How to Talk in a Job Interview
August 2019

Four Tips from the Hiring Side of the Desk

Caroline Stampfel, M.P.H.
Director of Programs
The Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten for a job an interview?

My mentor once advised me to just keep talking about myself and my skills until the interviewer tells me to stop. While this is wonderfully self-serving, now that I have been on the other side of the table, I can tell you that this is not a recommended way to present yourself.

Based on my experiences on both sides of that table, here are four strategies that I do recommend.

Tell a Story
People remember details embedded in stories in a different way than hearing a listing of facts. So, frame your answers to the interviewer’s questions as concise stories. Your story answers should have a beginning, middle, and end that includes an example with specific details. If you are asked about a time that you faced a challenging situation in your work, try this:

Here’s a challenge or situation that I faced; here’s what I know how to do and how I applied it in this situation; and here’s how the situation was resolved (and connect back to the original question).

Practice this with standard interview questions.

Shamelessly Self-Reference
While I don’t endorse my mentor’s strategy of “bragging ’til they stop you,” I do recommend that you constantly reference yourself and your past and present products or materials. Listen closely to the questions and write key words to help you stay focused. Bring handouts of your resume and cover letter that you can have in front of you while you listen. Consider bringing examples of writing or a completed analysis that you can refer to. Plan to leave all materials with your interviewer.

When you start responding to the question, refer to your supporting documents to connect your experiences to the question. Give a frame of reference for your response.

For example, if you are asked, “Have you ever managed a budget?”

  • Don’t say, “Yes, I’ve done that lots of times”
  • Do respond with: “In my previous job … ” or “When I was an intern at the health department …”

The latter response provides a specific example and timeframe. Connect your knowledge, skills, and experiences to the open position and organization. If you don’t have many previous jobs, use examples from your education. If you are an early career professional or switching careers, don’t worry; showing you can apply experience from one context to another demonstrates a higher level of competency.

Reflect Back
What’s the attitude of the interviewer(s)? Are they relaxed or stiff? Is this a formal group, or is the group more casual? You want to mirror the feeling in the room, keeping in mind that people might feel they have to behave a certain way during an interview vs. how they might lead, manage, or supervise. If you are faced with an interview panel, direct your answers to panel members that ask the questions, and look for cues of affirmation across the panel.

If your interviewers are a very formal group, speaking too casually or making a lot of jokes will show that you are not able to read the room and could result in a less favorable impression.

The same goes for the opposite situation: If the atmosphere is super casual and you insist on formality.

Here’s a classic example: Dr. Mary Shelly says, “Please, call me Mary,” but you continue to call her Dr. Shelly. This shows that you are not paying attention, not reading or hearing the cues, and not able to respond properly and effectively.

Ask Questions!
As an interviewer, encountering a candidate that has no questions can ruin an otherwise great impression for me. As the interviewee, you should always want to learn more about the position you are interviewing for and the overall organization. So, prepare at least three to five questions.

When asking questions, you want to show that you have taken in the information you had access to either before or during the interview, you processed the information, and now you want to know more.

Consider who you are talking to when framing questions. Are you talking to the supervisor? Are you interviewing with a team? If it’s a panel: Are they all from the same department or are they a diverse search committee? You might want to consider framing a question in different ways depending on who you are talking to.

Be careful not to ask something you should already know.

Here are some questions you might consider.
Feel free to steal shamelessly from this list!

  • If I were selected, what will I be working on as my first project? What role would I play on the project team? What are some of the projects you are planning to do?
  • How does this team like to work? What are people’s preferred methods of communication? How do people handle checking in? What’s the office culture around telework, alternate work sites, checking in with supervisors and teams?
  • Is the position grant-funded? How secure are those funds? What types of analytic tools will I have access to? What are the opportunities for professional development?
  • What’s your management style? How do you provide feedback to your direct reports? How do you prefer people ask questions of you?

In a job interview, your responsibility as the interviewee is to convince the interviewers that you are the best person for the job. You also want to be sure the position will be the right fit for you. So, instead of using a dump-truck method to talk about everything that is great about yourself, take a more methodical approach

  • Prepare stories to share your experience
  • Shamelessly self-reference
  • Reflect back
  • Ask questions