Making the interview work for you
This article was first published in the Business Times on 7 December 2019
Making the interview work for you
By John Bittleston, Terrific Mentors International
What is the greatest genuine flattery you can be shown? I’m not talking about creepy praise from subordinates – or from superiors who want you to cover for them. I’m not talking about medals and honours, valuable as they may be. I’m not talking about media coverage of the sort that makes you sound like an extremely boring saint. I’m talking about genuine, unbridled flattery that makes no demands, expects no returns. The answer is ‘being asked a question’.
When someone asks you a question, especially if the answer involves your opinion, your knowledge or your wisdom, you are deeply honoured. And it doesn’t matter if the person asking the question is a five year old child or the Prime Minister. You are immediately keen to reply as well as possible. You look the questioner in the eye and do your best to communicate with them. You are engaging with them. It is instinctively right for you to do so. You know that if you succeed in connecting with them you will win.
Great people are taught to ask questions. If you meet the Pope or the Queen they will ask you a question. It may be a very simple question such as ‘have you come far?’ It may be a complex question, though that is unlikely. If the questioner is President Trump, he won’t wait for your answer before telling you how great he is. There are always some exceptions to rules.
Function of an interview
When people think of interviews, they mostly envisage job interviews. These are times of importance in our lives. I am going to cover interviewing and being interviewed more widely than just job interviews. You will be interviewed by the media, by your subordinates, by prospective buyers, by salesmen of all sorts. Interviewing is recognised as a skill. Being interviewed is just becoming recognised as one. Not before time.
The essence of interviewing for any reason is engagement. Learning how to engage is a lifelong lesson because the norms of engagement are changing all the time. We know that they vary from one person to another and from one culture to another. We often forget that they vary from one time to another, too. How you engaged a hundred years ago and how you engage now are totally different. Familiarity has become the norm. It has advantages.
It also had disadvantages. For example, the sort of question you ask someone today is fundamentally different from what you would have asked them all that time ago – but only in some circumstances. Old protocols persist with remarkable tenacity. So what questions should you ask and how and when should you ask them?
Do your homework, as much as you can, before you meet the other person. Find out about them, their background, interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes, fears and anxieties. Time spent in preparation is never wasted and is the clue to a successful interview. People neglect to do their homework on this. Social media and Google can give you a lot of clues. If you have mutual acquaintances use them too. This pre-meeting work will repay you handsomely if you treat it as the first round of creativity and go on to imagine the worries and inspirations the person may have.
For example, if you are going to meet Tommy Koh or Kishore Mahbubani and you have never met them before, look at the work they have published, check their views, see what is their current interest. Base your questions on these discoveries. For every question they ask you, you ask one in return. Both of them will have excellent answers about any aspect of world politics. Your excellent questions will show your interest and intelligence.
At every interview be extra alert. Assess the mood of the person interviewing you as quickly as you can. If they are grumpy, try to make the interview as short as possible, and don’t attempt to make them laugh unless you are absolutely certain that you can succeed. Failed laughs are a damper on any conversation. Exit the interview as soon as possible. If necessary, ask if you can meet them another time when they are not so busy. Such a question will make them sit up and think anyway.
Take the lead and be willing to follow
Engagements / interviews are a step by step process. You both lead and follow the conversation. Of course, if you are being interviewed for a job the person interviewing you will mostly lead. But don’t let them lead all the time. Your creative and intelligent questions will make a bigger impression than the repetition of your CV can ever do. Never forget that it is your job to make the conversation flow and not sound like a Q&A down at the club. Good conversations sweep to and fro like waves lapping the shore. Feisty conversations are more like storms at sea.
Should you drop names of well-known people who might impress the interviewer. Certainly, provided you really know the people whose names you drop. Establishing your position in the world by identifying with successful role models is perfectly legitimate and can help you a lot. Many jobs are awarded on the basis of who you know rather than what you know. Sad but true.
Make an impression
Interviewing and being interviewed are games in which the parties try to impress each other. Lying is off limits because it is wrong and because it always comes back to bite you. However, colourful versions of your past life and achievements bring a zest to the exchange that may well win you your job or your client. Remember that all engagements are partly entertainment however solemn the occasion. If you don’t believe me listen to the jokes being exchanged by golden oldies at funerals. They know how to live what little time they have left.
As you will see from what I have said, every exchange is an interview of sorts. Some are more formal than others but the discussion of what to have for dinner is also an important exchange – possibly the most important. Treat every new person you meet as a star coming to shine on you. Treat every person you meet who you already know as a support beam for your life and career.
Our engagements with others are the essence of life. Make them successful — and fun.