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Short and Sweet: How to Ace Your First Round Interview

“Tell me about yourself.” That’s what I asked job candidates when I started out in executive recruiting. Not anymore.
One after another, they would start at the beginning of their 20-year career, and we’d never get to the present day and the job at hand. By now, I’ve spoken to thousands of prospective candidates, and if someone has trouble getting to the point, I simply need to move on.
It’s unfortunate, but when a candidate can’t make an effective case for themselves, I know I’ll have an even harder time making a case for them in a competitive job market. And I’m not alone. In an informal poll of my Talentfoot colleagues, I discovered that we pass on roughly 25% of executive job candidates due to rambling.
It’s shocking. These are professionals with decades of professional work experience. If they can’t explain things well to me in a low pressure environment, how are they going to pitch themselves to a hiring manager­—much less a client or their team or a new business prospect?
The Three Cs: Concise Communication Counts
Strong interview skills highlight effective communication skills, and top-level job seekers need to know how to answer questions efficiently and effectively to be chosen for high impact leadership positions today. In fact, more than one-third of 2,000 bosses surveyed said they know if they’ll hire someone within the first 90 seconds of meeting them.
Some people just want to talk about what they have done instead of focusing their responses and listening to information about what a specific job really entails. Take the advice of an experienced executive recruiter: Dominating the conversation does not make you sound “hireable.”
Instead, talking too much (and off-topic) demonstrates you are unable to pick up on cues about where people want to take a conversation. It also raises doubts about your ability to organize your thoughts and convey necessary information in a timely manner.
When you communicate effectively in an interview, you signal that:
  • You can distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, which is essential for working with a team, client or business, especially in the C-Suite.
  • You are self-aware and respectful of peoples’ time.
  • You can establish a relationship and build a memorable rapport quickly (which is important with C-Suite colleagues and clients).
  • You can bring focused, organized, and strategic attention to issues.
What You Can Do
The good news is that communication is like any other skill that can be improved with practice and persistence. Here are some ways to avoid rambling during a job interview:
Prepare for Common Interview Questions. I want to know if candidates are strategic thinkers but also that they are knowledgeable doers and understand what the job involves. If you’re an executive-level player, consider these questions and how your answers relate to the job you are seeking: Do you have a track record of success? What is your biggest career accomplishment? How have you helped build a department or a revenue stream? How have you contributed to the overall business? How would your team describe you as a leader? How do you know you’re a strong leader?
If you think you need to provide context for an interviewer to understand something, practice giving succinct answers and memorize them in advance.
Practice. Run through your answers in front of a mirror, and time yourself. I’m not kidding. I’ve successfully placed candidates who told me this advice made them more confident.
Use numbers to make a point. Brief statistics can help demonstrate the scope of your previous responsibilities (e.g. size of staff, budget of project) and encourage the recruiter/hiring manager to envision you in the role. Make sure the numbers — like your words — relate directly to your job application.
Don’t Reply Right Away. There’s nothing wrong with taking a second prior to answering an interview question. You can say, “That’s a really interesting question,” to buy some time to formulate your thoughts. Or, if you don’t understand the question, ask for clarification: “Would you like to hear about that more at a high level or in the weeds?”

Follow a Specific Format for Each Answer.

It’s important to be concise when you discuss a specific business experience. One method is the S.O.A.R. Answer Method, which stands for Situation, Obstacles, Action, and Results. But be careful to use it a limited way; otherwise, your conversation may sound too prepared or stilted.

Keep Track of the Time. The best interview responses in my opinion are ones that show you listened to the question and answered it in about 90 seconds, unless you are told to go on longer. If you are being interviewed by phone, keep your phone or a stopwatch handy and time yourself. (Don’t use a phone during in-person interviews.) If you know it’s a 30-minute interview, and you’ve only answered one question after 10 minutes, that’s a good sign you are talking too much.
Pay attention to cues. If your interviewer is looking bored, glancing at her watch or computer screen, you are probably rambling. If your interviewer seems too quiet on the phone, that’s another indication you may have lost their attention.

You shouldn’t have to ask if they want to hear more.

You can always offer, “I’m happy to go into more detail if that is helpful?” But generally, the recruiter/hiring manager will say so. Personally, when people ask me if they answered my question, my first thought is: If you don’t think you did, you didn’t.

Ask for feedback. An experienced recruiter can provide feedback on specific answers because we follow the market, know the job, and understand the client. We can tell you what hiring managers are looking for and how to target the job by highlighting information and relevant experience that may not be apparent from the job description.
Remember, killing it on a job interview is one of the most important steps to landing your desired position and carving out a career path that challenges and excites you. More than that, improved communication spills over into all aspects of your life, and your recruiter is here to help.
I could talk forever about this … but then I’d be rambling!
Have you tried any of these strategies to improve your job interview skills? If so, leave a comment below (but a brief one!)