5 STEPS TO PREP FOR THAT INTERVIEW: inc. scripts, questions, and manipulations
A complete guide to interview prep, including scripts, phone interviews, and video recordings.
I think when surveying the levers you can pull in life, getting a solid job that feels fulfilling, interesting, and pays the bills, is probably one of the big 3. Other than relationships and health, not much else can vastly affect your life like a good career move.
But I think knowing this is probably the biggest obstacle that prevents us from getting the job we want. For me personally, I know how important this stage is in determining my future and, as a result, the job interview becomes an anxiety-inducing hell hole that I want to get through as quickly as possible. This, of course, is not the best mindset.
It was only recently, when I really needed a job (in the sense that I would be kicked out of my apartment if I couldn’t make rent) that I decided to tackle this obstacle full force. I began researching and studying the interview process, and as I pulled from great resources like The Muse, Ramit Sethi, and JobJenny, I began to discover the keys that unlocked the right doors.
The secret to a good interview, it turns out, is good interview prep. Meaning, your performance during an interview is 90% a result of how well you prepped for the interview, rather than your background or experience level.
So after months of study and learning from dozens of failed interviews, here are the 5 big takeaways that doubled my income and got me the game-changing results I was after.
1) KNOW YOUR QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
It’s impossible to know all the questions that will be asked of you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. Similar to taking a test, although you don’t know the exact questions, you should know the types of questions that will be asked. The three main things your interviewer really wants to know is:
Your background and qualifications
Why you want to work with them in particular
How you handle problems (and if you’re a crazy person)
These usually get translated into a variety of questions, but regardless of how they ask it you’ll want to hit each of these points at some point in the interview. The first and most common question is, “tell me a little bit about yourself.” This is SUPER IMPORTANT, do not tell them your ENTIRE work history. Up until recently I always thought they genuinely wanted to know my journey, but as it turns out, they don’t really care (sad but true). What they really want to know is about your qualifications, which means you don’t need to tell them everything, only the things that really matter.
I recommend answering this question with a short and concise story. It should address a) how you found your direction b) how you got some skills and c) finish with how this has led you to apply to their company. Here is an example of, word for word, what I say to this question:
Well, most people usually want to know if I went to school for video production, and I love telling them I didn’t. I actually went to school for creative writing, which really helped me learn how to research and turn that research into meaningful stories. After college I worked at this place called 44Blue, which is this amazing Emmy award-winning production company. And there I was working with absolutely incredible professionals, really each of them was the best at what they did. So at 44Blue I was in charge of prepping productions and I quickly went from production assistant, to assistant camera, to camera-op, and then eventually to production lead. That really opened my eyes on how to craft stories that resonate with people, but then also how to execute a plan of action. So now at our small agency Pixel Press I’m in charge of running our production crews and it’s a very all-hands-on-deck kind of place so I get to be very involved with the content marketing side of it as well. But, I feel that I’ve been working with agencies for 3 years now, and while I’ve learned so many skills and gotten so much experience, I feel those skills are all being spread out in so many directions. I do a project here, I do a project there, but I’m really looking to take everything I’ve learned and use it to push something important in really big ways and that’s why I applied to work with you guys because I think you’re doing just that.
Okay so it’s not perfectly eloquent, but that’s okay. It hits some important points such as: a) I have experience working with the best b) I know how to lead and take action and c) I know why I’m applying to this company over any others.
Above all else: keep it clean
This person doesn’t know you or your background and it’ll be impossible to catch them up on your life in a 20 minute interview, so keep the story clean. Have an intro, a middle, and an end. In the above story I only told them about 3 out of the 8 places I’ve worked. It’s good to avoid telling too many stories right away. Let them ask you more questions and slowly build up that picture for them.
As a side note, the two other most common questions that are asked are, “why do you want to work with us?” and “why are you leaving your current job?” But, we’ve already addressed these a little bit in the intro, thus saving time for the more important stuff.
2) PREPARE STORIES
Now that we’ve seen what typical questions we’ll be asked, we need to prepare stories. A very common mistake I used to make was to answer questions with answers. It is much more effective to answer questions with stories. The three stories you should have in your pocket no matter what are:
A story about how you handled a problem at work
A story about what you did when something went terribly wrong
A story about a time you demonstrated leadership or initiative
If possible, it’s always better to craft stories that are relatable to the the current position you’re applying to. If your stories are from a completely different industry it might be hard for the interviewer to understand them or relate to them. Here is an example of a story I tell about when something went wrong:
O great question. Well there’s a lot to choose from but I think one time that really stands out for me is on the John Kerwin show. It’s a talk-show I worked on that’s like Jay Leno or Conan. Anyway, we had this guest come on the show who was an actor and I won’t say who he was because of privacy, but let’s call him Tim. He came on the show to promote his new book, but you could tell this guy didn’t care at all about the book and was just there because his publicist made him go. So he was in a bad mood and John was interviewing him and this guest was being really crass and dropping F-bombs left and right and the whole crew was shaking their heads thinking, “man this is a disaster, this is going to be the worst show we’ve ever done.” I knew that we needed to do something and I remembered that we had prepped some exercises to do with next week’s guest, we had some skits we were going to do. So I went into next week’s production folder and during the commercial break I went to John and said, “John I think you should try these with this guy. Clearly he doesn’t care about his book but maybe this will get him going.” So John, seeing there’s nothing to lose at this point, said to the guest, “okay so moving on we’ve got some skits to do!” And they started doing the skits and you could just see this guy’s eyes light up and he was having fun and it turned out to be one of the best shows we’ve ever produced! So I’d say that was a pretty proud moment for me.
So first of all, this didn’t actually happen this way. The story was much more involved and there were a lot more pieces to it, but that doesn’t matter. When a friend asks me what a certain book is about, I don’t go telling them about each character’s backstory, the scenery, etc, I tell them about the main plot points that will peak their interest.
Interview stories are the same way. What’s important is conveying the story in an easily digestible manner. We want to hit the main points without any extra fluff. In this case I tried to show that I was cool under pressure, thought of a creative solution, and then wasn’t shy about sharing that creative solution with my superior. If you need to make up a story or blend two stories into one, go for it. It’s better to present a clear story than a 100% factual one that sucks.
A good rule of thumb I’ve found is to try to tell 3 short stories during an interview. Sometimes you’ll only get to 2 and sometimes 4, but don’t go overboard with them. I time all my stories to be under 3-minutes in length.
3. VIDEO PRACTICE (most important step)
Speaking of timing, when it comes to prepping for an interview all this is 100% useless information unless you practice. An interesting story that a coach recently told me was about his favorite football player growing up, Jerry Rice. When Jerry Rice, an NFL hall-of-famer and probably the greatest receiver of all time, was asked by the media what his secret sauce for his unbelievable performance was, he replied, “I practice the fundamentals.” Of course the media wanted a better answer and kept pushing him to give them something. Finally, in frustration, he explained, “Listen, I practice the fundamentals. I practice which foot I start my run with, which hand I reach for the ball with, which toes I pivot with. There’s no secret, I just keep practicing the fundamentals.”
This is coming from a guy who had already won multiple Superbowls and was already considered one of the greatest players of all time. But his “secret sauce” was consistent practice.
So could it really be that easy?
Yes and no. Yes, because it’s true that practice will make you better. No, because most people will never actually do it. Practice is the uncomfortable work that will get you the results. But again, most people never actually do it.
For those who do want the results, here’s what I found works best.
Video Practice: Use the questions we learned in step one and record yourself on your smartphone. It will be uncomfortable. You will hate your voice. You will hate your face. And that’s okay. The point of this is not to flatter ourselves, but to get better. Some things I noticed when I did this were some verbal ticks like “Um” and “So yeah” which I used way too often when I wasn’t comfortable with a question. I also noticed that I didn’t maintain eye-contact and would look down frequently, which could be interpreted as a lack of confidence. We all do these things, but what surprised me was how often I did them. Clearly it’s hard to maintain eye contact with yourself, but if you can learn to do that with yourself, you sure as hell can do it with an interviewer.
In an effort to help you guys, here is my first video recording I ever did. It’s embarrassingly bad, but I’m putting it out there in the hopes that you’ll want to do better.
As awful as it was, what was equally awesome was when, in a matter of 30 minutes, I could see how much better I got. It only took 30 minutes, but within that short amount of time my answers got so much more crisp and confident. As that confidence grew the verbal ticks went away on their own. If you want to know how to get better at interviewing, this is it.
The protocol I found best was:
30 minute session
3 minutes per question (set a timer)
Only answer 3 questions and repeat them over and over
**Note: DO NOT skip this piece of the prep. It gave me 10 times the results that anything else has when it comes to interview prep.**
Timed Verbal Practice: On the day of the interview you want to warm up with a little less hardcore practice. Just like Jerry Rice, even once you think you’ve mastered a skill, it’s important to warm up before you perform. About 45 minutes before my interview time, I take my top 3 questions and practice my replies to them. In my experience, the first set never comes out smooth and if you just jump into the interview without a warm-up, chances are you’ll fumble trying to remember what you wanted to say. There’s no need to record yourself for this kind of practice. Just take some time to meditate, stay relaxed, and use a timer set to 3 minutes per question.
4) QUESTION THEM THOROUGHLY
Over 65% of the interviewers I talked to say that the questions the interviewee asks are the most important thing they look for. Meaning, the questions that YOU ask THEM are more important than what they ask you. So prep for it.
This is almost like reversing the interview. You want to ask them questions that will reveal something about their company and it’s culture. The questions can be tough but fair, and it’s important not to overstep here.
Some good questions I found land well are:
So I know this role involves X and Z, how much of each would you say the role focuses on?
It seems like you guys are growing very quickly, what would you say are your goals for the next year or so? (this allows them to gloat a little bit and you should show you’re impressed by their ambitions)
How much opportunities are there to collaborate across departments and do people collaborate in general? (this tells you how compartmentalized your job will be and some indication of how much room there is to grow)
How long have you been working there? (this personalizes the conversation and takes interest in your interviewer)
How do you like it so far? (again making it personal and humanizing)
Would you say there are any big challenges you’re facing? (this is the important one. It tells you how honest they are and what’s really going on at the company)
For a full list of questions be sure to download my Full Interview Prep E-book here
5) DON’T GO IN BLIND (phone only)
Many people dread phone interviews because there’s a lack of human connection, which is true. But, where there’s a weakness there’s also a strength. The best thing about a phone interview is that you can have materials in front of you to help you out. The two things you should always have pulled up on your computer side by side are your resume and the job description.
A common mistake I used to make was not having my resume in front of me when I talked on the phone. I thought I knew my experience very well so I would pace around the house and when the interviewer asked me, “so tell me what you did in terms of ABC for XYZ company?” I would naively just tell them what I did. The problem with that is it didn’t necessarily match what was on my resume and that can confuse the interviewer. So by having your resume and the job description up, you can ensure you’re telling them exactly what they want to hear.
If you want to go above and beyond you can also pull up your LinkedIn because there’s a high chance they’re looking at it while talking to you. Just be sure you don’t make too much noise clicking and typing on your computer or it sounds like you’re not paying attention. You can also glance at their LinkedIn before the interview begins to get to know who they are, the only caveat is don’t research them too much or you could suffer from information-overload.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s true, interviews are probably one of the most important things we do in life. A single 30-minute conversation with a stranger can alter your life in inconceivably big ways and that’s very overwhelming. But I’m a firm believer that how you do anything is how you do everything. So either we take on the challenge and work towards it, or we accept it as-is and let luck carry us forward.
A year ago, I thought that I would never get better at interviewing, but that was only because I had never actually practiced it. It was like trying to be a good basketball player by only playing a few full-court games every year. No matter how hard I tried, progress was slow, until I decided to take time and practice on my own. I know that the video recording portion of this method is the hardest, but it really is the most worthwhile and the thing that will take you the farthest. Those who practice, win.
If you’re thinking of quitting your current job but aren’t quite sure you might find this post helpful where I lay out the benefits of quitting your job now.
I hope you’ve taken something useful from this and I wish you all the best of (practice) luck on your next interview!