Helpful strategies to keep an interviewer engaged

By MARCIA ZIMMERMAN | October 11, 2018

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While at the career fair a couple weeks ago, I gave a recruiter my elevator pitch. He looked engaged, so I thought it was going well and decided to add a couple more details to enhance my story. 

Once I finished, my words pushed out in one deep breath, the recruiter stopped smiling (his cheeks probably hurt). Instead of asking me any questions, he said, “That took you 45 seconds instead of 30 seconds,” and moved on to the next person in line. 

I was stunned. At first, I was indignant that he would judge me by a difference of 15 seconds. I was embarrassed that I had decided to add more details because I equated enthusiasm with wanting more information. As someone who has sat for and conducted countless interviews, I was angry at myself for not knowing better.

Over the next couple of days, that interaction lingered in my mind. There was nothing I could do about a rude recruiter, but I could improve my interviewing skills in response. I conducted some research, replayed what I had said in my mind and watched shortened speeches. From all this, I realized three key things: 

1. Recruiters get bored easily — and so does everyone else. Following someone’s lengthy anecdote is tiring, especially when they tell it in a stream of consciousness style. Recruiters do not want to mentally piece together disjointed sentences that do not logically connect to a singular point.

Most people forget about engaging their audience when they are in the middle of telling a story. A monotone way of speaking and vocal fry tends to creep in after about 15 seconds, which does not help keep the recruiter engaged and excited. 

I believe that most interview questions can be answered in 30 seconds to a minute, regardless of what is being asked. I would also like to think that most people can pay attention for that long. 

However, it is difficult to do so if the candidate is not audibly excited about their story or if the content of their answer is not immediately relevant to the question.

If an answer is well-structured and the content is obviously relevant, this length of time is all a candidate should need.

2. What the interviewee finds important is different than what the interviewer does. Because I lived through the stories I tell during interviews, I am likely to elaborate on unnecessary details that are not relevant to the interviewer. Such details often obscure the main point rather than adding important color. 

It is vital to connect the story to the qualities that an interviewer is looking for, especially because college students usually have experiences that are not as obvious of a direct match to a job description. 

For example, my experience as my sorority’s chief external affairs officer does not clearly relate to business roles if I were to talk about designing apparel or deciding which picture to post on Instagram. 

However, in an interview, I could talk about how I created a brand book to determine our positioning strategy and unify our touchpoints, from online and apparel to in-person interactions. 

In both answers, I talked about my experience. However, only the second answer connects that experience to the role and what the interviewer actually wants to know. 

While anecdotal experiences are often the best way to help them figure that out, it is more useful to focus on the high-level, or overarching, concepts, rather than the miniscule details. 

3. Structure your answers like a sandwich. Having an outline to rely on when I only have 30 seconds, and I don’t know what the interviewer will ask me, has helped me give answers that not only fit the time limit but also ones that actually make sense. 

The “bread” in the sandwich should be the main takeaways the interviewer should understand: framing the answer in the beginning and summarizing it in the end. The “meat” should be one or two sentences summarizing the who, what, why and how of the story. Lastly, the “vegetables” should add color to the story and tie it together with the “bread” to finalize the complete narrative. 

The sandwich method has proven useful for me anytime I need to talk to a boss, speak in class, summarize the solution to a problem or give a presentation. 

Whether you use this specific method or not, having a structure in mind can help you be calm, stay on track and get your main points across, which is vital no matter the situation or time limit. 

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