Give a good impression (without lying!) in an interview - carefully phrasing the truth to show your best side; adapting what you say to the interviewer's expectations
In an ideal world, you’ve been headhunted for your next position at your dream company because you really are the best in the business: totally career-focused, perfectly qualified and always learning, no interest in Netflix beyond your intensive English listening practice regimen, tons of relevant experience, and you just love to work overtime. Oh, and of course you are an elite CrossFit competitor and a loving parent too.
Back on planet Earth, I’ve had a spate of last-minute panic bookings with students wishing to practice their English in time for a critical interview the following day. Now I know my students are reliable, hard-working, and have generally already proven they can do the job as they’ve held comparable roles at ‘big 3’ companies (or big 5, or 7… whatever it is in your sector). And yet, running through typical interview questions, I often find myself not being totally convinced.
I think one major factor is that ESL speakers are often poorly practiced at dancing around questions; you are too honest! Or rather, too direct. Any good interviewer must find out who you really are in the limited time the interview provides, and this requires that they’ll ask questions which you don’t have an easy answer for. Lying is obviously not an option, but a truthful answer that is overly simplistic and direct can totally undersell you and appear to reveal a guilty truth, which could be a dealbreaker.
However, I’d like to make the case that the truth can often make for an excellent, positive sounding answer (even in the worst of cases) with just a little TLC. No longer something you admit to, but instead a constructive, functional piece of communication.
Questions and answers.
Despite what your 7th grade English teachers may well have insisted, questions do not often have correct answers. Rather, there’s generally a lot of room for interpretation. Let’s consider a highly unusual question:
👉Can you throw me your banana?
1. Yeah, sure.
2. No, I don’t have a banana.
3. Oh I don’t have a banana here, let me grab you one from the kitchen.
4. A banana? Should I have a banana?
Here are 4 ‘correct’ answers, one of which is rather rude (2.), and one of which would most certainly be the best option if it’s your manager asking (3.). A more likely example:
👉Shall we call it a day?
1. Yep, I think that’s about time.
2. No, I think I have another half hour left in me.
3. Absolutely, I’m bored stiff!
4. Yeah alright, just let me finish this part.
Again, all ‘correct’. Perhaps one of these is not true, though it sounds nice (2.), two of them are probably appropriate (1./4.) for responding to a senior, and one is definitely not!
So in an interview, remember that each question is an opportunity to interpret the question according to the facts, your goals, and the intentions of the interviewer. Assuming that the interviewer wants to confirm that you are indeed the right person for the job, then when the question appears to expose a professional or character shortcoming, consider taking these steps:
What not to do…
👉Why have you been out of work for the last 6 months?
ANSWER: I was laid off and then just didn’t really want or need to get a job immediately.
Problem -> True, but too blunt / unflattering
👉What are your goals for the next 5 years?
ANSWER: My goals are to become a key member of your company because I think your company is the absolute best and I just want nothing more than to be a part of what you’re doing.
Problem -> (Presumably) Untrue, disingenuous, and too simplistic.
👉Why do you want this job?
1. I want to be paid more for my work.
2. Despite contributing more and more value to my department as I gain experience, the company overall has underperformed in this last year. I’m not in a position to change company strategy, nor do I know what they should do to be honest. But this means they’ve been unable to reward me fairly for my contribution. This has been demotivating. Being rewarded well for higher quality work will mean I enjoy continuing to improve at my job, and so I will continue improving. I’d find this more meaningful. Your company would benefit from employing an individual like that.
3. Whilst my current role has provided me with a wealth of experience and allowed me to take on greater responsibility and contribute more to the company as I’ve grown, I fear management just haven’t been able to reward the team fairly. The salary you offer is therefore extremely attractive, as I imagine that your team are highly motivated to perform and to push the envelope in terms of quality.
👉You are missing one of our desired qualifications. Why should we consider employing you?
1. I know that I have the skill set required, even if I don’t have the qualification.
2. I don’t have the qualification because my route into this field was atypical. I changed my route because one of my earlier jobs really didn’t suit me. The fact that I have learned on the job to the standard I am currently at is proof of my adaptability. I am aware of the requirements of the job (namely A, B, C…) and have the theoretical know-how already, so a small period of mentorship would prove my capability.
3. I’m aware that I can’t exactly hit the ground running, which is something of a limitation, however I’m confident that only a slight extension to my onboarding processing would be required to bring me up to speed. You’ll see on my CV that I actually entered into my current role before formally completing my master’s, which required a fair degree of adaptability on my part. With some good hands-on mentorship, I expect to be working without direct oversight within a month or two at most.
👉What’s your biggest weakness?
1. I am quite slow at learning new things
2. I am slow because I am very well practiced at my job, and so I do most of my tasks half on auto-pilot. The reason I can work reliably in this way is because I learned my job very meticulously and made sure to avoid silly mistakes from the start (perfect practice makes perfect), so I can trust my habits to produce reliable results. Learning something totally new is therefore quite the paradigm shift and challenges my routine style of work. I should expect to achieve similarly accurate, repeatable output and results once I have learned how to do it, though.
3. Well far from being hasty, I have to admit it can take me a little while to work out new processes. I’m a big believer that it’s not just ‘practice makes perfect’, but rather ‘perfect practice makes perfect’, so I really do like to be sure I’m not turning mistakes into habits. I mean, on the plus side this means that you can definitely rely on me to work quickly and accurately once I give you the thumbs up.
Whilst there’s obviously a limit to how far you can take this, I find that going through this process can often help candidates to take a step back and reconsider the truth of the matter. When carefully framed, the facts can always communicate valuable information about your attitude and your character even if you’re not a superhero.
Any experienced interviewers reading, do let me know what you think of my number 4 examples. Would they convince you?