Working in recruitment I can always spot the candidates who have read books on attending interviews. First there is the bone-crushing handshake, followed by constant eye-contact and upright posture.
Most interview advice concentrates on body-language and such which, unless natural, sticks out like a dog's tackle. Advice on punctuality, dress and refraining from passing wind assumes you've got the mentality of a corn-flake - if these aren't obvious, you're unemployable anyway!
When asked how to behave at interview I say "be yourself" - unless you're an actor, projecting a different personality sticks out like the aforesaid dog's appendages. Interview success comes from the 3 Ps - Preparation, Preparation and Preparation, plus the army's 6 Ps, Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.
As a COBOL programmer you may not see yourself as a salesman. There was a time when the mere presence of COBOL on your CV caused people to gasp, kiss your feet (or whatever) and lock the door so that you couldn't escape. In today's market you must present and sell yourself effectively.
What's an interview for? Good question - one of my previous articles for "Freelance Informer" explored this and reached some disturbing conclusions.
Employers can have funny ideas about interviews. Some see them as ego-trips, sitting in judgement on candidates and having the power of life and death over their employment prospects. I suspect that some employers interview just for the entertainment value, without any serious intention of recruiting.
Some interviewers like to pressurise candidates to see how they react. They ask provocative questions but would take umbrage if you replied in the same vein. Some are drafted in at the last moment. They don't really know what they're doing, but they're available to sift out unsuitable candidates. Others want to prove that they know more than you, or that their computer system's better than your computer system.
Interviews have two purposes; a) to determine whether the candidate has the necessary skills and attributes for the position and, b) to "sell" the job and the employer to the candidate. The latter is forgotten by most employers.
A candidate may be interviewed by a skilled professional, a complete novice or some idiot on an ego-trip. One must be ready for any of these.
By the time an interview is arranged, your specific qualifications are generally assumed to be appropriate. The interview is an assessment of your personality.
If your interviewer is a complete novice, he will probably be as nervous as you are and, if neither of you have anything to say, he will be unable to assess your personality. If your interviewer is "Mr Macho Man", a structured presentation will reduce his opportunities to score points.
If it's "Mr Technoprat", the structured presentation will concentrate his mind on the essentials - though you should always be prepared to answer technical questions in a technical job interview.
Assume that the interviewer is totally inexperienced and knows nothing about computers. Your mission, if you accept, is to give a 10-15 minute presentation on your background - this CV will self-destruct in 10 seconds!
Unlike most CVs (which progress in reverse chronological order) you should start at the beginning, progressing to the end. Like a book or a speech, an interview should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Start by summarising your career, e.g. "I have 10 years experience in IT, including 5 years as an Oracle consultant". Briefly cover any work you did before IT, if relevant. Cover your whole IT career but concentrate on your recent work.
Don't use jargon or technical terms unless you've explained them or you're sure that the interviewer understands them. Say why you moved on from each job - the question will be asked, so get in first.
Be prepared to explain particular aspects of your experience - the better-prepared your presentation, the less likely this is to happen. Be prepared to answer technical questions. If relevant, state why you're leaving your current job. Make clear what you'd now like to do and why this job interests you. For permanent jobs give a clear indication of your salary requirements.
When the interviewer asks "have you any questions?" remember that no questions means no interest. State clearly if you're interested in the job. Employers don't like being rejected any more than candidates and are unlikely to make an offer unless they think you'll accept. Make a sales presentation - not a speech, be conversational and be yourself.
If an interviewer asks you about your experience, answer politely. Don't say things like "that was a long time ago" or "that's irrelevant to this job". If asked why you want to change jobs, don't say things like "I'm not really looking for a job". If true, why are you wasting your time and theirs?
Don't argue with the interviewer - even if you win, you'll lose! Don't ask for expenses at interview - these should be discussed in advance.
If the interviewer asks about other jobs you are considering, don't flatter, saying "I'm only interested in this job", likewise don't try pressurise the interviewer, saying how much you're in demand.
Have a polite answer ready for following old chestnuts:
i) "What makes you think you're good enough to work here?"
ii) "Where do you see yourself in five years' time?"
iii) "What is your greatest achievement?"
iv) "What is your greatest weakness?"
I've always believed that it's near-fatal to admit to any weakness in a job-seeking context. You could side-step the issue and say something like "chocolate" - you'll frequently find yourself with fellow-weaklings - but be careful of admitting to any weakness that might be viewed as a vice.
Interview success comes with practice and attendance is the best way to improve. A good way of developing your general presentation skills is to join Toastmasters International, a non-profit organisation dedicated to public speaking and developing communication and leadership skills.
Toastmasters provides continuous training in all aspects of prepared speaking including structure, body-language and vocal variety.
Contact Toastmasters on 020 7494 1105 quoting the reference "The BITS Web Site".
© Brian Smith 1996
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