Any interview can be stressful and nerve-wracking, but the panel interview – two or more interviewers attacking you in a pincer movement – has a unique capacity to induce mortal fear into many candidates.
Organisations use panel interviews for several reasons – for example to deliberately to inject an extra degree of pressure to test candidates, to see how people react in a group setting, or just to save time or other resources.
Now, you can take it from me, if you are facing four different interviewers, they will each have their own agendas, issues to deal with, and moods. If one of them is just helping out but would rather be back at her desk, she might be totally disinterested in the process, and giving off foul body language. Some may be smiling, others may be poker faced. So be prepared for a potentially weird and uncomfortable dynamic!
I have interviewed candidates on multiple occasions in a panel setting, usually with just one other colleague, and it definitely creates a different atmosphere (and tension!) to the usual one-on-one process. Sometimes we played good cop / bad cop, on other times we competed to ask the toughest questions!
But while a panel interview seems like a daunting consideration, the good news is that you can prepare effectively to ensure that you enter a panel interview with confidence, and perform well. Here are my top tips for panel interview success:
1. Good pre-interview preparation
Pre-interview, the main difference in preparation is that you have more individuals to research. Try to get all their names and job titles beforehand – you should be able to get this information from the HR recruiter or head hunter. The interviewers will tend to ask very specific questions related to their areas, so make sure you prepare accordingly.
Typically you would face the hiring manager, an HR representative (usually ensuring you are of the right cultural fit for the firm, and not a potential axe murderer), and perhaps 2-3 close colleagues of the hiring manager working in related functions.
2. Remember their names!
At the start of the interview, the biggest challenge is remembering the names of 3-4 complete strangers. So shake hands with each of them, repeat their name back to them – “Hello Jonathan, very pleased to meet you” – and ask for business cards.
When you sit down align the business cards in the order of how the interviewers are sitting. If they don’t have business cards, write down their names on paper. I never minded candidates doing this, even if it takes a few moments – it is a courtesy and shows they are keen to get things right.
3. Stay calm and serene throughout
Easy for me to say of course, but trust me, many find this Spanish Inquisition process very challenging and struggle to keep control of their emotions. The interviewers will try to unsettle you by poking at you from any angle and pouncing on perceived weaknesses.
Merely by keeping a calm and serene demeanour (even if inside you are melting down!) will differentiate you. It will serve to convey to the panel important messages about your capacity to be rational and effective under pressure – a critical skill in a business environment.
4. Share your body language love
Make a conscious effort to address all of the interviewers in roughly equal proportion. This not only means eye contact and speaking, but your entire body position. Looking sideways at the person on the end of the table is hardly a natural or rapport-building posture!
So ensure that you swivel your shoulders (and if in a swivel chair, your whole body) towards the person whom you are addressing.
5. Identify and fix your weakest link
As the interview progresses, you will probably find that you build a better rapport with one interviewer more than the others. The natural tendency would be to focus most of your eye contact and conversation on this one person who seems to like you the most.
This would be a huge mistake! As with a chain, your performance is only as strong as your weakest link.
If any of the interviewers is not impressed by you, he may be able to torpedo your application. Interviewers normally discuss candidates immediately after the interview, so you really don’t want one person pulling down the overall assessment of you.
So try to detect who seems least impressed with you and try to get them onboard – give them good positive eye contact, ensure you direct answers to them as you speak, and aim your best questions at them. Tackling the bad guy head-on will also show to the others that you are confident and self-assured.
6. Prepare for that nasty curveball question
Since most organisations are competitive places, one of your interviewers will be tempted to impress his colleagues by throwing a really nasty curveball question at you (remember what I said about a weird dynamic?!). In fact, you could easily get a question that you would never even be asked in a one-on-one situation.
As always with curveball questions, the trick is to never get flustered, as the purpose of asking these questions is principally to test you under pressure.
Think through the question, repeat the question if it is not clear, and build your answer with logic and reasoning, drawing on your skills and experience. Speak out loud as you evaluate the answer, ‘showing’ the interviewers your thought process.
7. Create positive vibes with your questions
When it comes to asking questions, try to ask one that pulls in at least two of the interviewers. This is a great way to convert an interrogation into a discussion, and see the interplay between the different personalities seated in front of you (and it also takes the heat off you for a moment).
Such a question might be: “Joanne and Peter, could you explain how your different teams collaborate with each other on product strategy, and what kind of benefits that brings to the organisation?”. Note also that this will force them to talk positively about how their organisation is working well, creating some ‘feel good’ time during the interview.
If you can pull this off two or three times you will cause the atmosphere in the room to be much more collegiate than confrontational, and break down barriers.
8. Close with a positive and friendly handshake for each interviewer
Sincerely thank each interviewer in turn for taking the time to see you, and leave promptly. Even if you don’t think you turned around the ‘bad cop’, a nice smile and a good handshake at the end is one last chance to leave them with a positive memory of you. Ducking eye contact and giving a limp handshake will only confirm you weren’t up to scratch.
9. Follow up with a prompt and personalised “Thank You” letter
This is always a good tip for any interview. Taking the time to quickly email (or better still, write) a sincere personalised thank you note will demonstrate respect, courtesy and professionalism. If you are neck and neck with another strong candidate to get offered the position, this nice touch might be enough to get you across the line first.
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