Over the past 30+ years I've interviewed hundreds of candidates for director and VP level positions. Very few of these candidates actually applied for the job being filled at the time. Most were found via LinkedIn or a referral. Nonetheless, I was dumbfounded that many of these people weren't great interviewees, yet most were all remarkable people doing their jobs.

Unfortunately, in most cases candidates aren't judged on how well they do their jobs; they're judged on how well they describe how they do their jobs. Recognize that if you're a candidate looking for a job, even a passive candidate, how you present yourself matters a lot. With this in mind, here are some ideas on how to best present yourself.

First, understand that all interviewers think they're attempting to evaluate the following:

  • How skilled you are and how you applied these skills on the job
  • If what you've accomplished is comparable to what needs to be accomplished
  • How you'd fit with the team, work well with the hiring manager, and fit with the company "culture"
  • Your level of drive, initiative, and motivation
  • Your upside potential

While all of these factors are important, how they're measured is pretty unscientific. Techies overvalue the depth of a person's technical brilliance. Just about all non-techies overvalue the candidate's first impression, appearance, warmth, and assertiveness. Most managers overvalue their intuition and gut feel. On top of this, everyone considers their private pet questions the definitive means for judging competency. And right, or mostly wrong, everyone makes their assessment on all of these things based on how well you communicate your answers.

Given this state of affairs, here's some advice on how to become a better interviewee.

Talk in paragraphs, not sentences.

The big idea here is to give 1-2 minute answers to any question. Short one or two sentence answers are deal-breakers. In these cases, the interviewer has to work too hard to pry the information out of the candidate, and since they don't know what information they need to pry out, it will likely be wrong. So talk more than less with the upper limit about two minutes per answer, maybe three minutes, now and then. When longer, you're considered boring, ego-centric, or insensitive.

A good two-minute answer needs to be in the SAFW format described below including some SMARTTe or STAR details.

SAFW: Say A Few Words. To format your basic answers start by making a general opening Statement, Amplify or clarify this opening statement with a few sentences, then provide a Few examples to prove your opening point. End your answer with a summary Wrap-up and some hooks to get the interviewer to ask a logical follow-up question.

Give SMARTTe Examples. For the example chosen, describe the Specific task; throw in some Metrics to add color, scope, and scale; add Action verbs describing what you Actually did; define the Result as a deliverable; put a Timeframe around the task, describing when it took place and how long it took; describe the Team involved; and then describe the environment including the pace, the resources available, the challenges involved, and the role your boss played.

Follow-up with STAR details. This is an alternative approach for interviewers asking behavioral questions. When they ask you to give an example of when you used some behavior, skill, or competency, they'll follow up by asking about the Situation, Task, Action taken, and the Result achieved. You can beat them to the punch by framing your responses the STAR way.

End with a Hook. Don't spill everything out at once. You only have two minutes so leave a few key details unanswered. This will prompt the interviewer to follow up with some logical questions. A forced hook is something like, "Is this type of project relevant to what you need done?"

Remember the Big E for Example. If you forget all of this don't forget to provide a detailed example of an actual accomplishment to prove every strength and neutralize every weakness.

Interviewers really like it when they don't have to work too hard to figure out if you're competent. Well-constructed answers provide insight into your intelligence and potential, your enthusiasm and motivation, your ability to deal with people, and of course how competent you are. And most important, recognize that your ability to influence others to make important decisions starts by influencing them to hire you.