Stick to the Message: applying speech writing tactics in interviews.

This is the submitted text for an article that ran in The Age newspaper on 14 August 2010. 

If you learn to deliver your carefully crafted message in the interview as politicians do at the podium you’re sure to be an outstanding performer.

Preparing for an interview and knowing what tack to take when answering questions can be a challenge even for the most confident of us. In the high-stress interview, it can be startlingly easy, even when well prepared, to get tongue tied, sidetracked or fail to make the most of the points you had planned to expound upon. The same pitfalls and challenges have to be overcome when giving a speech. The good news is that, just as with delivering a speech, the art and science of performing well in interviews can be taught. What follows is based on the high-level advice I give to clients when they are preparing for the podium.

First off, lead from the outcome. The best public speakers are those grab the audience with a strong, positive message. Prepare your talking points ahead of time and ensure that these map to the position profile or list of desirable competencies. Choose a top-line message and take it as a theme you can return to for emphasis. For instance, if the job requires the candidate to meet deadlines, ensure that your talking points emphasise your ability to manage your time efficiently to get the job done. Consider using a story to illustrate this key attribute – it’s great to establish credibility with a “show” to back up the “tell” – choose one you are good at telling and you’ll establish your own confidence early.

Second, it’s vital to know your audience. Do your research – not just on the company but the people opposite you across the table. Moving beyond simply typing their names into Google, the social networking site, LinkedIn, will often list their interests, ideas and experience. Hidden away in the company’s website will almost always be the annual reports and summaries of strategic plans – read them. Try to get a feel for where this role fits in within the wider context of the company. Is it a newly created position to, for example, help company X respond to its competitors? If you understand the why the position exists within the broader scope of the organisation you’re much more likely to be able to answer questions in a manner that will strike the interviewer as insightful.

Next, ensure that you demonstrate affinity. This goes far beyond the usual advice to mirror the tone and body language of your interviewer: tie your goals to the interviewers’ and the company’s. Demonstrate how the role will enable you to achieve company objectives and use carefully chosen anecdotes to show you have a genuine interest in the people and the organisation.

Confidence shows: be aware of your movements and you can often fake what you might not feel. Where are your hands? Rest them on the table; don’t cross your arms. Look into the eyes of your interviewers when you talk. Chin up and out. Make sure you are comfortable, you could be there for some time and fidgeting will make you look bored. Presentation is crucial. As soon as you enter the room, or before – do I need to tell you to always be nice to the receptionist? I hope not – you’re being measured on your clothes and grooming. Match your appearance to the company values and dress to impress.

Express efficacy and purposefulness. Like all effective politicians, try not to talk too much – babbling often exposes the very gaps in your knowledge you’re trying to plug. Answer questions succinctly and demonstrate a sense of purpose, a keenness to find answers to business problems. It’s okay to pause to think through an answer. Remember too that positivity is hugely attractive: make like Obama – ‘yes we can’.

Everyone likes good humour, but jokes can backfire. Smile and be positive. Never deride anyone in an interview (regardless of how bad your ex-boss was) it will reflect badly on you no matter how justified by the circumstances: the interview is an exercise in looking forward, after all. Express your energy and positive approach. Don’t make jokes that are risky – this isn’t the theatre for risk.

Just as great speakers do, as the interview wraps up return to your key message. Clarify how your strengths map to the core competencies and position profile and reiterate how keen you are to get to grips with the new role.

Ellis Jones undertakes strategic PR campaigns for clients, developing story ideas and content for use by the media. Get in touch to start positioning your business.

 image credit: nist6dh