Sometimes the best people for a job aren't the best interviewees. To overcome this and ensure their candidates are fairly assessed, I suggest that recruiters formally prep their candidates. The following is the advice we provide as part of our recruiter training programs. Whether you’re a recruiter or a job-seeker, you might find the approach helpful.

(Note: here’s a link to preview a video series recruiters are sending to their candidates to help them get ready for any important job interview and here’s the full video.)

Step 1: Make sure your candidates know their own strengths and weaknesses. Have your candidates write down four or five of their strengths and one or two weaknesses. Have them include a short, one-paragraph example of an accomplishment using each strength. With the weaknesses, have them write up a specific situation where they've turned that weakness into a strength, or how they overcame the weakness.

Step 2: Learn the "Universal Answer" to Any Question. Most answers during the interview should be about one to two minutes long. If the candidate talks for more than three minutes, the interviewer loses interest. The candidate is then ranked as boring, long-winded, or too self-centered. If the candidate talks less than a minute, the person is considered superficial, incompetent, or lacking interest. Have your candidates practice their answers using the Say a Few Words (SAFW) concept:

  • S: make an opening Statement
  • A: Amplify that statement
  • F: provide a Few examples
  • W: Wrap it up

Providing examples is the most important part of the exercise. This is the proof behind the opening statement. Interviewers will use these examples to form their judgments about a candidate’s competency. Most candidates talk in generalities. Specific examples are much more convincing. For instance, a marketing manager could give a specific example to describe how she launched a new product rather than saying she's strong in advertising and new product promotions.

Step 3: Have candidates prepare write-ups for their two most significant accomplishments. To improve their verbal pitches, ask your candidates to prepare detailed write-ups for their two most significant accomplishments. Each of these should be two to three paragraphs in length, but no more than half a page. One should be an individual accomplishment, and the other a team accomplishment. Make sure they include examples of their strengths in both write-ups. Most candidates get a little nervous in the opening stages of an interview which can result in temporary forgetfulness. The write-ups will allow for better recall of this important information at these times. They'll also be the basis for the examples in the SAFW response.

Step 4: During the interview, get your candidates to ask the "Universal Question."Discussions about major accomplishments should dominate the interview session. Since most interviewers don't ask about these naturally, you can have your candidates get them started. To do this, have your candidates ask this question early if they feel the interview is going nowhere: "I don't have a complete understanding of your real job needs. Would you please give me an overview of what the job entails and describe some of the key challenges in the job? Then I can give you some examples of work that I've done that are comparable."

Something like this will allow the candidate to then describe some important related projects she's worked on. Managers generally like candidates who are more forceful and who ask good questions, so make sure your candidate has a list of other insightful questions to ask, such as: "What does the person in this job need to do to be considered successful?" and "What's the biggest problem that needs to be addressed right away?"

Step 5: Be prepared. Practice. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Tell your candidates their lives are open for everyone to see. Make sure their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles are up-to-date and silly stuff is removed. Inconsistencies between their resume and these public profiles can be damaging. Candidates say stupid things when they’re not prepared for the interview. I suggest that candidates practice 3-4 hours (at least) for the interview. Practice adds confidence and minimizes temporary nervousness.

Step 6: Ask for the job. At the end of the interview, have your candidate tell the interviewer that she is interested in the job, and would like to know what the next steps are. If the next steps seem evasive or unclear, have her ask the interviewer if her accomplishments seem relevant to the performance requirements of the job. Understanding a potential gap here allows the candidate to fill it in with an example of a related accomplishment. Sometimes they have to ask for the job to understand which points they need to get across.

Prepping is important. Well-prepared candidates are more confident and provide more thorough answers. If they know how to give complete answers, they worry less and are able to ask better questions. All of this improves the odds that they will be assessed fairly, especially if the focus of the interview is on detailed discussions about the candidates' major accomplishments.

An interview is far more important to the candidate than any business presentation they’ll ever make. Most professionals spend hours getting ready for these presentations and meetings, yet most candidates wing their interviews. Companies want to hire candidates who are professional. And the key to being professional is thorough preparation and practice. As recruiters, you owe it to your candidates to make sure they do it right.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people.