October 31, 2010
How to answer an interview question succinctly
Forget vampires, zombies, and ballot initiatives you don't agree with. You know what's really scary? Realizing during a job interview that you've been talking for umpteen minutes and you have no idea what you've said, let alone what the question was.
[Flickr photo by solyanka]
Like many job applicants before me, I found myself in this position several weeks ago when interviewing for a long-term freelance contract. For tips on how to defeat the long-winded beast at my next meeting with this potential client, I tapped several recruiters, hiring managers, and interviewing coaches for advice. Following are their best suggestions for speaking succinctly during an interview -- and recovering elegantly if you realize mid-answer that you've lost your way.
Anticipate open-ended questions. Interviewers love to kick off with "So tell me about yourself..." or "So tell me why should I hire you..." Some will even admit to not having read your resume and request to be brought up to speed on the last 10 to 20 years of your professional life. Preparing for this inevitability is half the battle.
Learn to love bullet points. To deliver a homerun response to such open-ended questions, Rahul Yohd, an executive recruiter with Dallas firm Link Legal Search Group, recommends coming up with four to six bullet points ahead of time to summarize the professional experience you have that best fits the needs of the position for which you're interviewing.
Practice, whittle down, then practice some more. It's of course not enough to jot down the four to six reasons a potential employer should hire you. Rehearsing your answer aloud until you can deliver it succinctly yet conversationally is also a must, Yohd says. "Expand on each bullet point with details," he explains, "and finally refine it to where the answer takes no longer than 60 to 90 seconds to deliver."
Be quiet. When we're nervous, it's natural to feel compelled to talk and talk and then talk some more. This is a mistake, says Lisa McDonald of Career Polish, Inc., a job search consulting firm based in Fishers, Ind. Instead, she advises, "Answer the question, then be quiet. Don't talk yourself into a hole."
Stop, breathe, and regroup if you must. If despite your best efforts, you still catch yourself rambling mid-answer, don't get flustered. Instead, McDonald says, stop talking, flash your pearly whites, and apologize. In your most upbeat tone, tell the interviewer you're not sure how you wandered so far off topic. Then say "Let me get back to your question," and immediately do so. "The more you can make light of it and make them feel more at ease," McDonald says, "the more they will let it go."
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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