By Gladys Stone & Fred Whelan
Imagine our astonishment when an otherwise presentable and talented young man began an interview by casually plopping his cell phone on the conference table. We kept glancing at each other and the cell phone, wondering if it would ring and, if so, whether the young man would actually stop the interview to answer it.
Fortunately, this interview was just a coaching session. We met with him while doing coaching work with Students Rising Above (SRA), a nonprofit organization that helps low-income and recently homeless students attend and graduate college. This young man with the cell phone -– and other 20-somethings like him -– made us realize they needed a lot of interview help!
Here's what we were able to teach them to help them land jobs. These 10 interview techniques could help you too:
1. Ditch Your Cell Phone at the Interview: Cell phones should be out of sight and turned off. More than one student placed a cell phone on the conference room table during an interview. This sends the signal that you’re not focused 100 percent on the interview. If your cell phone does ring, you should apologize and quickly turn it off -- without checking to see who called.
2. What to Say: An interview is your opportunity to sell yourself. Even if your work history only includes summer jobs, what you did counts. We found that students tended to provide minimal information about their previous jobs, saying things like "I just answered the phones." But often those calls are much more involved – “dealing with vendors on past due invoices,” for example. This stronger answer better represents what the student did and more positively positioned her. So be specific. Instead of just filing, discuss how you organized a filing system or improved efficiencies. Expand on whatever experience you've had so the interviewer gets a sense of how you approach your work.
3. How to Shine: Fully describe whatever company is on your resume. For example, "I worked for company X, which is headquartered in San Francisco, has 100 employees and about $200 million in sales." That demonstrates that you have an understanding of the company’s broad picture. Also, you should be able to give a solid answer to the question, "Why are you interested in working here?" Examples: "The company is in an industry that I love" or "You have an impressive client list, which means there are a lot of smart people here who I can learn from."
4. Tell Me About Yourself: Open-ended questions can often trip up students and recent grads. The best way to handle this question is to right up front say what you are interested in, for example, "I'm interested in the law and here's why." You can follow this up by discussing the classes you enjoyed and why.
5. What You Should Ask: Most 20-somethings know they should have a question to ask at the end of the interview. Make sure your question's a good one by relating it to the company. An easy thing to do is to check out the company's Web site before the interview and read the latest press releases. If the press release is about a new product, ask "How many new products do you typically launch in a year?" Then follow up with, "Is that typical for your industry?" Another good question: "Which areas of the company are growing?" Expressing interest in the whole company may lead the interviewer to consider the student for employment in other departments.
6. How to Answer the Weakness Question : A weakness at this early stage in a career should be a reflection of inexperience, not ineptitude. When asked this question, one student blurted out "communication," which wasn’t true. He then suggested "time management," although this had never been addressed in any previous job. Don’t make up answers because you think you need to come up with something. Instead, suggest an area or skill that needs improvement. For example, you can respond, "What I believe I can improve upon is my efficiency. I need to think more about the process before I start an assignment."
7. Say What You Can Do: If the interview is not for a specific job, provide examples of what you can do for the company. This could be working in the mailroom, helping accounts payable or getting sales materials printed up. This is all entry level work -- in different departments -- and may prompt the interviewer to think more broadly of your potential fit inside the company.
8. Be Enthusiastic: Show your passion for the job, the company and the people you've met so far. Let the interviewers know you’re excited and you appreciate their time.
9. Get a Business Card: Be sure to ask for the person's business card. This way, you can thank the interviewer(s) and, if asked, let others in the company know whom you’ve already met with.
10. How to Close: At the end of the interview, thank the interviewer and ask "What do you think would be the next step?" The interviewer might say he'll get back to you or that the company is not hiring at the moment. If that's the case, ask the interviewer for a referral to another company or to a person in the same industry. Get in the habit of exploring as many employment options as possible.
The more quickly you can master these skills, the more successful you’ll be in your job interviews.
[Gladys Stone and Fred Whelan are executive coaches and recruiters with more than 20 years of experience. Their company, Whelan Stone, works primarily with Fortune 500 companies, recruiting high-impact talent and boosting the performance level of management. Their book, Goal! Your 30 Day Game Plan for Business & Career Success delivers a practical, effective solution for reaching any business or career goal. They have been frequently quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, USA Today and the Boston Globe and author a career blog on The Huffington Post. Both live in San Francisco.]