I recently wrote about a formula for responding to interview questions in a compelling way. Preparing specific anecdotes helps you illustrate why you’re a great fit and lessens the chance that you will draw a blank when searching your memory for a relevant story. Some people prefer not to prepare because they are concerned they will sound overly polished. I understand this concern. We’ve all had the experience of talking to someone who feels too rehearsed. They are attached to the way they planned to communicate and their body language and speech don’t seem natural. It feels difficult to connect to them as a person and as a result, you subconsciously distrust what they’re saying. That’s why the most powerful interviews are a balance between preparation and presence. You can think of presence as the quality that gives life to the stories you have prepared. Another way to visualize this is to imagine the preparation - your structure - as the riverbank and your presence as the flow that shares your stories and connects you to the interviewer.
So what is presence? This quality is discussed a lot but can be difficult to define. We certainly recognize when it’s absent. Many of us have had the experience of driving for several miles while lost in thought without remembering any part of the drive. I like to think of presence as focusing with kind curiosity on the experience of this moment. When you are present, you notice what is unfolding and make choices about how to respond instead of reacting from habit. You may experience it as flow during an activity that you are deeply engrossed in. You may recognize it as delight in some information from your senses, like the taste of delicious food or touching a texture that soothes you. The movement from distraction to presence and back again is the dance between forgetting and remembering. The practices that help bring you back to presence during an interview include every part of your experience.
Presence is Embodied - Sit with Intention
Whether you are walking into a room or interviewing remotely, taking an extra 30 seconds to make choices about how you sit can make the difference between feeling supported and feeling groundless. When your feet rest on the floor and the weight of your hips is evenly supported by the chair, your posture will feel more confident. Imagine that relaxing into that support is like a plant sending down its roots. Grounding through the base of your body allows more expansion in your chest and throat, allowing your breath and words to flow freely.
You can try a little mini-experiment right now. Sit in an uncomfortable position. Let your legs dangle above the ground or lean on one arm of a chair with the opposite hip lifted. Now say out loud why you are the best candidate for an imaginary role. For a different experience, stand up, stretch and sit down again with intention. Take three deep breaths. From a supported posture, notice how expansive you can make your body feel before talking about your excellent qualifications as a candidate. Does this feel different?
Presence is Emotional - Include All Your Feelings
Many of us believe that only some of our emotions are acceptable at work. I’m not an advocate for dropping to the floor and having a full-on tantrum in the middle of a difficult presentation (although, I have been tempted.) That said, when we don’t find an outlet for those emotions at a more appropriate time, we often experience consequences with our health. Plus, when we override the emotional cues we receive during an interview, we ignore a vital part of our intelligence. Giving yourself permission to feel a wide range of emotions helps you access more information in the present moment. Let’s imagine that you feel a sudden rush of anger after the interviewer asks you a question. It could be that you feel triggered because you have a pattern of interpreting some questions as personal attacks. Just take a deep breath and notice, “This is a reaction I have had before and it’s more about me than this person.” Or it could be that your emotional response is a message from your intuition that this role is a bad fit for you. “I feel angry when this hiring manager says he doesn’t like to waste time teaching people things they should already know. I don’t think we would work well together.” Witness and stay curious with all of your emotions.
It’s also okay to feel nervous during an interview. If you’re concerned that the interviewer notices your nerves (although it’s more likely that they don’t), name your experience out loud. “I’m feeling nervous because I’m so excited about this opportunity. I have been looking for a role like this for some time.” Almost everyone can relate to this experience. Your vulnerability will create trust and avoid possible misinterpretation of your body language.
Presence is Responsive - Integrate New Information
One of the powerful benefits of staying present during an interview is that it allows you to process new information that may contradict your assumptions about the role. If the interviewer describes a key objective of the position that doesn’t match the job description, ask for clarification. If you believe that you are under-qualified for the role, listen for cues about why you were chosen for an interview and what perspective or experience might distinguish you from other applicants. Even better, ask directly. Being able to respond to the natural flow of the conversation demonstrates your flexibility and may create new opportunities to learn about the organization or the person across from you.
Above all, the interviewer wants you to be yourself and you can’t do this when you are “performing” as the ideal candidate. If you show up as yourself and use practices to stay engaged in the present moment, the stories you prepared will flow naturally.