Interviewing as Performance Art

Kristy J. Sherrer gives advice on how to build confidence and strengthen your image, allowing interviewers to see your many qualifications.

April 4, 2016

Think about the last job talk or speaker seminar you attended. How did the speaker make you feel? Did they put you at ease with a fluid delivery and natural speaking style? Or did they seem out of place and appear nervous or uncomfortable in the presence of an audience?

If your experience aligns more with the latter, you probably remember more about the body language, presence and discomfort of the speaker than the actual content of his or her talk. In contrast, if the speaker seemed natural and confident, it probably made you feel more comfortable and allowed you to focus on the content of the presentation.

Regardless of the content, we are more likely to remember a presentation favorably if the presenter seems confident and comfortable in their delivery. When the presenter is confident, we believe they are an expert in the topic being presented. Similarly, well-versed actors on a stage are able to captivate large audiences with a believable character rendition, often so well that the audience forgets the actor is only pretending.

Even when you are in an interview with only a few people, delivering a strong performance by appearing confident and at ease is likely to allow you to communicate your qualifications effectively and to give your interviewers a positive impression.

For a Ph.D. candidate entering the job market, the advice to simply appear confident and comfortable in an interview may seem impossible. You may be nervous to leave your program and enter the world of work in general, and the added pressure of finding a position to support yourself and possibly your family aids in the anxiety. Furthermore, the idea of presenting yourself to a board of experts in an interview setting can also be daunting. Taking action before the interview is even scheduled will help you to articulate your skills persuasively and present your best professional image when the interview day actually arrives.

Know Your Skills

First, shift your focus to the extensive qualifications and innovative ideas that you will bring to the organization. You may feel that in order to succeed in industries outside academe, you need to learn a whole new set of skills. In reality, your Ph.D. program has already provided you with an array of appealing transferable skills -- including data analysis, problem solving and project management -- that are valuable to a wide variety of potential employers. In a recent Nature article, Peter Fiske, author of Put Your Science to Work, explains that Ph.D.s should not underestimate their value to industry and the transferable skills they bring with them. Research the skills employers want by scouring their websites, job descriptions and professional associations. Knowing the skills that are in demand can help you learn the language of the industry and begin to articulate what you can offer using terminology that appeals to employers.

Persuasively Articulate Your Skills

As you learn more about the language of industry and how your skills fit, begin to translate that into a strong outward presentation of yourself to others. For example, when you speak about your teaching, move away from phrases like, “I was just a TA for an introductory chemistry class.” Instead, focus on what you did as a TA, including curricula you designed, presentations you delivered, training materials you created, students you mentored, collaborative teaching you led, etc. Avoid minimizing your experiences, as they are far from irrelevant, and recognize that the communication skills you cultivated as a teaching assistant are important for almost any position.

Strengthen Your Image

Research reveals that the way you act and dress, your vocal tone and how you walk through the door determine more than half of first impressions. While it may not feel natural to talk about your accomplishments and ideas for hours with experts or seasoned professionals, you must act like it is the most natural situation and you could not be more confident and at ease. This is a slight exaggeration, but projecting an air of confidence and ease will allow your interviewers to see your best self and focus on your interview answers. Performing as if you are comfortable and poised will give them the impression you are, even if internally you are nervous.

Preparing for the Performance

As you prepare for in-person interviews, take the perspective that this is a one-day performance you must give in order to move to the next phase of the interview process or even land the job. Practice various interview scenarios with peers, advisers and career counselors. Ask for feedback on your answers and role-play questions and answers for any presentations you are required to give during the interview day.

It could be helpful to create a scoring rubric to give your mock interviewers in order to help you evaluate areas of strength in your interviewing and areas of improvement in a systematic way. Preparation may seem like an obvious tip, but many graduate students underestimate how much they can improve their confidence and comfort by practicing beforehand. Even the most talented performers (actors, musicians, dancers) require hours and hours of practice to hone their craft. View this practice as your “getting into character” phase before your performance.

Positive Self-Talk to Build Confidence

Although practice and preparation will decrease nerves and boost confidence, it is almost certain you will experience some anxiety or nerves on the day of the interview. Getting into the habit of practicing positive self-talk can be a powerful tool in reducing nervousness. Studies on neuroplasticity show our brains have the ability to be restructured by our thoughts. If these thoughts improve our confidence and self-esteem, the new neurons being formed will begin to positively shape not only our thoughts but also our behaviors and eventually our lives.

To put this into practice on the day of an interview, write positive affirmations on an index card and then look at the cards during any short breaks you have throughout the interview day to reinforce your confidence and center your thoughts. That may help you stay in character, so to speak.

Rick Hanson, psychologist and senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, discusses strategies for “self-directed neuroplasticity” or how to trick your brain for lasting well-being, including meditation and visualization that could be of value for preparing for your interview.

Finally, relax into the confidence that comes from being highly prepared for the interview process and knowing you are a strong candidate for the job. Allowing this confidence to shine through in your performance can allow your interviewers to focus on the content of your answers and see your many qualifications. You are experienced. You are qualified. You only need to persuasively communicate that to your new employer by delivering a compelling performance that, like any great performance, leaves them wanting more.


Kristy J. Sherrer is the STEM manager for Graduate Student Services at the University of California at Los Angeles Career Center.


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