For those interviewing
How to Answer
Any Interview Question By Perri Capell
Don't be rattled by your next job interview. It's possible to answer any
question that comes your way. How? By preparing and knowing how to
direct the conversation to the topics you want to cover.
To start, take a tip from consultants who coach executives and
politicians on how to handle media interviews. These trainers say you
can deliver the message you want to an employer, regardless of the
question you're asked.
"Most people don't realize that their purpose isn't to sit there and
hope the right questions will be asked," says Aileen Pincus, president
of the Pincus Group, a media interview-training firm in Silver Spring,
Md. "They need to develop two or three key messages and make sure their
point is delivered."
Use this interview-prep tool to get ready for your next big job meeting.
Unlike some politicians who ignore press questions and immediately
introduce a different topic in response, job candidates must respect and
directly answer employer's queries, says Jeff Braun, vice president and
general manager of the Ammerman Experience, a Stafford, Texas, media
interview-training firm. However, you can quickly make the transition
from your answer to the important points you want to convey about your
qualifications, he says.
He suggests when answering job-interview queries applying the formula Q
= A + 1: Q is the question; A is the answer; + is the bridge to the
message you want to deliver; and 1 is the point you want to make.
"If you take the '+ 1' off the formula, then the interviewer is controlling the session," says Mr. Braun.
Diligent preparation also is necessary to effectively answer any
interview question, say senior executives. Theirs and media trainers'
Study hard. Learn as much as you can about the job, the employer and its
executives beforehand. Use this information to answer direct questions
and to then segue into a discussion about your qualifications and fit.
Eric Herzog, a vice president of product line management and channel
marketing at Maxtor Corp., a hard-disk drive company in Milpitas,
Calif., says he always talks to current and former company employees and
analysts whenever possible prior to job interviews to gain as much
insight as he can into the employer's challenges and culture. If the
company is publicly owned, he studies its financial condition by reading
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents, such as annual 10-K
shareholder reports on the company's performance. He then tailors his
interview answers to the company's issues.
"If the company is having a rough time financially, you can say that not
only did you make good products or services, but that you produced
things on time and under budget," says Mr. Herzog. "That's a little plus
if the company is in trouble."
If you're working with a recruiter, ask him or her about what the
company is seeking and its key challenges, says Derek Messulam, vice
president of rental market development for GE-Capital Solutions, a
financial-services unit of General Electric Co. in Norwalk, Conn. Mr.
Messulam says he grills recruiters regarding a job's responsibilities
and the attributes the company wants before job interviews. He then
makes sure that his answers demonstrate his potential value to an
"When questions come up, you can steer the conversation to how you can
demonstrate value," says Mr. Messulam. "You answer the question, but
maybe not 100% the way they were expecting it."
Have anecdotes ready. Many interviewers ask questions that require
candidates to provide examples of how they handled a difficult challenge
or other work situation. Such questions often start with a phrase such
as, "Tell me about a time when you faced...."
These questions require a story in response, but it's unlikely you have
a story that fits every conceivable query. But the task of preparing
becomes easier when you realize that interviewers typically are
interested in only five or six general categories, says Mr. Braun.
Instead of trying to be ready for every potential question, come up with
stories to fit these general issues, such as how you handled conflict or
a difficult challenge.
It may help to think of each issue as a bucket and mentally place a
story or two in each one, says Mr. Braun. "Be more generic in your
approach," he suggests. "When asked a question along one of those lines,
you can move to the story you have in one of those buckets."
From his research, Mr. Messulam says he can usually tell what types of
things a company might want to know about him and thinks of
corresponding anecdotes. "I have seven or eight top stories that tell
someone what I am good at," he says.
This strategy also works when interviewers say, "Tell me about
yourself," says Lucinda Baier, former president and chief operating
officer of Whitehall Jewelers Inc., a national specialty retailer and a
former senior vice president of Sears Roebuck & Co.
Ms. Baier left Chicago-based Whitehall in December after it accepted an
agreement with an investor to become private. She left Sears in April
2004 when the credit and financial products division she headed was sold
When asked to tell interviewers about herself, she determines how much
time she should use and then tries to describe her specific
qualifications that fit the company's key issues.
"If you know what challenges the company is facing, you can tailor your
response to what the company is dealing with and how you can help," she
Be positive about the negative. Count on being asked about a past
mistake or blemish on your career record, and don't try to dodge the
issue. Ms. Pincus advises. "If you have a vulnerability, you need to be
prepared to answer the question," she says. "There should be no lying or
dodging. Just answer it and move on."
When discussing a mistake, be ready to say how you learned or benefited
from it. "You learn as much by dropping the ball as you do by catching
it," says Mr. Herzog. When interviewing for his current job, which he
started in August, Mr. Herzog says he mentioned he had been involved in
successful turnarounds and one that failed. "And I said what I learned
from it," he says.
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