By Cathy Salit // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.
You’ve landed an interview for the job of your dreams. You’re ideally suited for the position, and your resume is bulletproof. You’ve researched the company, the culture, the job, and the person who will be interviewing you. (Thank you, LinkedIn.) You’ve got your answers ready and selling points lined up. But when the interview starts, something’s “off.” You want to be commanding, but your nervousness gets in the way. Your voice sounds stiff. You hear yourself trying too hard, but you can’t seem to stop yourself. As the minutes tick by, your answers sound more and more like canned monologues. And your interviewer isn’t warming up — the job opportunity is slipping, slipping, slipping out of reach.
What went wrong?
As I see it, you probably prepared your content well, but — like many people — you didn’t prepare something equally, if not more important: your performance. Yes, performance, the theatrical kind. Just as an actor prepares the character they will play on stage or screen, you can steal some tricks from the actor’s toolbox to prepare the character you will play in the interview. For this kind of scene, you’ll need to exude confidence, competence, likability, flexibility, and more. How to do this in a high-stakes situation? Tap into your natural ability to imagine and pretend — and craft your character.
But wait a minute, you say. Character? Pretend? What about being my authentic self? I get asked about that a lot, and it’s a good question — many job coaches and experts extol authenticity, values-based behavior, and being “genuine” at work.
My company’s own two decades of practice and research have focused on what we call the “Becoming Principle,” in which the tools of theatrical performance give us the transformative power to become who we are not… yet. When we consciously use our capacity to pretend and perform, we can grow new — and genuine — parts of ourselves. (The Latin verb in the word pretend is tendere, literally to stretch, not to fake or wear a mask.) This idea resonates with findings of Herminia Ibarra in her landmark HBR article, “The Authenticity Paradox.” Ibarra writes that our adherence to one “true self” can hold us back as we take on new challenges and bigger roles. In other words, by sticking to “your story,” you’re limiting yourself.
In the job interview, you are literally auditioning for a new role. Developing your skills as a performer will help you not only to land the job, it will also help you grow and gain a new skill that is critical in the 21st century workplace — navigating constant change that requires flexibility and new performances all the time.
Who do you want to be in this scene? That’s where your “job interview character” comes in. Make a list of the qualities the successful candidate should convey. To some extent, these qualities will depend on the particular job you are applying for — a software engineer and a sales director will need to emphasize different leading attributes. And you’ll want to convey in your performance that you have a feel for the company’s culture — a laid-back dude vibe could be a turn-off in a formal environment and vice versa.
Skilled interviewers will often be looking for the qualities that are known to correlate with success on the job, such as confidence, energy, and positive body language. How to physically act out these personal qualities? Much has been written about the body language of confidence and how specific gestures such as physical stance, tone, handshake, and eye contact instantly communicate both ease and authority. If you are not sure how to portray these qualities, look for others who seem to embody them, then observe, closely, how they do it. You’re not looking to slavishly copy, but rather creatively imitate them. Try it on, try it out, and see what works for you.
Most important — rehearse! Like any good performer, you need to practice in advance. If you tend to be shy, expand your range of expression (and what you’re comfortable doing) by practicing what might feel like an exaggerated performance, using hand gestures and passion. If you talk a lot using run-on sentences with no period at the end (a lot of us do this when we’re nervous), practice pausing, and breaking your thoughts into short sentences.
Even with practice and rehearsal, we can get overloaded and stressed in new situations, particularly when we’re the center of attention and under scrutiny. That’s why I suggest that — in addition to those outlined above — your job interview character have a special trait: instead of performing as a person who is trying really hard to get the job, perform as someone who wants to have a great conversation with the human being across from you.
Your mindset is more like I’ve done some cool and interesting things in my life and work that I’d love to share, and I’m really interested to hear about you and your company. In other words, you’ll play the role of a good conversationalist. Here’s how:
- Be curious. Most people talk too much during an interview. Instead, perform curiosity — ask open-ended (not yes or no) questions that are connected to what you just heard. This will help you discover common ground with your interviewer, which is key to making a great first impression.
- Accept every conversational offer. Of course you need to prepare “talking points” for your interview. But being in a conversation (instead of delivering a rehearsed pitch) means creating back-and-forth repartee. That means you can do what improvisers do, and treat everything the interviewer says or does as an “offer” — which you should accept and build upon (rather than waiting for them to finish so that you can fire off another talking point). You can practice this kind of listening today, by starting every sentence with the words “yes, and…”. Improv skills are now highly valued in the workplace. And in an interview, this fundamental improv technique will make you less focused on proving yourself, and much more attuned to the other person.
- Prepare to tell stories. This may be one of the most powerful elements of a great conversationalist performance. The ancient art of storytelling has a powerful effect on stirring empathic emotions and boosting your own likeability. Prepare and practice yours in advance so that when the interviewer asks if you’re experienced in leading projects, you can tell the story in a way that dramatizes the most recent project you led. Describe how the project began, what you did, the obstacles you faced and how you overcame them. Good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Make them short, but pack a punch.
Some of these techniques won’t feel like “you” — and that’s the point. By making use of your natural ability to perform in new ways, you’re expanding your comfort zone and increasing your repertoire of what feels natural. This is how you grow. It’s how you become who you are not yet. It’s also how you get the job.