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I once worked with a young graduate called Sian, her CV was outstanding, she had a good degree in film making, had been very proactive undertaking multiple creative projects and she had some great work experience. When I read her CV and examples of her cover letters and applications, I was seriously impressed.

I was not the only one to think she had a lot to offer, on applying for multiple prestigious opportunities, she was consistently being invited for interviews. However, every single one resulted in rejection.

When we met, she had another interview coming up and was looking for some pointers. After a brief chat, I started asking some standard interview questions. Suddenly this intelligent, personable young woman became a dull deliverer of standard interview answers. She had practically learned what she had submitted on paper verbatim, and thought her job was to recite it. I was stunned.

I pretended to step out of our imaginary interview and asked her for more specific detail about one of her experiences. Her face lit up, and she gave a brilliant account of it including what she had loved and how much she had learned.

When I pointed out that what she had just done ‘outside’ the interview was what people really wanted to hear in it, she was astonished. I explained that she had demonstrated her right to be there by what she had submitted on paper but the interview was about getting to know each other and deciding if the opportunity is right for both parties. Being the smart person she is, she embraced this and we worked on how she could relax and be herself at the next interview.

The transformation was astonishing and I’m very pleased to report that she e-mailed me to say that her interview was successful.

It got me thinking, what do people think an interview is actually for? How many others are learning the details of their CV as Sian did, as though it is a history exam? How many see it is a version of The Apprentice, where some big boss is going to pull them up for any mistakes and yell: “You’re fired!” across the table?

There are organisations that think a stress interview, where you make people uncomfortable and present them with extreme challenges, is a good way to judge a candidate, and perhaps for working in MI6 that may be true. Personally, when I come across those tactics, my mind is quickly made up that I don’t want to work for that organisation if it considers that an appropriate way to treat people. However, other people may thrive in this sort of environment.

As I explained to Sian, it is an opportunity for both sides to get to know each other and assess whether the relationship is likely to be a compatible one. I’m not just talking about formal interviews here, the coffee, drink in the pub, chat on the phone are all examples of taking the relationship to the next level. And if that sounds a bit like a courtship, it’s because it is.

The CV is the look across the crowded room, the next natural step is to wander over and speak to each other. In conversation, you will subtly assess each other’s character, values and shared objectives. All true in both situations. Of course, this is not the time to start sharing your darkest secrets or personal foibles.

The essence of interviews is really about getting to know you, and as the song from The King and I says: “Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me.” I know this sounds a bit glib, but it really is all about the relationship.

Assuming you have submitted some paperwork that demonstrates that you are capable of performing the work, the final selection is likely to be between other people equally capable, so the thing that is going to make the difference is how you get on, and how well you are likely to work together. Just as in a courtship where shared values, aims and objectives emerge. If one side is in it for the long term, and the other wants a one-night stand, it’s not going to work.

Before I started freelance work, I remember one interview where the organisation that I worked for was very clear about working ethically in partnership with clients. The person being interviewed started telling stories of how he ‘got one over’ on his clients, making lots of money in the process. He thought he was showing us he was a clever wheeler and dealer. He was rejected outright because our values, aims and objectives were miles apart, and his methods would reflect badly on us. So to prepare for an interview questions to ask yourself include:

  • what are they looking for and how do I provide that?
  • what are they like and do I want to work with them?
  • what experience can I share (in context of what they want) that shows I know what I am doing?

Then relax, be yourself and concentrate on getting to know them.

For more information on interviews see our Q&A and Quick tips in the Digital Learning Centre.

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