work through the list.
"I was asked for several interviews and trekked to London and Manchester in between furiously finishing essays and cramming notes.
"The job I really wanted was at a large advertising agency in London.
"As soon as I left the Tube station and saw the huge, shiny office block in front of me, I felt intimidated. The reception area was a huge, cavernous room with a tiny desk in the middle.
"It got worse when I walked from the lift onto the 13th floor, where my interview was to be held. It was a large open space with views across London and a coffee bar, which was reached by crossing a bridge over a trickling stream. The woman who greeted me took details and asked where else I had been offered interviews. After saying I still had several large agencies to hear from (I panicked) she expressed surprise as most of the other worthwhile agencies had started interviewing.
"A man and a woman conducted the interview. Both were very easy-
going, and I started to relax slightly. But then the conversation turned to matters of advertising. This was something I should have expected in an interview for an advertising account executive, but for some reason I had not prepared for the grilling I received.
"Needless to say, I did not get invited back for a second interview. I had learnt about the company's background, but this was less important to them than my opinions on various television and magazine advertisements.
"In retrospect, I can see that I was too nervous and intimidated to give my opinion, I was second-guessing what they wanted to hear. And my vocabulary had disintegrated to the point where there was no hope of me explaining how I felt about anything of any importance.
"After this disaster and several other similar experiences, I am happy to say that I am now working for a public relations consultancy in Harrogate."
James Yates graduated from Trinity and All Saints College, University of Leeds in June 1999 with a 2:1 BA honours in management with French.
"Feeling nervous at an interview is only natural and is, to a certain extent, healthy. The most important thing pointed out to me, however, was the fact that they want you, and you are the one offering a lifetime of loyal service and dedication (well potentially anyway).
"What I am trying to say is that confidence is essential. If you cannot sell yourself, what chance will you have of selling anything else?
"Employers need to know that you will be able to react well in stressful and difficult situations, so the interview is an ideal situation to demonstrate this.
"When I sat my interview, I was fortunate enough to be in the position where I had another offer on the table. This gave me an awful lot of confidence, and I had the security of the other offer in the back of my mind. I was therefore more self-assured than I would have been otherwise.
"After getting the job, I discovered that it had been very close between me and another candidate. The fact that I had seemed so confident gave me the edge over someone who was probably better qualified."