Preparing for an interview is like creating and performing in a play. You need to write your script, rehearse (including a dress rehearsal), and on opening night, perform your piece to an audience of critics. Since acting doesn’t come naturally to most people, appearing authentic during the interview performance takes thought and proper preparation.
Preparing the Script
I taught public speaking for 20 years and one constant challenge I faced was convincing students to not write their speech out word for word or memorize it, as those are ways to guarantee disaster. In an interview there can be problems with choosing either approach. First, you can’t script an interview since you can’t predict the exact questions you may be asked. If you try to stick too closely to a script, you’ll end up either contorting your message to fit the question asked or you’ll be answering questions that weren’t really asked. Also, if you are too scripted you’ll sound unnatural. I recently did a mock interview with a Ph.D. candidate and it was obvious from both his nonverbal and verbal cues that he was trying to remember exactly what he had written. I could see him concentrating while looking up toward the ceiling; his voice was monotone and his delivery was choppy as he tried to recall what to say next, and when he couldn’t remember the next line he just stopped.
There are a few things you can do to effectively prepare your script. Interviewers expect you to give concrete, specific examples to back up your responses. A common formula they expect you to follow when answering behavioral questions is called STAR (situation, task, action, results). To use STAR, write out five stories that explain a situation you were in, the task you had to perform, the action you took to complete the task, and the results. Then mine those stories for examples of the skills they demonstrate. For example, the story of your process for conceiving of and bringing your dissertation to completion could illustrate organizational skills, leadership, conflict management, project management, teamwork or other skills you might be asked to talk about. If you have five stories you can use them interchangeably to answer any number of questions. Remember, when you write these stories, write like you speak and not like you write. Use sentence fragments, fewer words. Concentrate on the big picture items and gloss over the details for now. If you write out too much and try to memorize you’ll sound canned when you perform. A good interview script is like a basic plot outline. It should include key phrases, specific examples and three to five specific things about you and your background that you want to be sure you stress during the interview.
When you watch good actors, it’s common to forget they are playing a part, and to believe that they are the character. When you are practicing for an interview, your main advantage is that you’re playing yourself. That doesn’t always mean you’ll be believable in the role. So how do you effectively rehearse? First, always practice out loud. A mistake many make is to practice silently and it isn’t the same. Practicing out loud will help you identify words or phrases you may want to change. All of us have some words we find difficult to pronounce, which can be a significant challenge if the interview will be conducted in a second language. I was helping an international student prepare and she wanted to say zenith, but couldn’t pronounce it easily, so we searched for a synonym (apex) that was easier for her to say. Additionally, some words don’t flow together well if they sound too similar. And since you will speak out loud during the interview, it is more realistic to practice this way.
While you are practicing, don’t use your script. That should be your starting point to organize your ideas, but don’t let it become a crutch. When I taught public speaking, I covered the same concepts in each class; but when I delivered them, the words I used were never the same twice. I focused on the big picture items and let the details come to me as I presented the material. Don’t become obsessed with making sure you “say it right,” and you will sound more natural and authentic.
In addition to preparing and practicing the verbal elements of your performance, don’t forget the nonverbal. Good eye contact, good posture and proper gestures are essential to an effective performance. If your eye contact is off, the interviewer will make negative assessments about your honesty, preparedness and confidence. The same is true if you have bad posture. Sit towards the front of the chair with both feet on the floor with your hands softly placed in your lap, and when speaking lean slightly toward the interviewer. If you are at a table put your hands on the table so you can gesture more easily. The biggest mistake a lot of interviewees make is not using any gestures. Gesturing is one way your body releases nervous tension and it also makes you appear more natural and comfortable. Be sure to gesture while you practice so when you perform you will feel at ease.
Once you feel confident you have rehearsed enough by yourself, the next step is to rehearse in front of a live audience. If you haven’t yet graduated, go to your Career Center and arrange a mock interview. If you are out of school, find a close friend to help you. You might even want to do two dress rehearsals, a dry run without being video recorded and then a second one that is. Watching yourself is an excellent learning tool. Not only can you evaluate your content since you will hear it differently than you do while you are talking, but you can be more objective in analyzing your nonverbal presence. As you watch yourself, consider the message you send. Do you sound and appear confident? Do you smile? Make appropriate facial expressions? Use gestures? Lean in towards the interviewer as you speak? Do you sound assertive? Are you using good posture?
When being recorded, wear what you intend to wear for the actual interview. Does your interview outfit fit well? Does it look appropriate for this interview? Do you feel confident and professional wearing this outfit? In the academic world there is an inverse relationship between appearance and perceived effectiveness. It’s been my experience that the better dressed and groomed you are, the more likely your peers are to consider you less competent. In the private sector, good looking, well dressed people are perceived as more competent, and they are more likely to be paid more and promoted faster. Choosing appropriate dress can be a little tricky as it varies by industry. Interviewees should ask about the dress code when setting up the interview. Or, if possible, you can drive to the work site at quitting time to see how the employees are dressed as they leave and then dress one or two steps above that.
You are “on stage” from the time you arrive in the company parking lot until the time you exit that lot. Everyone you come into contact with at the company, before you even meet the interviewer, is evaluating you. In fact, the most important people you meet may be the receptionists and assistants, as they are often asked their impression of the candidates. When you meet the interviewer, the pressure will increase. The initial impression is often made within the first 30-60 seconds of the interview, which means you are being judged mostly on your appearance, handshake and the first few words you speak. Before you enter the building check yourself in your car mirror one last time. If you brought a cell phone turn it off now rather than leaving it on vibrate, since it will still be distracting. You need to give a good, firm handshake, not too tight or too limp. Have strong eye contact and a smile on your face while doing this. Practice shaking hands to be sure you get it right. And if you have a tendency to get sweaty palms, have a hankie in your pocket so you can dry off before the handshake. I realize some of this may sound superficial, but, especially in the business world, all of these details matter much more than they do in graduate school. While practicing think about what you want to say first, even if it is just a simple greeting, since it’s easy to forget even simple things when nervous. If you know the interviewer’s name beforehand make sure you know the correct pronunciation. And use the title Mr./Ms. until you are told otherwise.
The After Party
The performance isn’t over until the final curtain call, or in this case the thank you note. Be sure to send an e-mail to each person you met thanking them for their time, even the receptionist if she or he was especially helpful and you want to go above and beyond. In the note try to mention one specific thing each person who interviewed you said, and if after you left the interview you thought of the perfect thing you should have said you can include that as well. Finally, if you really want the job, this is a great time to reinforce your sincere interest in joining this organization. The only thing to do now is await the critics. Use this time to gather salary information on the industry and position and prepare yourself to negotiate your new job if you haven’t already done so. Hopefully the critics will approve and your performance will lead to a long and satisfying run.
Christine Kelly is the graduate student career consultant in the Career Center at the University of California at Irvine. Her previous piece considered the questions Ph.D.'s may face when seeking non-academic jobs.