From time to time I get asked to coach MBA students at NYU Stern to help them prepare for interviews to secure summer internships and/or a job upon graduation. Most of my coaching clients at Stern have not had an easy time at these interviews and sometimes feel that there is something lacking. These are very bright and well prepared students who don’t have the performance skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive environment. This is, of course, also true for seasoned executives who find themselves interviewing for the first time in a long time.
An Interview is a performed conversation. It requires a great deal of listening, creating conversation and performance energy. Most people go into interviews looking to “say the “right thing” so they can “get it right” – that activity bypasses the creative activity of developing a performed conversation with someone and, instead, focuses on the end result (getting the job or the internship). Perhaps you’re thinking “creativity in an interview?” so let’s deconstruct this thing we call an interview and put it into a theatrical context.
The scene begins with a warm smile and a solid handshake. The performance demands that the interviewee be fully present, making eye contact, seated in a relaxed manner, self-conciously breathing and engaged. This is a good moment to focus on the person across from you – giving full attention to the slow and steady building of the conversation. Focus should be on the two words that we use in improvisation – “yes and” – listen to the questions, and respond. Acknowledge what you’ve been asked (that is the “yes”) and respond in a way that builds the conversation (that is the “and”). If you keep your focus on this activity versus “getting it right” or “saying something smart” you will build rapport, which is often overlooked during an interview. Most candidates talk too much when they are being interviewed, which often happens as a result of nervousness. You might want to stop and ask, “Would you like me to elaborate?” rather than going on and on and ignoring that your interviewer’s eyes have glazed over. A good performer is very aware of her/his scene partner and when possible, works to make her/him look good. That might mean saying, “That’s a great question!” with a smile even if you’re thinking, “How am I going to answer THAT question?!”
Another tool to bring into an interview is creative imitation. A great way to develop an interview performance is to think of someone you admire for their performance skills – a mentor, a professor, a favorite actor, a great TED Talk – it doesn’t matter who you have in mind. Once you think of that person the fun part is to perform your creative imitation of that person … in an interview. This is a way to step a little bit (or a lot) outside of your comfort zone and pretend, play and perform as someone other than who you are. The beauty of performance is that of course you are always who you are and at the same time you are other than who you are! This uniquely human capability allows us to be shy and perform outgoing, to be insecure and perform confidence.
The magical thing about performance is that, after awhile, you might very well become a person who aces interviews – not by “getting it right” – but by creating a deliberate, self-conscious, thoughtful performance of an interview.