Interviewing is a Skill, not a Trait

Penny Schaffer
Apr 13, 2016 · 7 min read

Like all skills, to be good at interviewing you must prepare and practice. Interviewing is not a trait, like hair color — you’re not a Good or Bad interviewer by genetics or even upbringing. Sure, some people are more confident interviewing because they have rock-solid self-esteem or know how to “sell” themselves. If you wonder, how does one even go about that, or become nervous easily, or have a shoddy memory under pressure…you’re not alone. Most people are terrible at interviewing.

I used to dread interviewing. I was so anxious. I knew that under pressure, my face would turn red as I got embarrassed or flummoxed, I would stammer and forget things, sometimes the words that came out of my mouth made no sense. I was terrified that this would happen in an interview and everyone would just stare at me, thinking I was an idiot.

People don’t become concert pianists overnight, nor will you become a great interviewer overnight. If you 1) prepare, and 2) practice, though, you can reduce your stage-fright, gain confidence, and learn to recover from failure quickly.

I have previously written an article about preparing for an interview, so this will be focused on the practice portion of the equation.

Practice in Your Pajamas

In order to speak with confidence in the interview, I practice. I shut myself in my room, so other people don’t overhear me saying stupid things, and imagine an interviewer asking me a question, then I answer it out loud. Most of the time, this is followed by an exclamation of, “Wow, that was terrible, I wouldn’t hire me, either.” Then I do it again, until I have an answer I like. And a few more times so I remember what I said, for the most part.

I practice asking myself behavioral questions:
Tell me about a time when there was an obstacle and how you overcame it.
Tell me about a time you failed.
Tell me about an experience working with difficult people, and what you did.

And technical questions:
Tell me about a project you worked on where you used language X.
What are the tenants of object-oriented programming?
What makes good software?
Tell me about your experience with the software development life-cycle.

I try to relate each question to a personal experience, even if it’s not a behavioral question.

An interviewer wants to know as much about me as possible in a short amount of time, and I want to hand that information to them in a way that shows me in the best possible light. To do this, I spend some brainpower on what the question is really asking. For example:

When they ask me about working with difficult people, what are they looking for?

Probably some information about how I interact with people on a team. If I consider someone difficult for “minor” infractions, they might think I’m high maintenance; if I say, “I haven’t worked with difficult people,” that may indicate that I am trying to deceive them or that I am a difficult person myself. If you’ve been in a social situation, you have dealt with difficult people! Maybe it was a teacher/professor, maybe it was a relative, maybe it was a classmate, or a teammate on a project, or the grouchy barista who always gets my order wrong. I want to choose a particular story that shows me in the best light, while answering the question they are really asking — how am I a team player?

Let’s do another:
Tell me about a time you failed.

This is my all-time favorite question. Early on, I hit on a great story and I still tell it, even though it’s years out of date, because it has a visceral impact on my interviewers. I tell them the story about my senior design project. It was terrible. My teammates were abusive, demeaning, deceptive, deliberately excluded me from meetings, spread rumors and lies about me to the entire graduating class, and ultimately, tried to sabotage my grade. I unfold this story, setting up how the class was for me, the ramifications of failure. I tell them not only how bad things were, but what was at stake— I needed to do well in this class! Then, I talk them through the steps I took to try and rectify the situation, not all of them, but some of the big ones. And I end up telling them I quit. Usually at this point, there’s some alarm — Wow, you quit? But what about your graduation/honors? I don’t have to explain how difficult this decision was to make, because through telling the story I have brought them to that understanding. I do explain what happened afterwards, how I dealt with the fallout, and how I learned a valuable lesson — that sometimes I’ve done all I can and there’s nothing left to do but get out and save my own sanity.

I never known what interviewers take away from this story, but one thing I clearly communicate is — I am willing to try to deal with difficult people, but I have a limit and I know what that is. I expect to be treated fairly and with respect, and I know exactly where the door is. It’s important for me that they know this about me.

I always need to practice that question in particular to get it concise and professional, so that I don’t spend all my time talking about this one event. Fortunately, since it pulls double duty as a “difficult people” question, I can gain usually knock two off their list at once if they ask this one first.

When you’re going through your practice questions, think about events you’re proud of or things that had a significant impact on your career and try to create some narratives/stories around those events. Of course, you want to make sure those stories are sending the messages you intend, so it’s important to listen to what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.

Your stories need to be:

  • Positive
  • Neutral or positive about past employers and companies — if you can’t figure out a way to sound neutral, don’t say it
  • Brief — aim for 30 seconds to two minutes for the telling
  • Expandable — if they ask you for more details or just leave silence for you to talk into, be prepared to elaborate on the story
  • Important to you — otherwise, they’ll be boring
  • An answer to one or more unasked questions in addition to the verbalized question
  • Indicative of your qualities — are you honest, empathetic, timely, productive? This should come across in the telling

See my article about interviews as conversations for some more details about how I specifically pick the stories.

To quickly recap:

  • Think about questions you might be asked
  • Practice speaking aloud those questions by yourself, without an audience
  • Anything that sounds weird or negative or lame, reword and try again
  • Keep practicing until you can answer the question with ease, hitting all the important markers in your story

Practice with Your Pals

Once I’m feeling confident talking to my walls, it’s time to pull in a friend. I give them a list of sample questions and ask them to interview me— in person or on the phone, however I need to practice. They should combine and rephrase questions as they like, throw in any other questions they think of, and generally try to simulate a “real” interview.

Fortunately, I’ve practiced, so this stage goes pretty well. Having stories prepared and well-rehearsed helps alleviate the stage-fright that can come along with interviews. If I have trouble here, I make note of what tripped me up then go back and pace out the answers on my own before trying again.

Practice with Prospects

Whew, I’ve made it through the practice interviews with friends. I know I’ve hit this point when I’m no longer intimidated by the questions. If I’m getting bored, I’m definitely at this step.

This is the step where we need to get in-person experience.

If you have access to mock interviews through your university or a career service, take advantage of them! Often times, especially for technical fields, these interviews don’t do justice to the types of questions you’ll be asked, and tend to focus on the behavioral interview questions. However, practicing with a stranger is a whole different ballgame than yourself and friends, so it’s worth wading in and trying it out. The scarier that is, the more important it is. You don’t want to walk into a Real interview with that level of anxiety.

Once I’m ready, I send my resume out to any and everyone, even if I don’t really want the job. I need to get a few practices in with Real Companies before I start applying to positions I care about. Invariably, there’s some question that trips me up, some new interview trick that’s come out, or something about my resume I thought I could talk about but stumble over. I don’t usually do very many of these — four or five phone screens, one or two in-person interviews — just enough to knock the dust off and make sure I get my jitters out of the way. I want to be an interview pro when I talk to my real prospects.

Although interviewing may be intimidating, people survive it every day. If you practice and prepare, not only will you reduce your interview anxiety, but you’ll be more confident and assertive. Create stories about what you want to talk about and practice answering questions you’re likely to get. You can do it!

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