A Formula for Persuasive Interview Answers

I was hugely pregnant.  With only two weeks until my due date with my first child, I was engrossed in the dance between “Is she coming today? I’m so ready to meet her!” and feeling nervous about going into labor.  So, it was surreal to find myself interviewing for a role as a manager over the phone … and enjoying it.  

Let me paint the picture.  Imagine me sitting with my feet propped up on a chair next to my dining room table.  I wore fuzzy pajama pants and an oversized t-shirt from a work event that couldn't quite cover my belly.  No makeup.  Hair in a messy bun. And over the course of several interviews, I had some of the most satisfying discussions I have ever had about my career and ambitions.  Instead of worrying about how I might be judged or evaluated, I told stories about what kind of leader I was and the types of challenges I looked forward to.  This was a massive shift in attitude for me and I attribute it to three things:

  1. Being days away from meeting my daughter and becoming a parent.

  2. My assumption (strengthened by a hint from the hiring manager) that someone else was the preferred candidate for the role. This position was interesting to me and I was equally interested in the role that might open up if the other candidate was selected. This took a lot of the pressure off.

  3. A recent insight about interviews that helped me shift my attention away from my anxiety and toward creating a particular experience for the interviewer.

Interviewing others radically shifted my experience of being interviewed.  When I was the one asking candidates questions, I wanted two things: 1) for the applicants to feel they shined and 2) to have a clear recommendation about whom to hire.  As an interviewee, when I put myself in the shoes of the interviewer, it helped me quiet my nerves and focus on a clear goal:

I will answer these questions so clearly and authentically that I will make the choice easy for the person across from me.  The only way they will discover how capable I am is if I claim my expertise as the protagonist in the adventure of my career. 

The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey storyline (most often associated with Joseph Campbell's work), describes the stages wherein a mythical protagonist lives through an adventure that transforms them.  Some popular examples of this narrative structure are Star Wars, Homer’s Odyssey, The Matrix, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the first Harry Potter book.  In a simplified form, this framework can be a very effective formula for answering situational leadership questions during an interview.  “Tell me about a time when you … “  (See the infographic below)  

One of the reasons I find this framework so powerful is that it emphasizes two opportunities to influence the interviewer that are often forgotten: taking personal ownership of your accomplishments and demonstrating your fit for future roles.

Claiming Your Accomplishments

Many leaders feel uncomfortable bragging.  Women, in particular, are encouraged to emphasize the support of their team or mentors because collaborative leadership is regarded as a feminine strategy.  In interviews, when a candidate only describes the collective effort, they can be perceived as lacking confidence in their contribution or, even worse, not having contributed anything significant (in the context of my culture). 

So how can you highlight your specific actions and still demonstrate how you work with others to accomplish goals?  Pay attention to “we” and “I”.  When you are introducing the problem in the story and concluding with how your experience benefited the organization, those are great times to use “we”.  When you are talking about your specific actions and strategies, that is the time to focus on “I”.  Your development is a highly personal experience and interviewers are looking for leaders who have the self-awareness to understand how they contribute best and what they can learn from their experiences.

Demonstrate Your Fit for Future Roles

One of the biggest missed opportunities I witness when interviewing others is forgetting to connect past experience to future performance.  When someone tells me about a project that appeared to be challenging, glosses over the details, and concludes with “we were successful”, I have learned nothing about how they will approach their next challenge.  In fact, I often learn more about a candidate when they share a perceived failure and reflect how they would approach a similar problem differently.  If you are trying to make the selection process easy for the interviewer, with you as the obvious first pick, keep in mind that every question is probing for predictors of your future success.  How will you fit in their role?

Example of Hero's Journey in an Interview Response

As an example, if I were to describe my pregnant interview experience, I would mention the following points:

Context: I interviewed for a manager role. 

The Opportunity:  If I was selected, the role would be a promotion for me that aligned with my development goals.  A candidate with more management experience and subject expertise also interviewed for the position.  My goals were to: 1) authentically share my enthusiasm and aptitude for this role, 2) experience less stress during the interviews, and 3) (stretch goal) be selected.

Challenges:  I held a lot of limiting beliefs about this experience.  I believed the other candidate would get the role no matter how well I interviewed.  I believed that the anxiety I often experienced during interviews would prevent me from connecting with people on the panel.  To feel less nervous, I tried making myself comfortable in my environment and focused on how I could make the experience engaging and informative for the interviewers.

Outcome:  I got the role!  That position offered me invaluable experience during a period where I learned a lot about myself as a leader.

Sharing Wisdom:  I practiced different strategies to bring a calm authenticity to future interviews that resulted in roles with more responsibility and impact.  I continue to share these interview tips with colleagues and coaching clients. 

Next Role:  I support clients who want to strengthen their interview skills and experience less anxiety when they talk about themselves with hiring managers.  When I have conversations with potential clients (similar, in some ways, to interviews), I remind myself that being clear about who I am makes the choice about whether to work with me easier for the other person.  My transparency and vulnerability are strengths in this work and I share them when introducing myself to someone new.