Interviews: How to play their game

If you’ve never had an interview before, you’re one of the lucky ones. But no matter your chosen path in life, they’re coming. 

Some people have different approaches to interviews. You can prepare for weeks or months and know every fact inside out – maybe even read your interviewer’s dissertation. Alternatively, you can spend hours upon hours selecting the perfect suit and tie, perhaps polishing your best shoes to within an inch of their lives. You can do all this, but it won’t guarantee success.

Style, substance – it’s all necessary, in varying degrees, but it’s useless without this one trait. This attribute will help you get further in all aspects of life, not just in the interview room. 

It’s confidence. Or at the very least, the appearance of confidence. Obviously, it’s crucial that you prepare to the best of your ability – knowing more than enough is never harmful. But even with an encyclopaedic knowledge, you need to know how to use it properly. You need to know the psychology of both sides of the room.

Let’s get into the mind of your interviewer or interviewers. You need to understand them and know how to play them. They’re probably interviewing dozens of applicants and each one of you is perfectly qualified. You need to make an impression – but a brightly coloured paisley tie won’t cut it. If you’ve made it to the face-to-face interview, they probably already know you can handle the job, but if there’s 20 others with a CV just like yours, why would they pick you?

To begin with, first impressions count. Dress well, introduce yourself politely, and shake their hand. Be yourself, but treat them like someone you’ve just met at a wedding – formal, but friendly. Employ some quick pleasantries before it gets underway, a quick question, a small comment on the day, maybe – if you’re particularly brave – a little joke. It can never hurt to build a bit of a rapport with them. Smiling is always a big plus. Showing you’re happy to be there is crucial in seeming confident and getting across the idea that you’d fit in well at their company. Equally, make sure your enthusiasm for the role shines through – no one wants a worker who’ll clock watch and slack off, so make sure you talk about your knowledge in and around the role you’re applying for, and mention all the reasons why you want the job.

They’ll probably, especially if they’re working for a large company, be asking you the same set of questions as everyone else and rating out of about 5 or so. There will be typical questions, such as: “What would you do if you found out a colleague was stealing from the company?”, “Describe a situation where you showed leadership” and “Why do you want the job?”.  You’ll also be faced with a lot of job-specific questions to test your aptitude for the role. Don’t worry to much about getting the answer right, it’d be difficult to go wrong – just don’t support the thief or cite ‘money’ as your motivation for the role. What you should worry about is being genuine, you should be as honest as you can. The interviewer is looking for someone they could work with, someone they would trust at their company. You will have prepared, so show them you know your stuff! But remember they’re just another person – they’re nothing to be afraid of, so be clear, eloquent, and trust your own abilities. 

One good trick is to take a beat before answering each question. A second of measured silence followed by a succinct and, most importantly, correct answer is a lot better than an instant but garbled one. If you try to answer right away, you risk tripping over your own words, stammering and saying the wrong thing as you try to think of your answer and say it at the same time. If you take a breath, and reply calmly, slowly and pronouncing your words, you come across as a collected and competent person – someone on top of it all. It’ll make you seem confident and well-suited to the role.

The little things matter too. Always make sure you’re making eye contact with your interviewer – this can really further your connection with them. When you’re sat down, sit up and be attentive but relax a little, try not to look like a shop-window mannequin. Also, using your hands occasionally can help emphasise your points, getting them across more effectively. 

Finally, you might want to attempt some mirroring now and again. Mirroring is the act of reciprocating some of your counterpart’s small movements, and it’ll work to build that connection you’re trying to cultivate. Don’t go overboard, but joining them in a quick nod or matching the strength of their handshake can give your interviewer an unconscious feeling of familiarity with you. It’s a subtle psychological technique, don’t be afraid to play your interviewer with it.

The interviewer will be controlling and directing the progress of the interview, and you need to go with the flow and follow their lead, but if you seem comfortable and confident at all points of it, you’ll seem like you’re in control without being pushy. You won’t be able to sway to the mood a great amount, but being affable and collected will help make the atmosphere more relaxed, where the interviewer will work with you to show how suited you are to the role, rather than attempting to unpick you as an applicant. With any luck, you’ll be interviewed fairly, and you’ll leave a lasting impression as a quality candidate. Afterwards, a gracious goodbye and a heartfelt thank-you is the best way to end it.

What you’re ultimately aiming to do is give the interviewer the feeling that you’re the best for the job. So long as your CV, experience and qualifications are up to scratch, their gut feeling will be a huge factor in their decision. If you leave the interviewers thinking that you’re enthusiastic, easy to get along with, and a capable worker, then you’ve done brilliantly. They want someone who’ll pull their weight and earn their pay, but realistically they want to choose someone they like. A friendly smile and a carefully measured amount of confidence will do wonders towards that. If you do this well, and if the job is right for you, it will all fall into place.

Post by Matt Boland

Matt is a student at Sheffield University, with a passion for writing, science, technology and the environment