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5 Things Textbooks Won’t Teach You About the Interview Process

Interview horror stories are real.

During an interview, one guy dished all the terrible dirt about his former boss, only to find out he was sitting across from his ex-boss’ spouse. There’s the woman who was so nervous her mind went blank and she uttered a total of 10 words throughout the whole interview. Then, of course, there’s the guy who ordered spaghetti, along with a few beers, and made a mess – of both himself and the table.

These issues seem easy to avoid because they’re obvious. But what about the less overt ways you can screw up the interviewing process? It’s the sort of stuff you won’t read in any of the career books and guides.

Here are five things you should do to prepare for your next job interview:

1. Recognize that your interviewer may be gauging your reactions

I intentionally left interviewees in the lobby for 20 minutes to see how they’d react. Did they read? Were they respectful to the receptionist? Did they talk to her about her job and use that opportunity to learn about the company?

After I’d spoken to the interviewees, I’d ask the receptionist what she thought – and her opinions weighed heavily in my decision because it formed a very authentic look at that candidate.

Sir Richard Branson dressed up as a chauffeur and drove candidates around town to see how they treated him; for some, it didn’t go well. Another person I know left candidates in a room with a television playing static. Did they turn off the T.V.? Did they simply turn down the volume? If the candidates left the T.V. on, he deemed them too passive. If they turned the T.V. off, he determined they were take-charge people who were comfortable making decisions they’d need to justify. How will they see you?

2. Exude confidence

This is a basic rule, but it cannot be said enough. Go into interviews believing you’re a highly-sought product. Not only will it help convince your interviewer that you’re a viable candidate, it will give you peace of mind. Be very careful with this, as this can easily come off as arrogance (believe me, I know). To calm your nerves, have a talk with yourself where you say, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can help this company in a significant way.” If you get there and don’t act like you invented the job you’re applying for, things should go well.

3. Track your speech

The interviewer should talk more than you do – he or she needs to tell you about the company, the position, and what they’re searching for. If you find yourself talking too much, start asking questions. You’ll find out what you need to know in order to make a good decision, should you get that hoped-for offer. And nothing says “I’m intelligent” more than asking good questions.

4. Research the person interviewing you

Take the time to look your interviewer up online. Figure out how you can connect: build a relationship on a shared interest, or focus on making a good impression by showing that you took the time to learn about him or her and the company. But don’t ask about your interviewer’s children by name. That’s creepy.

5. For crying out loud, spend time thinking about good questions to ask

I don’t mean generic things like “Why is this position open?” Get creative and go for the “nobody has ever asked me that before” response. Some good questions are:

  • Would you join this company if you could do it all over again?
  • How many friends have you recruited to work for this company?
  • Does this company deserve to be on the “best companies to work for” list?

These types of questions will do three things: 1) get them thinking, 2) lend insight into what they say vs. what they do, and 3) separate you from the rest of the candidates asking textbook questions.

You don’t want to be an awful interview story that becomes part of company lore. Being confident in your abilities and assertive in making decisions will make it that much easier for an interviewer to make a decision about you. Stand out so you can break through the clutter of other applicants and give them a good taste of who you really are, not someone you’re trying to be. If you do that and they don’t select you, then it wasn’t a good fit to begin with; therefore, it’s a win for both sides.

Mark Quinn is a Segment VP of Marketing with Leggett & Platt and has more than two decades of experience. Quinn writes a bedding industry and marketing blog called Q’s Views.

Correction 4/13/12: An earlier version of this post misspelled Sir Richard Branson’s name.


  1. Hi Mark
    Some interesting points you make here – I particularly like Richard Branson’s approach to selection!
    In order to feel confident at interview I’d add that it’s really important to be able to confidently headline your CV in around 4 minutes – this avoids boredom on the part of the interviewer and means you can feel sure you can tackle the first part of the interview when you are asked about your career to date.

    I’d also suggest that you prepare for the interview by working out the competencies they are looking for (from the JD) and having examples ready of where you have shown these skills. Each answer should be no more than 3 minutes

    • Mark Quinn

      I really like the short but sweet approach, I agree that you need to keep things simple! Thanks for the comment Tomy.

  2. Great insight, Mark. For me, number one is a deal breaker. I purposely ask questions that catch candidates off guard to gauge their reactions. If a candidate becomes offended, lies or is visibly uncomfortable, they aren’t the right fit. However, if they take the question in stride and have fun with it, it’s likely they will move forward in the interview process. I expand a little bit more about gauging reactions and unconventional interview questions in my blog post here:

    • Mark Quinn

      Love your creative approach Tom, especially the question you ask about them drinking. I would like to see the look on their faces when you hit them with that. I am guessing you can spot the liar a mile away.

  3. Hey Mark,
    I am not sure if I agree with all your tactics and examples, but they at least give a different view. Job hunters have to have a strategic plan, just like in business. I recommend focusing on several companies that you want to work for and as you start applying for their open positions you should be researching them.
    It will pay off in the end if you attend networking events that they are at, and you can introduce yourself. If you ask questions, and play it casually it will not come off as creepy. This will give you a leg up in the interview process, and if it is an industry event it will give you the chance to meet several people in the industry at once. This is also good networking practice for when you get the job. My company attends many industry shows and it is extremely important to forge relationships from those shows to build leads. Here is an interesting blog about how we connected with other professionals at a recent industry show.

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