Interview Like Rembrandt, Not Picasso

When talking with potential employers, you should communicate in a way that projects clear and detailed images rather than complex and distorted ones, writes Thomas Magaldi.

October 19, 2015
Rembrandt van Rijn, "Self-Portrait," 1659, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The painting that I remember most from my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a life-size image of Joan of Arc painted by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Even an artistically challenged teenager could recognize that the artist was depicting an angelic apparition to Joan of Arc in her garden. Effective communicators engage others the same way that Bastien-Lepage was able to captivate me, through clear and vivid images.

Unfortunately, Ph.D.s are not always trained to communicate in this way. We often converse with esoteric statements and pedantic language that we hope will make us sound intelligent. (See, like I just did.) Our statements project complex and distorted images that resemble Pablo Picasso’s Cubism or Salvador Dalí’s Surrealism. This is particularly dangerous during job interviews, as you will not receive a second chance to explain yourself. When interviewing for jobs, you should aim to communicate in a way that projects clear and detailed images similar to the paintings of artists like Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Bastien-Lepage.

Paint a Picture With Descriptive Stories

Evidence suggests that audiences understand concepts better when speakers use stories to convey their ideas. Effective storytelling can also be applied to answering interview questions. While storytelling is a skill that requires time to develop, you can follow an easy protocol to help you craft these stories.

If you have visited a career adviser in the past, you have probably heard of the STAR technique for answering interview questions. This technique coaches interviewees to concisely answer questions with stories that highlight a Situation they were placed in, the Task they were responsible for in that situation, the Action they took and the Result of their action. This gives interviewers a clear understanding of your ability to use a particular skill. This technique also provides a structure to ensure that the interviewer will visualize your experience in images similar to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel instead of Picasso’s chaotic "Guernica."

For instance, I often coach postdocs to answer questions about teamwork by highlighting their roles in collaborations. The framework for a STAR story on this topic is as follows:

Situation: Your research group must collaborate with another group to gain new expertise.

Task: You were responsible for leading and organizing the collaboration.

Action: You led the collaboration by defining roles, communicating through regularly structured meetings and defining metrics for success.

Result: The collaboration resulted in an exciting discovery and a publication that would not have been possible without a synergistic partnership.

On the surface, the STAR technique does not seem appropriate for certain questions -- particularly those that seem to require one-word answers. But that is not necessarily the case. For instance, an interviewer might ask, “Are you capable of managing multiple projects?” While that seems like a yes or no question, it is not. You should answer this question with a brief STAR story that portrays a time when you efficiently and successfully completed several projects at once.

Although the STAR technique is helpful for concise and clear portrayal of your skills and experiences, it is not sufficient. The descriptive stories you prepare should also be distinctive. Da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa" is the world’s most famous painting, but in my opinion, it is not the most beautiful. However, several distinguishing factors, including the detailed background and Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, have contributed to its persistent popularity. To be remembered after an interview, you must choose stories that will differentiate you from your peers.

A potential employer once asked how I might communicate with a busy executive. Many Ph.D.s might answer that question by describing a time when they conveyed their research results to a prominent committee member or collaborator. Instead, I described a situation when I met with my local U.S. congressman to discuss the importance of raising the budget for the National Institutes of Health. In 15 minutes, I used my own research as an example of how basic science could lead to improvements in human health and growth in the economy. The congressman attentively listened to my story and promised to use my example when discussing the importance of NIH funding. I believe that that story helped me receive a job offer. When a hiring committee meets to evaluate all of its candidates, a story about an experience that is uncommon but relevant will be remembered over stories that explain common scenarios typical to all Ph.D.s.

Predict the Questions Before the Interview

Just as an artist will visualize her work before touching a brush to canvas, you must think about the questions you might receive in an interview. Many postdocs and students often ask how they could possibly prepare answers for a seemingly infinite number of potential interview questions. Fortunately, there are strategies for making educated guesses about the type of questions you might encounter.

One way is to revisit the job description for the position. If the description lists a skill that is necessary for the job, you should prepare STAR stories to demonstrate how you used this skill in the past. If you landed an interview, you probably already dissected the job description to help craft a targeted résumé with specific bullets. You can use these bullets as the foundation to build stories.

I recently worked with a postdoc who was applying for positions in marketing. We grouped the skills and experiences in the job ad to fit into the following categories: relationship management, strategic vision, multidisciplinary collaboration, problem solving and resourcefulness. Together, we worked on STAR stories he could use to highlight these skills.

Odds are high that you used your network to assist you in obtaining an interview. If this is true, ask the person who helped you land the interview for tips and suggestions on how to prepare.

Finally, spend time researching the employer’s website and social media pages. Then focus on crafting STAR stories for skills and experiences that the company frequently discusses. Moreover, if the company possesses known challenges that will be addressed by the person in the position for which you are applying, think of STAR stories that highlight skills that can be used to help solve those challenges.

Practice Before You Preach

Practice is essential to mastering any skill. Without practice, even artists with the best intentions can create flawed images. Therefore, before you interview, practice delivering STAR stories that answer some of the questions you believe have a high probability of being asked.

Start by reciting your stories in the mirror. You can also record yourself with a smartphone or a more interactive service like InterviewStream. Note and improve upon any areas where you lack confidence and clarity.

Next, practice with a colleague or friend. Be sure to provide a list of questions ahead of time. Request that your friend ask the questions out of order and in a slightly different way. Remind them of your goal of communicating concisely and clearly. After each question, be sure to review your intentions. If their perception of your answer is different from your intention, you need to rework your stories.

Finally, arrange for a mock interview with a career adviser, if available. Prior to the meeting, send her the job description and your résumé. Incorporating constructive feedback into your interview style will help you avoid confusion during the real thing.

Visualize Your Success

An artist must have a steady hand when crafting beautiful images. You should be equally calm and composed when interviewing. Before the interview, make sure you collect your thoughts. Take a few minutes to practice deep breathing to calm anxiety and visualize your success.

During the interview, try to maintain that same composure. If you are asked a question you have not thought about, it is perfectly acceptable to pause for a few seconds to think about how you might answer the questions. Without calmness, your message may become harder to understand than an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock.

Painters such as Picasso, Dalí and Pollock are obviously amazing artists. Their creative and profound work inspires and provokes scholarly debate. However, these paintings require deep thought, and the artists’ intentions and messages are not always understood.

Communication that resembles the paintings of these artists will severely hinder your chances of landing a job offer. When you interview, you must ensure that your skills and experiences are expressed clearly, concisely and memorably. If you can do this well, the employer should be able to imagine you using a skill as clearly as I was able to understand Jules Bastien-Lepage’s "Joan of Arc." Using the STAR technique to craft descriptive stories, anticipating questions before the interview and practicing in advance will help you create answers to interview questions that captivate and impress interviewers.


Thomas Magaldi is the administrator for career services at Memorial Sloan Kettering.


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