Interview Like A Politician: Dominate the Conversation

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President Bill ClintonIf you’ve ever listened or watched to an interview of a politician, you’ll probably recognize the “talking points” when they come up. Talking points are ideas, also known as takeaways, that an interviewee wants the audience and the interviewer to learn during the course of the interview. Politicians are great at this because they recognize that while it appears the interviewer is in control, the reality is the interviewee is the one that has the ability to shape the discussion based on his or her answers.

J.K. left a great comment on my post about the most common interview questions that I’ll repeat verbatim:

Jim, I think you need to step back and add a “strategic” spin on this.

As an experienced recruiter and interviewee myself, I find this to work best:

  1. Before the interview, research the company you are interviewing with thoroughly. This really matters.
  2. Next think about what the job opening requirements are and in addition, what the “unspoken” requirements are (e.g. a sales rep should be self-secure, outgoing etc) – using this, create a punch list of traits / experience / expertise that the interviewer is looking for.
  3. Then articulate your own “must mention” punch list of things to mention in the interview, to make sure you satisfy all of the interviewers major punch list items. I typically recommend picking 2-3 stories you want to tell, or experience sets you want to emphasize, that put together cover your and the interviewers punch lists.
  4. Then write those stories onto index cards and practice them until you can tell the stories, fluently and convincingly.
  5. Finally, at the interview use whatever questions come along to tell your stories. Always answer the question, but if possible find a natural point to launch one of your stories. If you did your homework right, his questions will be aligned wuit your stories and it will be easy to weave them in.

That punch list is just like a politician’s talking points. The good thing about a job interview is that the interviewer, if they know what they’re doing, already knows what qualities the company wants and will actively ask you questions to see if you have the unspoken requirements. Sometimes politicians are forced to shoehorn talking points into otherwise irrelevant questions (i.e. “Well, I don’t want to focus on that, I want to talk about …”). By preparing ahead of time, you know how to answer those questions when they come and you know what you want to emphasize.

J.K., over email, later expanded on this idea and said:

Every candidate going into an interview should have an executive summary of what they want to bring across and “plug” during the interview.

E.g. I have 5 key strengths that I bring to this job: 1st great communication skills both written and oral, 2nd intellectual horsepower and creativity – I enjoy cracking tough nuts, 3rd interpersonal skills – I get along with people including “difficult” folks and am usually able to help form a cohesive team quickly, 4th entrepreneurial spirit and experience and finally I am a proven leader who has managed teams of up to 10 people before.

Your mission is to establish your talking points ahead of time and weave them into the interview. While I’ve never done this myself, it seems like such an obvious thing to do that I feel silly preparing only for the questions! It’s like focusing on winning a few key battles in a war, rather than focusing on the war itself.

Finally, J.K. stresses the importance of stories as a way of engaging with the interviewer and “showing” you have skills, rather than just saying “I’m good at XYZ.”

When you tell an interviewer that you have a certain skill / experience / expertise whatever, you are asserting. I.e., you claim to have that what he or she is looking for, but that doesn’t mean that the interviewer is going to believe you. So to make your point you should always provide “proof points” during your interview – this converts a baseless assertion into a powerful evidence-based fact.

For example, if I interview someone and he says: “I am a great leader”, I won’t believe him. But if he says: “I have a strong leadership track record. For example, while in college I was president of my fratenity we had a budget crisis, and my fraternity brothers were resigned to shutting down our fraternity, but I was able to rally the team, galvanize them into action and turn around our finances. And because of what we accomplished our fraternity is still thriving to
this day”, I will tend to believe him. I might ask some probing questions to make sure he isn’t bluffing, but I feel much better about it than what the other guy said.

As an aside, this is one of the reasons why blogs are so powerful and why I think people visit Bargaineering. We have smart and clever people out there, like J.K., who are sharing their successful approaches to an otherwise difficult problem. I appreciate it tremendously when you share your insight and we get the chance to learn and grow as a community.

This article is part of Bargaineering Career Week 2009, a week-long series focused on your career – how to find a job, how to tailor your resume, how to find the job opportunities and how to nail the interview. This article is the third article of day four – the interview process.

(Photo: sskennel)

{ 4 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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4 Responses to “Interview Like A Politician: Dominate the Conversation”

  1. JP says:

    It’s always good to prep and this is a good way to do it because you know what you want to cover and what stories you want the person to know. The worst feeling is leaving an interview because you forgot something relevant.


  2. zapeta says:

    Agreed, preparation beforehand is critical so you can take the conversation where you want it to go.

  3. Soccer9040 says:

    For a big picture on a larger company, go to their annual reports and read the MD&A section. It talks about everything the company is doing and where they are going. Its a must read.

  4. Chris says:

    I agree, that by being informed you can have some control of the direction. Just don’t pull a Sarah Pallin by completely ignoring the question.

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