If you google “interview tips” you will get a couple pages full of the exact same advice.
Dress for success
Research the company
Be on time
Prepare to talk about your strengths and weaknesses
Follow-up with a thank you note
Ok … these are the absolute basics of interviewing. The problem for you is, 10 million other people read these same articles. Which means you can’t actually win with this advice – you can only keep pace. How are you supposed to actually beat the other candidates? How do you actually get the job?
These are the questions I’m going to answer in this blog. I’ve probably done a hundred interviews throughout the course of my career and I bet I’ve conducted interviews for five hundred candidates or more. In this blog I’ve distilled all that experience into my 5 best interview tips to separate you from competing applicants. These are interview tips designed to outmatch your competitors.
Before I get started, if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals I mentioned above, you’re probably not going to get much out of this blog. For those of you at the very beginning of your careers, I suggest reading a couple of introductory articles before continuing on. Here are a couple good ones to start with.
Your Optimal Interview Mindset
The best place to start is with the mindset you need to have when entering the job interview process. Performance, as it pertains to job interviewing, is mostly relative. What I mean by that is after a certain baseline level, the only thing that really matters is how you perform relative to the other people applying for the job. Yes, if you all suck, none of you will get hired. But if you’re all amazing, only the best will get the role. When three of you are great, you don’t get to split the job. The company isn’t going to create three identical roles so all of you can work there. Only one person gets the job. You should never lose sight of this truth. When it comes to getting hired, the only way to win is to outperform your competitors.
This has major implications on your interview strategy and message. Most candidates focus too much time explaining why they are qualified for the role. The best candidates focus on positioning themselves relative to the competitors they’re most likely going to be up against. We’ll go through some examples of how this mindset shift manifests inside the actual interview performance itself. It has bearing on virtually every aspect of your interview approach all the way down to how you choose to answer individual questions. What it means, first and foremost, is that your mindset walking in cannot be, “I’m going to convince them I can be great at this job”. Rather it should be, “I’m going to convince them there’s only one kind of candidate who can do this job the way it should be done … and I’m the best example of that type of candidate they’re going to find”.
I realize this may still seem quite nuanced, so I’m going to walk through an example as we go to illustrate the key points. Here are my 5 best interview tips to outmatch your competitors:
1. Start by identifying the different categories of candidates likely applying for the role.
Before I ever walk into an interview I get a clear picture in my mind of the various types of candidates likely to be applying. For example, let’s say I’m applying for a Marketing Communications Manager role at a health care technology company. In this case there are really 4 types of candidates I’m likely to be up against.
The audience expert. This is the candidate with deep health care industry expertise who truly understands the customer and the market. Whether they’ve worked in the industry themselves or have worked for companies that sell to the industry. Typically this person lacks some depth on the marketing or technology fronts but makes up for it with a uniquely strong understanding of the industry.
The functional expert. This is the candidate with exceptionally deep marketing communications expertise. Someone who has exceptionally strong experience in the discipline of marketing. Normally this candidate has little direct experience working in the industry and may lack a deep understanding of the audience and technology.
The technology expert. This is the candidate who has a strong understanding of the product or technology the company is selling. Sometimes this is an internal candidate or someone who has worked at a close competitor. Their unique technical advantage is most likely offset by a below average command of the functional discipline – in this case, marketing communications.
The jack of all trades. This candidate, as the name suggests, has a little bit of everything. A bit of marketing communications expertise, some experience in the industry and some technical or product knowledge. Not great in any one area, but ok at all areas.
I can’t overstate the importance of building a clear picture in your mind of the types of candidates you’re likely to be up against in the interview process. This map is going to be the anchor for your entire positioning strategy and messaging narrative during the interview process itself.
Once you’ve got your competitors categorized and labeled, now you have to figure out where you fit. Are you quite obviously one of these? Are you a combination of two? Are you something else entirely? Once you’ve identified what category you fit, we can start building our argument for why that category is the best possible fit for the company and role. If you go through this exercise and you find you don’t fit into any category, then you haven’t built your categories correctly.
For the sake of example, let’s pretend I have strong audience expertise but I’m pretty weak on the technology side and I’m only so-so on marketing communications experience. We can build a winning narrative for that.
2. Build an argument for why your category is best for this role.
This is the most important part. Rather than make your narrative all about YOU, its best first to convince your interviewers that one category of applicants is far superior to the others. Arguing for a category of candidate vs. arguing for yourself, is a much stronger positioning strategy because it provides the interviewer a structured framework and model to guide his or her thinking. It seems objective and will stick in the interviewer’s mind much more so than any story about you.
This is where you need to build your category level argument. It might go something like this:
You: My guess is that throughout the course of the interview process, you’re going to meet four types of candidates; audience experts, functional experts, technology experts and then maybe a few people with a basic command of all three.
Interviewer: Ok, go on …
You: In my experience, and based on my understanding of where the company is today, I think it’s absolutely critical for the Marketing Communications Manager to have deep understanding of the market and customer needs.
Interviewer: I can’t argue with that, but why do you think it’s so important?
You: My observation of the market and of your competitors is that they aren’t speaking in the language of the audience. They aren’t authentic in their communications which means none of them are really getting their message across. Sure, it’s great to understand the technology, but anyone can learn that quite quickly. It’s also important to have great experience in the discipline of marketing, but that’s just table stakes – everyone needs that. What will really move the needle for you is a marketing communications manager who truly understands the customer.
Interviewer: Is that you?
It should go without saying, I could have easily built a compelling argument for any of the categories. The most important point is that the category level approach, when executed effectively, can wipe out most of your competitors before you even have to tell your own story. By taking this approach vs. starting with an argument focused on Me, I’ve already taken a shot to eliminate all the competitors who fall into any of the other three categories no matter how good they might be as individuals. Now that I’ve made a compelling argument for a type of candidate, I can start making the argument for why I exemplify the qualities of that category
3. Build a story that proves you exemplify the best category of candidate.
This step is pretty straightforward. Now that you’ve provided a structured way for your interviewer to think about candidates, you can start to make the argument for why you personify the best category. That might go something like:
You: What makes me uniquely qualified for this role, is that I bring a depth of experience with the audience you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. In addition to having marketing communications expertise, I worked in the health care business for 5 years. I was the audience. I understand how they think and how they talk. I truly understand their needs and that will lead to more impactful communications.
Interviewer: Ok, so what would you do exactly?
4. Build a map of on-ramps to stay on message.
You can’t just force an interview to go any way you want it to. But you can come prepared with a winning narrative and find on-ramps to reinforce your message throughout the discussion. The best example of messaging on-ramps can be seen in the US political primaries right now. It almost doesn’t matter what question a candidate gets asked, inevitably they’ll find a way to move the narrative back to their winning category and message e.g. economic reform to bolster the middle class, tighter immigration policies etc. When the debates and questions are over, very few people remember the details, but we all remember the categories.
When I’m preparing for an interview, I’ll take a list of common interview questions like the ones in the article below, and make notes on how I’ll pivot my answers to get back to my main narrative while still answering the question.
You don’t want to avoid answering questions directly. I’m not advocating for you to be evasive. But you do want all your answers to line up to a single, powerful story about why your category is best, and why you exemplify the best of that category.
5. Prove everything you’ve said by delivering a tangible, validating asset.
If you’re really serious about a role, and you want to win it badly enough, you’ll cap off the interview by delivering an asset or document or presentation or something that proves everything you just said. This requires an investment of time so you have to make sure it’s late enough in the process and you have a decent chance of getting the role before you do it. But if I was going for this marketing communications manager role and I really wanted it, I might end the interview with something like this:
You: I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and I hope I’ve made a compelling argument for why I’m uniquely qualified for the role. I took the liberty of writing a sample blog post on a topic I know your audience cares about. I think it provides a good example of how well I understand the audience, and how communications, when written in a tone and language the audience understands, can be extremely powerful.
Interviewer: Wow, ok … I’ll take a look.
The job search process is more competitive now than it ever has been. I’ve talked about it at length in previous blogs.
To beat your competitors and actually get more job offers, you need to raise your game. Everyone has read the articles on interview basics. You can’t win that way. To separate yourself from the competition you need to build a strategy and story that positions you to win.
I hope this was valuable. Let me know in the comments about your experiences in highly competitive job searches.