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Careers Café

The interview: what they want to hear


My recent post on interview skills left me with a niggling irritation; it didn’t do enough to distinguish pattern identification from giving canned answers that “they” want to hear. So I’ll take this opportunity to say it more clearly: focusing on “what they want to hear” is among the worst interview mistakes. It’s an approach that leads to un-insightful interview responses and makes interviewees come across as disingenuous.

The what-they-want-to-hear approach typically orients itself toward figuring out the “right” responses to specific questions – including tough ones like weaknesses and future career goals. Of course, the “right” response quickly becomes the wrong response. After all, once everybody is using the same response, it does nothing to distinguish you from other candidates and, because “right” responses quickly become clichéd, it can cause interviewers to doubt your sincerity.

The weird thing is that this approach isn’t that far removed from interview prep that’s actually useful: thinking about what the work you’re interviewing for requires, and which of your experiences is useful; focusing on the most relevant information to share in the interview, and making sure you’re putting forward your best real self. The scale, however, is clearly different: instead of focusing on what’s right for a specific question, you focus on what’s relevant for the work you’re interviewing for.

I wish I had some fantastic new interview prep method, but the standard one seems to work: list the qualities, skills, areas of knowledge, and attitudes that seem most relevant to the work you’re applying for. Add in some of the common questions about things like handling conflict, and strengths and weaknesses. And then comb through all of your experiences for ones that best apply. This is a good point at which to figure out which patterns those experiences suggest, and whether you might be emphasizing something that’s not relevant to the role, or underemphasizing something that is.

Finally, as much as you’re able, treat your notes as speaking points rather than a precise script. One of the reasons why canned “right” answers come across as insincere is because interviewees visibly and audibly change when they give an answer they’ve memorized. Body language becomes less natural, voice modulation and pace change. That’s bad enough in a canned answer – and there’s no point in letting it get in the way of a genuine answer that reflects your true experience. Speaking points let you get comfortable and be ready to answer, without letting the polish get in the way of good content.


Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Shahid Ahmed / September 2, 2015 at 14:29

    Thanks for a nice article, the issue you’ve talked about is genuine, however its relevance is more prone to those whose first language is not English.

    • Liz / September 16, 2015 at 16:44

      Hi Shahid,

      Thanks for your comment; you make an excellent point. When interviewing in a language that isn’t your first, it can still be useful to see how far you can push the “speaking notes” style of preparation. Give this a try with a friend when there isn’t a real job on the line, so you can see what works best for you, and please let me know whether or not it works for you.

      As outlined in the blog post, go through the process of combing through your own experiences, and choosing which ones match well with common interview questions and skills and qualities you might likely to be asked about in your desired line of work.

      Then, make the research that you’ve done into your desired line of work pay off. Are there phrases in relevant job ads and personal LinkedIn profiles that reveal an “insider” way of talking about your experiences (e.g. “teaching” in academic environments might become “training” in other environments)? In other words, is there useful jargon that an interviewer would expect you to be familiar with? Then work on creating some other phrases that you think you’ll need – ways of expressing important concepts. Instead of memorizing whole answers, you now have a set of building blocks for your responses. I used this approach when preparing presentations in a foreign language and found that it allowed me to sound reasonably spontaneous, while still using more idiomatic language than I would have if I were speaking completely off the cuff.

      Grab a friend who is fluent in the language you’ll be interviewed in. Have them ask you interview questions, and work from your speaking notes. Then, share your speaking notes and ask for their feedback on the phrases you worked on: did they sound natural? Would they recommend any changes to your pronunciation of those key phrases and terms related to your line of work? Try out your answers again – not in an attempt to memorize word for word, but instead to work in your key phrases.

      Let me know how it goes.