My recent post on interview skills left me with a niggling irritation; it didn’t do enough to distinguish pattern identification from giving canned answers that “they” want to hear. So I’ll take this opportunity to say it more clearly: focusing on “what they want to hear” is among the worst interview mistakes. It’s an approach that leads to un-insightful interview responses and makes interviewees come across as disingenuous.
The what-they-want-to-hear approach typically orients itself toward figuring out the “right” responses to specific questions – including tough ones like weaknesses and future career goals. Of course, the “right” response quickly becomes the wrong response. After all, once everybody is using the same response, it does nothing to distinguish you from other candidates and, because “right” responses quickly become clichéd, it can cause interviewers to doubt your sincerity.
The weird thing is that this approach isn’t that far removed from interview prep that’s actually useful: thinking about what the work you’re interviewing for requires, and which of your experiences is useful; focusing on the most relevant information to share in the interview, and making sure you’re putting forward your best real self. The scale, however, is clearly different: instead of focusing on what’s right for a specific question, you focus on what’s relevant for the work you’re interviewing for.
I wish I had some fantastic new interview prep method, but the standard one seems to work: list the qualities, skills, areas of knowledge, and attitudes that seem most relevant to the work you’re applying for. Add in some of the common questions about things like handling conflict, and strengths and weaknesses. And then comb through all of your experiences for ones that best apply. This is a good point at which to figure out which patterns those experiences suggest, and whether you might be emphasizing something that’s not relevant to the role, or underemphasizing something that is.
Finally, as much as you’re able, treat your notes as speaking points rather than a precise script. One of the reasons why canned “right” answers come across as insincere is because interviewees visibly and audibly change when they give an answer they’ve memorized. Body language becomes less natural, voice modulation and pace change. That’s bad enough in a canned answer – and there’s no point in letting it get in the way of a genuine answer that reflects your true experience. Speaking points let you get comfortable and be ready to answer, without letting the polish get in the way of good content.