18 September 1998

HOW TO BE COOL WHEN YOURE IN THE HOT SEAT

Interviews dont have to be

the nerve-racking

interrogation that many fear.

In the last of our series on

staff selection, Mike Stones

finds out how to make the

hot seat more comfortable

YOURE sweating. Your mouth feels like sandpaper and youd rather be anywhere than sitting in this chair, waiting for this interview.

Pass the interview and the sunny uplands beckon. Fail and you remain condemned to the same old suffocating rut you crave to escape so desperately. Whether its a job interview, a selection process for college or even a formal interview with your bank manager, a few simple steps will help to ensure a favourable outcome, according to Tony Harris.

A former principal of Harper Adams Agricultural College, Newport, Shropshire, Mr Harris knows a thing or two about interviews. After a career in education spanning nearly 45 years, Mr Harris has seen all types. The bold and the brash, the shy and the cripplingly nervous, the meticulously well-prepared and the frankly slapdash.

"Whatever your temperament, theres much that can be done to ensure that you deliver a polished interview performance," says Mr Harris. He identifies four factors that can make all the difference between success and failure. Plan the interview carefully, concentrate on making a good first impression, turn your liabilities into positives, and be good at thinking on your feet.

"Careful planning is the most important ingredient," he explains. Well in advance of the meeting, identify what skills and abilities are needed to do the job successfully. Then, compare that list with what you have to offer. Work with paper and pen to list your strengths and weaknesses with regard to the job in question.

If youve anticipated likely questions, and your answers, you wont be taken by surprise. So prepare two lists of questions, one for you to answer and the other for you to ask.

Most importantly, you should be able to supply a convincing answer to the question: "What skills and qualities do you possess that make you the right person for the job?"

Knowledge

To frame an answer, draw on your full range of knowledge, skills and abilities; supporting your claims with hard factual achievement. One of Mr Harriss favourite questions is: "How do you assess your own performance and abilities?" Its not meant to be a trick question but aims to explore whether or not the candidate is analytical. People who analyse their performance are more likely to be successful, he explains.

Approach interviews like legal cases. Pretend youre a lawyer. Think of what statements you want to make about your skills, abilities, knowledge and personality. Then, marshal your evidence to support your statements.

For example, a claim that you are a good organiser could be supported by information that you planned and managed the college ball or take an active roll in charity work. "Its not enough simply to make the claim. You have to convince the interviewer by backing it up with hard evidence, sifted from your recent past," says Mr Harris.

Questions

Make sure you ask appropriate questions about such areas as training and working terms and conditions. Avoid questions about aspects of the job which have already been explained fully. Intelligent use of questions can do much to impress interviewers.

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression, so make yours count by dressing suitably and adopting the right posture. "A suit may not be appropriate if you are going to take a turn around the dairy parlour. But make sure you are smart and appropriately dressed."

If youre being interviewed for a head cowmans position, take a pair of boots to the interview for when you look round the yard.

Posture is important too. Dont slouch in the interview chair, sit up, keep your shoulders back and look alert. A good firm handshake and a pleasant open manner, signalling interest and enthusiasm, carry weight.

Impression

Handshakes can make a favourable or adverse impression, says Mr Harris. "Some people may think Im old fashioned, but you can tell a great deal by someones handshake."

He doesnt recommend a vice like grip which pulverises your unfortunate victims palm into putty. Simply a firm, business-like handshake.

"A limp handshake and lack of eye contact never make a good impression. Take the initiative and offer your hand first," he advises.

"Always make eye contact with your interviewer and try to answer questions fully and easily." Avoiding eye contact, through nervousness, can create the impression of shiftiness.

But what about nervousness? How do you dispel that paralysing fog of fear that can weigh your tongue down with a tonne of concrete just when you need it most?

"Try to look on nervousness in a positive light," councils Mr Harris. "Think of it as helping to prepare you for the encounter to come. It can be a great motivator if it makes you examine every aspect of the forthcoming interview but dont let it get out of hand."

Keep your hands under control. Often during interviews, nerves lead people to wave their hands around; sometimes so enthusiastically they seem to be conducting an invisible orchestra. So keep them firmly in control on the table or in your lap.

Checking skills and abilities is fairly straight forward, so informed interviewers will be looking to reveal the real you.

"The most important thing, at the end of the day, is the relationship between you and the interviewer. You need to show yourself in a good light despite potential gaps in knowledge or experience."

Turning potential liabilities into strengths deserves consideration. However impeccable your track record, everyone has weak areas and some may have skeletons lurking at the back of dark cupboards waiting to be unleashed by a skilful, probing interviewer.

Interview preparation should help you spot the difficult areas and anticipate the hard questions. Having a ready-thought out explanation can help to minimise sensitive subjects.

It may be accurate to report that you left your first job because it was boring. But interviewers will be more impressed by comments that you decided to leave because you wanted to find more stimulating work that challenged the full range of your skills and abilities.

Adaptability

Cover for gaps in your experience by minimising their significance or providing evidence of your adaptability in other situations. Proof that you have taken the initiative to remedy weak areas should impress interviewers. So, if youve taken a night school course in management or given up a weekend to attend a chain saw proficiency test, dont forget to mention it during your interview.

Preparation

Thinking on your feet can be difficult during interviews. But thorough preparation should provide the framework to answer any question you may be asked.

Interviews should not be ordeals. If you leave an interview feeling that youve just escaped Gestapo headquarters, something has gone wrong on the interviewers side of the desk. Interviews should be free flowing conversations without awkward pauses or gaps.

Dont forget that interviews are two-sided discussions, reminds Mr Harris. The employer should be trying to sell the job just as much as you are trying to sell yourself.

Try to monitor your performance during the interview. If you sense doubt surrounding certain areas, turn the conversation back and try to allay the interviewers doubts.

Theres no simple recipe for interview success, concedes Mr Harris. But taking a few basic steps could make the hot seat a lot cooler the next time you find yourself under the spotlight.

KEYQUESTIONS

&#8226 What skills and knowledge do you have that make you the right person for this job?

&#8226 What evidence can you supply of your skills, knowledge and experience?

&#8226 How do you assess your own performance and abilities?

&#8226 How do you keep yourself well-informed?

&#8226 What makes you tick? Whats important to you?

INTERVIEWSMADEEASY

&#8226 Plan the interview. Anticipate questions you will be asked, and your answers, and questions you want to ask.

&#8226 Make a good first impression by dressing suitably and adopting the right posture.

&#8226 Turn liabilities into positives.

&#8226 Think on your feet.