Opinion: Preparation is key to a successful job interview

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6 tactics for responding to questions effectively

You’re midway through an interview for a promotion you really want, and it’s all going well. But suddenly, the interviewer asks you a question that you can’t answer. Your heart sinks, and you start talking without knowing how you’re going to finish the sentence. You don’t need to see the interviewer’s face to know that you’re handling this question badly.

The way you respond to questions in an interview can make or break your chances of getting a promotion or a new job. It’s common for interviewers to ask difficult questions. They’re not doing this to trip you up; they just want to see how well you perform under pressure and whether you can think on your feet. The more you prepare, the less nervous you’ll be and the more confident you’ll feel and sound.

Follow these six steps to handle interview questions effectively.

1. Gather information
First, gather information about the role. This can help you to predict the questions you may face during the interview, especially ones about your strengths and weaknesses, and past failures and successes.

Preparation helps you reflect on meaningful workplace experiences, and the accomplishments and stories that will showcase your strengths and skills.

Take time to read the job description carefully, and if possible, speak to people who work in the department or team that you’re being interviewed for. Brainstorm questions that interviewers might ask, based on what you find. For example: what knowledge, skills or experiences do you need? What abilities have you developed in your current role that will help you? How will your understanding of the organization benefit your new team? What problems will you be expected to solve? Who will report to you?

2. Research yourself
What is your reputation within the organization, or in the industry? What would your team members and boss say about you? Do you spend time with colleagues outside of work, or do people think you’re unsociable?

Even if you have a great reputation at work, do you know what would come up if an interviewer searched for your name online? Are there any pictures, comments, profiles or associations that could damage your professional image?

By researching yourself, you can find out what your interviewer will see, and you’ll be less likely to be surprised by a question you didn’t expect. It also gives you the chance to remove or prepare thoughtful responses to, any photos, tweets, blog posts or comments that are questionable or negative.

3. Think about your strengths and weaknesses
The interviewer will likely ask you to talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of these in advance, so that you can provide a quick, honest answer that puts you in a good light. Be honest when you talk about your weaknesses, but keep your comments short and positive. Focus on one that you’ve been working on, and provide examples of your progress, such as, “My biggest weakness used to be my communication skills. I’ve been improving these through self-study and practice, and I now touch base with every team member first thing in the morning to share project updates in person.”

When you talk about your strengths, concentrate on the ones that you’ll use most in this role, and frame your response to illustrate how specific strengths enable you to meet the organization’s needs.

Also, spend some time thinking about your own career goals and how this position will help you achieve them. Interviewers want to know about your passion and what motivates you, so you need to be able to articulate clearly how this role will help you progress.

4. Identify key competencies
Analyze the job description carefully; this will help you to identify the competencies needed to perform the role effectively. Look at advertisements for other jobs in the same department, as these may also use the same competency framework. For example, will you need to demonstrate accountability, customer focus, industry awareness, good communication skills, teamwork or vision?

Reflect on how you fulfil these in your existing role, and prepare five to seven examples to demonstrate this. Next, practise answering positive and negative competency-based questions. Make sure you can remember them, but avoid memorizing them; otherwise you’ll sound inauthentic.

5. Learn to think on your feet
Many interviewers will put you on the spot to see how well you perform under pressure. They usually do this by asking a tough question, such as, Tell me about your biggest failure as a project manager.

You need to know how to think on your feet so you can respond appropriately. Start by taking a deep breath—this will flood your body with oxygen and help you relax. Then, take a few seconds to think about your response, and don’t start talking until you know what you want to say.

Repeat the question slowly to confirm that you’ve understood it, if you need longer to think, or ask for clarification. You can also request additional time to formulate your response.

6. Practise
Using role-playing is one of the best ways to practise answering interview questions. You can discover how you might react when you’re put on the spot by acting out scenarios with another person. It also helps you to rehearse dealing with stress and thinking on your feet, and it can boost your self-confidence. Practice is essential if you want to feel comfortable, confident and authentic during your interview. But avoid giving scripted answers, which will likely make a poor impression. Practise until you feel confident and prepared, and then stop.

Angela Civitella is a certified business leadership coach and founder of Intinde, based in Montreal, Boston and Florida.