Dear Candidate

Watch out for the Columbo question!

You have to be pretty old to remember the detective show ‘Columbo’. A legendary police procedural that revolved around a shabby and dishevelled looking detective – Lieutenant Columbo – whose sharpness of mind was in direct inverse proportional relationship to the sharpness of his dress. Columbo used a negative first impression to his advantage, fooling the suspect into writing him off as a bumbling idiot. He would then reel his quarry in as they underestimated him; they grew casual, over-confident, sloppy. His interview technique was crafty – and highly effective.

Columbo’s best trick was to appear to have ended the interview, saying something like, “Well, I’ve taken up plenty enough of your time already”, and turn to leave. And then, just as he is shuffling off, Columbo would turn round and say, “Oh – just one more thing”. This was always the killer question – the one that caught the suspect off guard. So, watch out for the Columbo question…

Oh, congratulations on getting short-listed. Now, the interview. Could I offer a few words of advice for you to take or leave?

First up, it’s worth remembering that every moment is part of the interview – how you enter the building, how you interact with Reception and other staff, how you say goodbye and take your leave, how you communicate before and after the interview. It all feeds in.

Lieutenant Columbo: a master of interview technique?

Whilst I wouldn’t hold Lieutenant Columbo up as an example of how to dress for interview, I would certainly look out for and respect his type on an interview panel. In my experience, the ones who come over as tough, searching, probing, penetrating with very specific and clever questions – they are not the ones to fear. The more specific the question, the more obvious the answer they are seeking. You simply have to make a judgement as to what kind of angle they are on, and play it accordingly.

No, the ones to be very careful with are the open-enders, the ‘can you give me an example of a time when you…’; the smiling, friendly question that will give you the scope to say anything you want. This is where preparation and anticipation come in. You need to have thought of examples that show what you stand for, what makes you different, what shows that you care and are serious about your chosen course or career.

I recently spent a day interviewing candidates for a headship. It was absolutely fascinating. It’s always interesting meeting people at interview. Not just because different people take the same questions in such differing directions. You learn a lot about people even in 45 minutes in the admittedly formal and controlled circumstances of an interview. Some people make a fantastic first impression and then gradually fade away; others make a slow start and really grow into the interview; the best will start strong and keep getting better.

The reality that struck me once again is the old cliché that ‘first impressions matter’. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This doesn’t mean that our first assessments of people we meet are spot-on accurate. In fact, we are often wildly off-beam. But the fact remains that the way we present ourselves to others at the first encounter will either help or hinder us. Whether it is in the context of a university or job interview, or – most excruciating of all – meeting a girl or boyfriend’s parents for the first time, first impressions count.

Given that everyone will, at some point sooner or later, be interviewed, I thought I might share a few thoughts on the subject with you. Let’s start with some things not to do:

• Avoid fancy dress – I don’t mean Disney outfits – rather, avoid anything that is likely to trigger a negative value judgement. The interview is not the place for exciting fashion statements. You want people to sense that you care and are a serious person. That’s about it. Your clothes simply need to reinforce your sincerity. Comedy ties are great – but not for interview. Wacky jewellery, humorous socks, political slogan badges. None of these is a good idea. Dark suits, simple single tone ties (not crazy colours). Shoes matter. Unless you are being interviewed by Vivienne Westwood you should aim to look conventionally smart – not wild, wacky or scruffy.
• Avoid being over-familiar or chatty. Two of the six people I interviewed yesterday said “How are you doing?” or “hiya” when meeting the interview panel. It was not the right register to hit. We all need to be able to adjust our tone to the context we are in. That doesn’t mean putting on an act or being a fake. It’s possible to be yourself whilst also being respectful and formal.
• Avoid cliché or platitudes – “I’m a people person”; “I have a passion for…”; find new ways of saying things.
• Avoid being negative about other people, institutions, systems – anything really. Nobody likes to hear negativity.
• Never lie or over-embellish – you’ll most likely get found out or have to embroider more or sound unconvincing. The best interviewees are determinedly themselves. If you feel you have to lie, you will sound inauthentic.

It’s also important to look closely at what the interviewer is doing; how they are dressed; the tone of question and the way they are responding to what you are saying. Read them as they read you. Fundamentally, it is about making a connection.

This brings me to things you should try to do:

• Hold eye contact – but not in a fixed or challenging way
• Smile – but in a way that is relevant and not loony or fake
• If there’s more than one person interviewing, scan and keep people involved – sweep the room but not like an automated lighthouse
• Sit still – plant yourself but not too rigidily; don’t sniff (bring a hanky), scratch, rummage, jangle, fidget, twiddle or otherwise distract them; convey a sense of calmness and stillness – be a swan rather than meerkat
• Be concise – don’t ramble – but do elaborate when asked; let there be silence – don’t try to fill it
• Answer the questions – don’t be a politician but do steer them to areas of strength and enthusiasm
• Give examples – ideally, think of them in advance – how have you shown initiative, leadership; learned from mistakes; helped change things etc – and make sure they are both true and positive
• Take your time when the curve ball or surprise question comes – and keep your answer to that brief

Right, my dear Candidate. I think I’ve taken enough of your time. Thank you. No, no – please, I’ll show myself out….

Oh – and just one more thing: don’t use The Apprentice as your guide for interviews. That’s entertainment, not real life. True, some interviewers seem more interested in proving their own brilliance than establishing yours, and some can be combative or spiky, but most interviews are open-ended, polite, undramatic and probably wouldn’t make great TV.

A good interview will aim to put you on a stage and allow you to perform. And in order to perform you need to prepare, to practise, to think about what you want to convey to your audience, and to work out how to be true to the best version of yourself. Because, when it comes down to it, it is you who will have to do the course or the job or impress those parents or whatever this interview is all about. You don’t want the interviewer or interview panel to choose some phoney, invented you. Just the best you.

Good luck. Sock it to ’em.

2 thoughts on “Dear Candidate

  1. I especially liked Columbo for maintaining the respect of his interviewee after being found wanting. Also recommend interviewees found wanting ask how could their application be improved

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