How to Stand Out in Interviews – Focus the Interviewer’s Attention!

In job interviews you’re typically competing against several other people. How can you stand out and be the one who gets the job?

Is it a matter of gimmicks or tricks? Nope! It’s a matter of making it very clear to the employer that you’re the best candidate. And that clarity comes from focusing attention – yours and the interviewer’s – on the right things.

Less Is More: The Importance of Focus in Job Interviews

Educators know that if you hit someone with a huge bunch of facts willy-nilly, they may not learn anything. People learn better when the presentation is focused and organized around a few core concepts.

In sales, these are often called “key selling points.” (This is closely related to the idea of a unique selling proposition or a personal brand.) These points are where you want to focus the interviewer’s attention.

In an interview, the “product” you’re selling is you. If that sounds awful, let’s remember that you’re not selling your soul – just clearly communicating the skills, expertise and personal strengths that will make you valuable to an employer.

In fact, let’s get away from sales terminology. I call these your “REV Points,” because they work best if they’re Relevant, Exceptional and Verifiable (REV).

Ask yourself, what would my co-workers and managers say if I asked them what makes me uniquely valuable? What do I do better than others? Jot down a good long list.

Now identify which of these possible selling points really have that “REV” that’s going to make you stand out.

Choosing Selling Points that Really “REV”

I mentioned that REV stands for Relevant, Exceptional and Verifiable. Here’s what I mean by these terms.

Relevant: A relevant qualification is in demand by employers. Study several job postings for the type of job you want, and underline the important skills, qualifications and qualities the employer is looking for. Which seem to be the top priorities?

Think about the likely pain points of your target companies – the problems that are eating into their profits or making them look bad. Skills that can help solve these problems are powerfully relevant.

Exceptional: An exceptional quality or qualification is one that stands out. Probably all of your competitors have experience in multi-tasking. But can they all speak Mandarin with the company’s Chinese clients.

Maybe you are exceptionally hard working, extremely intelligent, or a superb people person. Well, lots of people say these things about themselves. If you are truly exceptional in a soft skill like these, you’ll need to make it more convincing – it needs to be verifiable.

Verifiable: By this I mean that the item is not just a claim or opinion. It’s something you can prove or give evidence for.

Facts are naturally verifiable. Let’s say you believe your graduate degree is a key selling point. No problem, this is a fact and it can be verified with a background check. Likewise, your work experience is a collection of facts that can be verified.

Skills can be tougher, especially soft skills like communication. Most job applicants claim to have excellent communication skills. By itself, this claim is so subjective – such a matter of opinion, really – that it’s almost meaningless. Until you give evidence for it. Your evidence might be something like this:

  • The skillfulness of your spoken and written communications with the interviewer. (Thus, you’re demonstrating these skills rather than just claiming to have them.)
  • A story about the time when you diplomatically sorted out a misunderstanding and kept a client from leaving.
  • The fact that you wrote documentation that reduced service calls 50%.

Now your claim of exceptional communication skills has credibility!

You’ll notice that we’re using these terms – verify, prove, evidence – a bit loosely. We’re not talking about proving your skills with legalistic or scientific precision. The point is to be able to back up your claims enough to make them reasonably convincing to the interviewer.

Example: One Candidate’s Interview REV Points

Denise Williams is a sales manager looking for a new job. The most relevant, exceptional and verifiable reasons she’s the right person to hire are:

  • Track record of consistently over-achieving goals and earning awards in Fortune 500 companies
  • Exceptional talent for effectively anticipating and navigating change through cross-functional collaboration (with stories to “verify” this and make it real)
  • Learns quickly and positively impacts the bottom line within the first few months on any job (again, verified by stories)

Using Your REV Points

Now that you know the top 3 or top 5 things that will make you stand out, how do you use them to get the job?

  • Emphasize them throughout the interview process.
  • Start the interview with them. Make a great first impression by bringing up these points as you answer the first question in the interview, which is often “Tell me about yourself.”
  • Tell stories (examples) from your work that bring each of these key points to life. These stories can also help you improve your resume and LinkedIn profile.
  • End the interview with them. People tend to remember what they hear first, but also what they hear last. Include some or all of these points in your closing statement at the end of the interview, as well as your follow-up communications.

Want help figuring out your key selling points? Sign up for my FREE five-lesson course, Stand Out In Your Interviews.

How to Build Rapport in Your Interview

“We just clicked, right off the bat.” How can you build that rapport in a job interview?

One fast way to get there is through mirroring the interviewer’s posture, gestures , energy level and way of talking. Here’s a great two-minute video that shows you how.

Using the techniques in this video will make your interviewer feel more comfortable being with you, which is bound to increase your chances of getting the job.

When you first started reading this post, you may have thought mirroring sounded unnatural or phony. But when you watched the video, what did you think? To me, the candidate looked just as natural and real when she was mirroring the interviewer. That’s because mirroring is something people naturally do. We just don’t usually call it that, or even notice that we’re doing it. It’s part of having good social skills.

Practice this in various situations so that it comes naturally when you need it most. Build rapport with your interviewer and get that job!

Interviewers Can’t Take Your Word for It

job interview, interviewingLet’s face it, employers know that many candidates exaggerate or even lie in job interviews. You know you’re honest, but how could they know? Many candidates lie in interviews.

Even if you weren’t lying, many of the claims job seekers make are matters of opinion. Why should the interviewer trust your opinion of yourself?

I tend to believe my clients when they tell me about the things they’ve accomplished. But then, I’m not risking thousands of dollars in staff time and lost productivity, as employers are – every time they make a hire. If employers seem a bit paranoid, they have reason to be.

Employers want evidence, but not necessarily the kind you’d need in a court of law. Sometimes it’s enough just to tell the story in a way that would be hard to fake. Whatever claims you make, back them up with specifics. If you tell about a project you did a good job with, paint the picture with specific details so the employer gets a sense that the story is real.

If you improved customer service, what are the metrics that prove it? Did 98% of clients renew at the end of the year? If you kept your department running smoothly after the manager quit, what does “smoothly” mean, specifically?

Another way to give “evidence” for your abilities is to have the praise coming from someone other than you. Getting excellent recommendations on your LinkedIn profile, well in advance, is one way to do this. Another is to quote someone else word-for-word, especially if you can back it up with a reference later.

I recently helped a client – I’ll call him Jim – prepare for an interview for a project management job. He is intensely excited about the job and has outstanding skills, but the results of his work are sometimes difficult to quantify. Nor does he have any contacts inside the organization. So how will they know it’s true when he tells them how well he has performed?

I asked Jim, “Well, how do you know you do a good job?”

“Partly from what people say to me,” he said. “My last boss used to say ‘Anytime I ask about any project, Jim instantly knows all the facts, the status, and any special considerations. He’s totally on top of it.’ He’s giving me a reference, too.”

References are generally a last check, once the decision has already been made. The glowing remarks of this supervisor may never be heard unless the employer can hear them before making a decision.

“Bring him into the interview,” I said, “by mentioning his name and that he’s a reference, and then quoting exactly what he says to you.”

Provide evidence to back up your claims. This will make a huge difference in your interview skills.


This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.

Interviewing Tips for the Over-50 Professional

I hated writing that title. There is not some big GONG! that sounds at age 50 shutting us out of opportunities. But ageism and stereotypes are common, so if you’re older you’d be wise to adopt strategies to reduce the drag that these mindsets can have on your interview success.

Age discrimination can occur regardless of the interviewer’s age, but the viewpoints and expectations of Millennial-age hiring managers may make interviewing more challenging for older candidates.

Ask yourself what your goal is. To enlighten interviewers and eliminate ageism? Good luck with that! To show them you’re the right person to hire? Now there’s a goal you can reach.

Having coached many job seekers for whom age was a concern – and being over 50 myself – I can share some suggestions that will help you get the job you want at any age.

First, assess whether your age is even an issue.

Let’s assume that some of your target employers tend to expect, and maybe even prefer, a certain age range. Do you know what that range is?

You may have a sense of this already. If you do, and you’re older than that, then yes, this post is relevant to you.

If you’re not sure, let’s think about it a little. Since age discrimination is illegal and employers are unlikely to admit they prefer a certain age, we have to do a little educated guessing here. Questions to consider:

  • What’s the typical age range you’ve seen among people in your line of work?
  • When you look at job postings, how many years of experience do they tend to mention? Do you have far more than that? A few years more than required is probably a plus. Twenty years more may be a problem.
  • On the other hand, the years of experience posted may be just a minimum. What age would someone probably need to have reached in order to have accumulated all the abilities called for in the posting?
  • Think about the company you’re interviewing for. Do you have reason to think their employees are younger or older than most? Look to Glassdoor, word of mouth and the overall online image of the company for clues.

What stereotypes might you need to work against?

A stereotype is defined as “A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” Many of the stereotypes about older people have been shown by research to be mistaken.

Nevertheless, negative stereotypes persist. Many people have the idea that older people are unhealthy, lacking in energy and enthusiasm, memory-impaired, unproductive, set in their ways rather than innovative, uninterested in learning new skills, uncomfortable with new technologies, out of touch with new trends or resistant to following younger leaders. They may believe you won’t be willing or able to work long hours.

How can you counteract those?

You can demonstrate that the stereotypes don’t apply to you.

Look healthy. As much as possible, be healthy. Are you exercising enough, sleeping enough, eating well? Beyond that, both women and men can looking healthier by using a facial exfoliant, moisturizer and quality hair products to create a healthy-looking glow. Good posture also conveys vitality. (As an over-50 person myself, I maintain my posture by doing yoga regularly.)

Convey energy and enthusiasm. Develop stories from your recent work history about successes you accomplished that demonstrate these qualities. For example, tell about wins you achieved by going above and beyond requirements, working hard or working quickly, motivating others with your passion, and so on. Go above and beyond in interviews by being better prepared than others – e.g., by researching the company and industry thoroughly, and/or by preparing a 30-60-90 day plan.

Show you’re still sharp. If you tend to forget dates and figures related to your work, review them thoroughly before interviewing. Take a few notes during interviews and then review and add to them immediately afterwards, so that your thank you notes and subsequent interviews are well informed.

Prove you’re still highly productive. Be prepared with specifics about all you’ve accomplished in your current/recent roles.

Show that you’re innovative and creative. Give examples.

Update your skills. A new certification or coursework not only improves your abilities but shows that you’re a lifelong learner, still in high gear and not downshifting! There are so many online courses and tutorials. Free-trial subscriptions to various tools and applications can give you a chance to study them for a month.

Embrace new technologies. If you’re a bit techno-phobic I sympathize, but pulling out a paper datebook or mentioning “I’ve never Skyped before” won’t exactly give you a tech-savvy image.

Keep up on the relevant trends for your profession and industry. Join professional associations and groups. Read work-related blogs and news.

Show you’ll work well with younger colleagues and a younger boss. Show respect and gain rapport by listening actively, asking good questions, and keeping your own answers focused and concise – usually a minute or less. Rambling at great length is a trait people may associate with bosses – or with that elderly uncle who monopolizes dinner table conversation every Thanksgiving. Show you won’t dominate conversations.

Don’t call attention to age differences with remarks like “I guess this dates me, but…” or “younger people like yourself.” It’s not that you need to hide your age, but going out of your way to point to your age – or worse, the interviewer’s – will distract from what’s relevant and can easily come across as patronizing.

If you’re willing to work evenings and weekends, say so. Give examples of times when you’ve pulled a long haul to complete a project successfully and on time. This will go a long way to show you’ll fit into today’s open-ended work life.

On the other hand, if you really aren’t willing to work evenings or weekends, try describing how your efficient, focused working methods have made that extra time unnecessary. If you can’t sell that to employers, look for companies that place more value on work-life balance, or consider a different line of work that’s a better fit.

Capitalize on what the years have given you.

There are also positive stereotypes about over-50 professionals: that we’re mature, trustworthy and stable, with good judgment – in other words, wisdom. Think about what you’ve gained from experience. Have you solved so many problems over the years that you’ve become a go-to for troubleshooting and turnarounds? Have you learned to remain calm and competent while others are losing their heads? Develop interview stories that vividly illustrate these valuable abilities.

Keep it all in perspective.

There’s hardly any job seeker who doesn’t have something that may count against them in interviews. Maybe it’s their lack of a certain skill, or a gap in their work history, or their funny-looking nose, or that they say “basically” too often. Your age is only one factor. And not every interviewer is ageist. Many will perceive you positively as a seasoned pro.

And remember, overcoming age discrimination is only one aspect of getting ready for interviews. Make sure your overall interview preparation is top notch, and you’ll have every possible advantage over the under-prepared competition – whatever age they may be.

Three 15-Minute Job Search Projects for Labor Day Weekend

With summer vacations ending, companies will be increasing the pace of their hiring activities. Here are a few small yet powerful things you can do to boost your job search momentum in 15 minutes each – less than an hour out of your Labor Day weekend.

Network at those barbecues and parties – but do it the smart way. Make a list of companies you might want to work for (you can do a quick-and-dirty, top-of-your-head list in five minutes, although eventually you’ll want to build it out to the recommended 40-50 employers). Then mention it to people you talk to over the weekend. Instead of asking people whether they know of any openings – which is usually a very short and sad conversation ending with “No, but I’ll keep you in mind” – ask questions about your target companies:

“Did you know I’m looking for a new job as a (whatever)? I’ve got a list of companies I’m interested in, like X, Y and Z. I’m trying to learn more about them, and not just what I can find out online. Do you have any advice?” Depending on who you ask, you may end up with some useful leads.

Make a plan to improve your resume and other job search materials, even if you don’t have time to work on it now. Get the ball rolling by buying a smart, up-to-date book like Modernize Your Resume by Wendy Enelow and Louise Kursmark.

Or spend a few minutes searching online for a good resume writer. Look for someone with experience, formal training, glowing recommendations on LinkedIn and/or Yelp, and certification by one of the major professional associations (listed in alphabetical order): Career Directors International, Career Thought Leaders, the National Resume Writers Association or the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches. Contact your top three candidates and ask for a free consultation.

Or contact me for a referral. I rarely write resumes myself, but I know who’s good out there, and will be happy to make an introduction.

Start getting ready for phone interviews, which can happen unexpectedly. A “quick chat” with a human resources person can happen anytime if you’ve submitted a resume, and even if you haven’t, since recruiters are increasingly trolling through LinkedIn and other online sources to find likely candidates. Look into interview coaches (the advice in the previous paragraph applies here, too, and of course I myself provide interview coaching services), or get a book for a frugal, DIY approach. My own Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview is a steal at $4.99 for eBook, $10.99 for paperback – and Forbes said it’s “Excellent,” by the way.

An added plus is that preparing for interviews will boost your confidence and readiness for networking conversations. And because you’ll be coming up with stories about your work accomplishments, you may discover new material to improve your resume as well.

After you’ve spent 15 minutes on one or more of these projects, pat yourself on the back, forget about job search, get outside and enjoy some sunshine! Exercise and fun will replenish the energy you need to take your next steps. Good luck!

Impossible Interview Questions, Part 2: Handling Sensitive & Negative Issues

“Impossible” interview questions – like the ones that raise sensitive or negative issues – can blow up in your face if not handled skillfully.

In last week’s post I offered tips for handling various kinds of “impossible” questions, but now let’s take a closer look at answering questions about negatives.

For example, you might be asked to explain a past job that didn’t work out, a long period of unemployment, or your lack of an important qualification.

An unskillful answer to a question like this can destroy your chances of getting an offer.

But here’s the good news: these questions can also be opportunities to demonstrate strengths such as transparency, resilience, and the wisdom you’ve gained from experience.

How can you handle these questions effectively,  defuse the danger, and come through it looking good?

Use the “sandwich” technique: surround the negatives with positives.

“Why did I leave Presto Promotions? Actually, I loved my work there, and I played a key role in many major wins, such as (ultra-brief example or two), which I can tell you more about if you like. Then I was diagnosed with Ravel Syndrome and had to take a year off to recover my health. Last month my doctor said I’m fully recovered and should be fine from now on. I feel great and I’ve been attending conferences and reading a lot to refresh my skills while looking for the right opportunity. I’m very excited about this opening.”

Keep the negative part brief.

See the example above, where the reason for leaving the job takes up only one short sentence. This is important, although of course it can be hard to be brief about something you have strong feelings about.

Questions like “Tell me about a difficult person you had to work with” or “Why do you want to leave your job?” present a strong temptation to kvetch and be commiserated with, particularly when your interviewer has the natural empathy we often see among human resources folks. Resist that urge firmly. Accept any sympathy graciously, but then quickly move on to your skills and the job you’re interviewing for.

Set your feelings aside and speak in an emotionally neutral manner.

This may require that you work through feelings of disappointment, grief or anger ahead of time. Try journaling, talking to a trusted friend, reading self-help books or getting professional help. Your state of mind is crucial to your interview success.

Don’t create negative sound bites.

As author Jeff Haden has written, “Interviewers will only remember a few sound bites, especially negative ones. Avoid statements like “No, I’ve never been in charge of training.’ Instead say, ‘I didn’t fill that specific role, but I have trained dozens of new hires and created several training guides.'” Rather than saying “I haven’t” or “I can’t,” emphasize what you have done and can do.

Plan and practice your answers.

You can practice on your own, but also do mock interviews with someone – a peer or an interview coach – to get outside perspectives and advice.

These tips are from the chapter “How to Answer Any Interview Question” in my book Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview, available as an eBook from iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo, and in paperback too from Amazon.

How to Answer Impossible Interview Questions, Part 1

What do you do when you’re asked an “impossible” interview question – one that stops you in your tracks?

That was the issue raised by a job seeker I was coaching today – let’s call him Peter. “I get asked a question and I just can’t answer it. I’m stuck.”

He had discussed the issue with his colleague, Paula, who had said “I’m never asked a question I can’t answer.” Did Paula mean that she knows everything – is that why she’s never at a loss? Nope. Paula just knows that there’s always a way to answer the question.

Here are several ways to deal with a moment when you feel stuck in an interview.

Look behind the question. Ask yourself “What is their concern behind this question?” For example, if they’re asking about your weaknesses, their concern is about whether you have an open and constructive attitude about your weaknesses, and whether you’re self-aware and able to take steps to improve your own performance.

Look for the positive. Almost any answer can sell you for the job. For example, if you have to tell about a mistake you made, you can talk about how you corrected it, how you minimized the damage, what you learned from it and how that learning improved your performance afterwards.

Get clear. If you don’t fully understand the question, ask for clarification.

Get centered. If you feel panicky or blank, take a breath before doing anything else.

If it’s a puzzle question, think out loud. Questions like “Are there two non-bald people in New York with the same number of hairs on their heads?” are about your thought processes, problem-solving skills and ability to handle a curve ball without getting flustered. How you address the question may be more important than your answer.

If you’ve forgotten the question, ask them to repeat it. This doesn’t look great but it’s better than guessing what the question was and therefore giving an answer that’s way off target. Next time, make a point of listening carefully and perhaps mentally repeating each question they ask, to get it firmly in mind before starting to answer.

Buy yourself time to think. If you just need a bit more time to think, restate the question or the last few words of it. “So you’d like me to talk about time when…”

As a last resort, table it. Ask if you can come back to the question later. With any luck, either you’ll think of an answer later in the interview, or they’ll forget to ask again. Maybe you’ll think of a great answer after you’ve left and you can include it in your thank you note.

Prepare ahead of time for any “danger zones.” There’s one category of “impossible interview questions” that deserves a whole article: questions that probe  significant negatives, such as your lack of a certain important qualification, whether/why you were fired, a job that didn’t work out or a long period of unemployment. Read next week’s post to learn how to handle problem questions like these so your interview stays on track toward getting the offer.

4 More Interview Mistakes Smart People Make

You aren’t making dumb interview mistakes. You’re never late to a job interview, and you don’t complain about your past boss to the person you’re hoping will be your next boss. So why haven’t you landed an offer yet?

In last week’s post I pointed out three common pitfalls you may not have been aware of. Here are four more you can correct for greater success.

Being too modest.

Think this isn’t you? Think again. As an interview coach I find that about 90% of my clients are failing to say enough, or to be specific enough, about the good results they’ve achieved in their work.

Don’t just tell them what you’ve done in your current and past jobs – tell them how well you did it and the impact it had. If the impact was large, quantify it, whether in terms of money, increased market share, greater efficiency, time saved, or whatever metric is relevant.

Look for extra bragging points: Is the process you created still in use five years later? Say so. Were you given a bonus or a recognition? Don’t be shy. Did you receive a memorable kudo from a customer or your manager? Quote from it.

Thinking it’s all about competence.

An interview isn’t only about proving you can do the job well. It’s also about chemistry and rapport. We all want to work with people we like and trust. So be authentic. Don’t recite memorized answers. And let your enthusiasm show. Reveal what you truly love about your work.

Think about the interviewer as a person. Wonder what you’ll like about him or her when you’re working together. Realize he or she may be just as nervous and hopeful as you are.

Not preparing a great answer to that killer question.

Is there a question that scares you a little? Or a lot? Like, why do you want to leave your current job, or have you ever been fired? If you don’t have an answer you’re comfortable with, work on it. Research it online, discuss it with a trusted friend or a coach. There’s always a best way to answer, and it’s usually better than you think.

Not preparing plenty of good questions to ask the interviewer.

Good questions show that you’ve researched the company, are curious and motivated, and are already thinking about how you can do a great job. I recommend preparing 10 good questions, because if you only have five, you may find that they’ve all been answered by the end of the interview and you’re stuck with nothing.

Holding your questions ’til the end.

Look for opportunities to ask questions early in the interview and throughout. This can make the interview feel less like an interrogation and more like a conversation, which is much more enjoyable for both parties. Your questions may also lead to information that helps you give better answers.

You’re human. Chances are you’ve made at least one of these interview mistakes; we all live and learn. But with diligent effort these missteps can be eliminated – giving you a much better chance in each interview and a shorter job search!

3 Interview Mistakes Smart People Make

You’re too smart to make those silly mistakes like reeking of cologne at a job interview or forgetting to turn off your phone. But maybe you’re still not getting offers. How can you change that?

This post and next week’s will identify some less-obvious pitfalls to eliminate.

Not being proactive about marketing yourself.

There may be 500 reasons why the company should hire you, but they won’t remember 500. They may remember three, or five. So go into your interviews knowing what your key selling points are and make sure they come across clearly and memorably. This is also known as your unique selling proposition.

Wasting the “first impression answer.”

Your answer to the first question interviewers ask – usually something like “Would you tell me a bit about yourself?” – can set the tone for the whole interview. People tend to remember what they hear first. So make sure your first answer focuses the interviewer’s attention where you want it – on those crucial key selling points. Here are some tips on answering this crucial question.

Being vague rather than concrete.

Too-general answers sound generic and unconvincing. Be specific. Tell stories that demonstrate your outstanding skills.

I won’t lie to you – it may take hours to prepare your key selling points, craft a great “Tell me about yourself” answer and plan the right interview stories. For step-by-step guidance, you may want to read my book, Get That Job, The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview.

Key selling points, an effective first answer and compelling stories will help you get that job offer a lot sooner!

See next week’s post for “4 More Interview Mistakes Smart People Make.” Better yet, subscribe and get free tips on interview preparation, resumes and other job search topics in your mailbox once a week.

How to Answer an Interview Question about Salary Expectations (Infographic)

“What kind of salary are you looking for?” An unskillful answer to an interview question about salary expectations – your salary requirements, desired salary, etc. – can cost you a lot of money – or cost you a job offer.

Naming a figure is risky. It your number is too high, the employer can’t afford you. Too low, you hurt your credibility. Even if your number is right on, you limit your freedom to negotiate.

Follow the arrows in the diagram to see how to reply to the interviewer’s questions (in purple) with your smart answers (in green).

Practice your answers out loud – several times, preferably with a friend or an interview coach – before your next job interview. Good luck!