Question: What does an interview have in common with a roller coaster ride?

Answer: There’s a huge build up of tension and anxiety, your adrenaline starts pumping, you know it’s going to be a bumpy ride with a few twists and turns, you feel like a total passenger throughout the experience and you get off the other end, panting and worn out.

The difference of course is that the rollercoaster is meant to thrill and delight and entice you back for one more go. I’ve never heard that said about an interview!

The fact is, for many interview candidates, the experience really does feel like a terrifying ride. Thirty minutes of being shaken up, put under pressure and made to feel uncomfortable. If you hang on and hold your nerve, then you stand a chance of getting a job (or being rewarded with another interview!), but if you come out the other end rattled and battered, then “it’s a no from me” as they say on TV.

But does it have to be this way?

What if, instead of being a passenger, you could jump into the driver’s seat? Imagine an interview where, instead of the interviewer controlling where things went, you took control?

I recently wrote an article “How to stay in your Interview Comfort Zone“, where I talked about how you should expect your interviewer to drag you into some uncomfortable territory (talking about your weaknesses, gaps in your CV etc). I shared some advice on how you could quickly recover and get back into your comfort zone.

Looking back at that article, there’s a clear link between comfort and control. If you are in control of a situation, you are more likely to feel comfortable and able to deliver your best. If you are not in control of a situation, you will instead feel less comfortable, and are likely to struggle to perform well.

It stands to reason then, that in an interview, if you are able to control the interview, you are more likely to be in your comfort zone, delivering a powerful and memorable interview performance. You’re less likely to get tripped up by the interviewer, and more likely to get hired.

Sounds good! But what does this control actually look like?

I’m an average skier. When I go down a mountain, I aim for the blue runs and steer well clear of most reds and all the blacks. And I definitely don’t go off piste.

I know where I’m in control, and I know where I’ll get into trouble. I won’t let the mountain boss me around, so I choose the route where I know I’ll be safe.

And so it goes in an interview. Control is all about you shaping the conversation. It’s about steering the discussion in a way that helps you showcase your greatest strengths. It’s about spending plenty of time on the blue runs, where you look fantastic, and avoiding the moguls, where you risk looking hopeless.

It’s also about time. Interviews are normally scheduled for a fixed period of time, say thirty minutes or an hour. The more time you spend in control of the conversations – on the blue runs – the less time there is for the interviewer to drag you off piste and make you look silly.

And before you start thinking that you want to test yourself by skiing in tough areas, the interview is not the right arena for you to try to improve your skills. Absolutely, definitively, incontrovertibly not.

So I get the skiing analogy, what do I actually do in the interview to wrestle control away from the interviewer?

There are two basic methods you can take control, I call them passive control and active control.

Passive control

Imagine you walked into an interview room with your left arm cut off at the elbow and blood dripping all over the carpet [bear with me…]:

Interviewer: “Oh my god what’s happened to you? We have to get you to hospital!”

You: “Ah don’t worry, it’s just a flesh wound. I got my arm trapped in the lift but I didn’t want to be late for the interview, so I just cut if off. Anyway, great to meet you!”

That’s passive control. Without saying a word, you immediately dictated the direction of the conversation. In fact, you could have predicted with 100% certainty that the first thing the interviewer would say would be related to the blood spurting out of your elbow.

That’s obviously – hopefully – a silly example. Let’s dial it down a touch.

What if you walk into an interview on crutches, with your leg in plaster? Judging by the amount of people hobbling around in London on crutches during ski season, I’m sure this is a reasonable common scenario. All but the most miserable of interviewers would ask straight away what happened to your leg. And you’re ready with your story. Maybe you can elicit a little sympathy, or even empathy if the interviewer has also suffered a broken leg in the past. Maybe you both broke your leg whilst playing football in a worthwhile charity match. Suddenly you are blood brothers! Maybe, at a bare minimum, you display a little resilience and determination just by getting to the interview (try navigating London in rush hour on crutches).

Obviously I don’t recommend deliberately breaking a leg to steer the early part of the interview conversation in a predictable direction. So let’s dial it right down to something that everyone can do. What about your CV?

Here’s what your CV does:

It primes the interviewer. It provides the first insight on what to expect of a candidate. It sets expectations. It triggers questions:

  • “Is this an average candidate or have I got a potential superstar on my hands?”
  • “What can I see on the CV that I really want to ask the candidate about?”
  • “What’s really unusual on this CV that demands my attention?”.

These questions always ran through my mind when a CV landed on my desk, and they go through the minds of most – if not all – hiring managers.

So, when you craft your CV (I much prefer the word ‘craft’ to ‘write’ as it forces you to think of your CV as a delightful creation not just a begrudging collection of words), understand that you have the chance to passively control the direction interview.

One young man I’ve been working with, Sergii, had on his CV the fact that he had been captain of the Ukraine national U18 swimming team, winning multiple medals in the process. Anyone with the slightest interest in sport knows that competitive swimming requires an unbelievable level of commitment and determination to succeed. Getting up at 4am day-in day-out, year-in year-out to go to the pool for two hours is beyond what most of us could even begin to fathom. And yet Sergii rose to the level of national team captain in his age group in a country and a system where, for decades, sporting success in Olympic events was the pinnacle of achievement and a source of national pride.

Right there, on Sergii’s CV, is an invitation for any interviewer to get into his head, to understand what it takes to reach that level of achievement in such a tough discipline. Think of all the questions that spring to mind about leadership, resilience, teamwork, determination. For ten years Sergii’s life was dominated by swimming, and you can bet they shaped the man he is today, and how he will show up as a professional at work.

I call these kind of powerful highlights CV traps. They are planted in a CV to ‘trap’ the interviewer, to encourage them to underline them when scanning the CV with a view to digging into them during the interview. And by passively encouraging the interviewer to focus on these carefully planted traps, you are able to shape the direction of the interview, even before it has started.

‘Trapping’ the interviewer to talk about something unusual or interesting in your CV ensures that you will be in your comfort zone, talking around a topic where you have an authentic and passionate story to share, where the qualities that you have shown bring direct and clear value to the role you are applying for.

Imagine Sergii is applying for a job that requires early starts:

“No problem, I got up at 4am six days a week for ten years…”

Imagine Sergii is applying for a job that requires teamwork:

“No problem, I played my part in the national swimming relay team for six years…”

Imagine Sergii is applying for a job that requires leadership:

“No problem, as captain of the U18 swimming team I led us to victory on many occasions…”

Do you see how powerful that is? You are passively directing your interviewer to ask you about stuff that you really are proud of, where you are at your best and really shine! And don’t forget, when you are on these topics, you will be at your most natural and most authentic self. Nerves will melt away, you’ll come across confidently and passionately and time will fly. This is interview magic!

So ask yourself this question: “What are the traps that I can plant in my CV?”. Think long and hard about what you’d really love to get across in your interview, stories that showcase why you are a brilliant fit for the role, and work out how to plant those traps.

One final word on CV traps. Be careful to plant them where they can be seen. There’s not much use burying a CV trap in the undergrowth at the bottom of your CV, where most interviewers don’t really look. Plant them near the top and ensure that they stand out (if you think your current CV doesn’t do you justice and you want a really impactful one instead, I can help).

So that’s enough about passive control, let’s get on to…

Active control

Active control is where you take charge of the interview conversation itself. Instead of letting the interviewer ping nasty questions at you for twenty minutes, you deliberately manoeuvre the conversation onto topics that you want to talk about.

This is actually a real and subtle skill, a conversational technique that you can deploy at any time but one that takes practice and judgement to use effectively.

To be clear, this is NOT about being asked one question and choosing to answer a different question. That would be evasive and irritating in equal measure and is likely to ensure you won’t get hired. It speaks to a pattern of defensiveness and reluctance to face facts, things that in a workplace situation can often spell trouble.

Here’s how active control can work. Many interviews start with this rather bland request “Walk me through your CV”. It’s a lazy question on the one hand, but it’s the first chance for the interviewer to see a candidate give a concise and structured answer to an open question. Many interviews crash onto the rocks right here when a candidate starts to drone boringly through every line – literally – on their CV.

The active control answer goes like this:

“Of course, but just before I walk you through my CV, let me share three core qualities that really stand out in everything that I do and really run like a seam of gold through my CV. Firstly, I seem to have this natural ability to build strong and trusting relationships. Secondly, I set myself high standards of quality and excellence in everything. And lastly, I have this resolute determination to find solutions. So, coming back to my last role where I was a project manager in operations at UBS, I was able to achieve to deliver ahead of time and below budget on every project I was involved in over the four years that I was there. Before that, when I was a team leader in operations at Standard Chartered, I was able to bring together a great team of people and forged a really tight network that helped us beat all KPIs by at least 7% for three years running…”

Do you see how powerful that is? By just taking a few seconds at the start to set the scene, you are immediately able to weave your core qualities into your CV walk through. You’ve done as you were asked, but at the same time you’ve laid on the table in front of your interviewer three powerful qualities that will give confidence that you can do the job.

Furthermore, by setting out how these qualities have been with you throughout your professional career (and even before that, during your education), you send a message that these are permanent qualities that can be relied on in the future. Don’t forget, an interviewer needs to get a clear sense of the real you in a very short window of time, so taking the opportunity early on to illustrate who you really are and how you show up every day is a high is a highly effective way to take control.

How else can you take active control?

I like the idea of following up an answer with a question. Once you’ve given a solid and well crafted answer to something the interviewer has thrown at you, follow up, without pause, with your own related question. The idea is to shape and drive a two-way conversation. By doing this effectively you quickly get away from the idea of interrogator and victim and move towards a natural conversational style.

This, after all, is how people interact in an office – there is a two-way conversation as you thrash out a problem or collaborate on a project. Make it easy for the hiring manager to see you sitting in the office working with his team.

Of course any question you asked needs to be crafted in a way which helps the interviewer see your strengths. Steer the conversation towards your comfort zone, and away from dangerous territory (bear in mind only you know what your dangerous territory, the interviewer won’t have a clue, so won’t suspect any trickery!).

Here’s an example:

Interviewer: “Ok, so tell me about a time when you had to work hard to get a team member on board with something you needed help on – hope did you go about that?”

You (using the trusty S.T.A.R. technique): “Well in my last role in product control at Unilever, my boss hit me with a tough assignment on a Friday morning, asking for some data analysis on a new product that we had recently launched. She wanted to take my findings home over the weekend so she could report back to her manager on the Monday morning. I knew that I would struggle to meet the deadline on my own, and figured the best way to get it done would be to enlist the help of one of my colleagues, someone who I knew was really sharp on analytics. He was really busy on his own work, so to get him on board I obviously mentioned the urgency of the work, but also suggested that we prepare a joint report, where he did the heavy lifting on the raw data and I pulled everything together into a Powerpoint as we went along. I pointed out that our boss would appreciate the quality and accuracy of the work and it would reflect well on both of us that we collaborated so effectively. As it turns out, we were able to crack through it in under three hours, and we got the report onto our boss’ desk by the middle of the afternoon, a few hours ahead of the deadline. She was delighted, not least because she was able to read through our findings that afternoon and didn’t have to take it home over the weekend!”

Normally, most people would then stop at this stage, satisfied with their strong answer, and wait for the next question. However, to keep control of the dialogue, you follow up with something like the following, with barely a pause:

You: “Obviously I had the benefit of working with flexible colleagues and had a manager who didn’t mind that I’d co-opted someone to help out, and she gave credit where it was due. But how do you think my approach would have worked here? What’s the team dynamic like and how would you describe the flexibility of your set-up here?”

By doing this you are inviting – almost challenging – the hiring manager to say something positive about the working environment. And depending on what the answer is, you can then choose to dig a bit deeper on the topic. Ask for examples. Show that flexibility and collaboration are really important to you by drilling down. You are forcing the hiring manager to prove to you how your greatest qualities are critical to their operation.

Do you see where this leads? In a subtle and carefully managed way, you start to create the idea in the hiring manager’s mind that you are absolutely the perfect fit. Take a question, spin it around, double down and ramp up the intensity of the conversation. Bore into the details and you demonstrate beyond doubt that you not only have the right stuff, but you practically insist on any new manager giving you full support to express those qualities.

By taking these opportunities throughout the interview to roll your sleeves up and drive a really focused, intense discussion, you will exude authority, confidence and competence. You will be in your comfort zone and display, as social psychologist Amy Cuddy calls it, Presence.

So as you prepare for your next interview, think through the opportunities where you will be able to steer the conversation around your greatest qualities. If you aren’t fully comfortable, practice controlling the conversation in social circumstances or in your current role at work.

Get a feel for what works best for you, and your technique will come together. Couple this skill with a CV full of tempting traps and you will be in perfect shape to deliver a great interview performance.


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Image credits: Shutterstock

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