What to Say and Not to Say in an Interview

For a heavily-recruited candidate with brilliant credentials, an interview is a chance to enhance your value in the eyes of your prospective employer. For most applicants, the interview is a chance to pull ahead of the pack by putting the best possible face on your qualifications. In either case, the success of the interview turns on knowing what to say and — even more importantly — what not to say.

These tips were assembled to help you with the initial interview in which an employer is trying to assess its interest in you and you are trying to sell yourself. The roles will reverse after the employer decides to extend an offer, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Answering the Interviewer’s Questions

Interviews typically begin with a series of questions directed at you in hopes of eliciting the following information:

  1. Will you be able to do the work?
  2. Will you fit in with your prospective co-workers?
  3. How long will you stay?
  4. Will you accept an offer if one is extended?

If the interviewer were to ask those questions flat out, everyone would give the “correct” answers (i.e. 1. Yes, 2. Yes 3. Until I retire 4. Of course). Therefore, interviewers typically try to derive the answers indirectly by asking a series of questions designed to elicit telling facts about your work history, relevant experience, attitude, personal habits and career goals. They aren’t trying to trick you, just doing their job. For your part, you want to be forthright in answering the questions. To be defensive or evasive would hurt you more than any response you can give.

It’s important to focus on each question and not let yourself ramble off onto tangents. But if the question asks for specific types of work experiences, don’t hesitate to blow your own horn. This is the one time when you are expected to show pride in jobs well done. Be sure to bring up any recognition you may have won from employers or industry or professional organizations.

Volunteering Unnecessary Information

On the other hand, volunteering information only tangentially related to work experiences can only hurt you. First, it would throw into question your intelligence and ability to focus on the issue at hand. Secondly, it would bore and annoy the interviewer who probably has a limited slot in which to complete the interview. Thirdly, it could raise questions about potential problem areas the interviewer had not even contemplated. Getting sidetracked is always a bad idea unless the interviewer specifically asks you to go off-topic.

No matter what the circumstances, never volunteer the following types of information:

  1. Negative or unflattering remarks about any of your previous employers or former fellow employees
  2. Fascinating, bizarre or colorful stories about your family, marriage or personal relationships
  3. Unusual or odd hobbies, passions, causes or peeves about which you may feel strongly
  4. Tales of woe resulting from grievous injustices done to you or resulting from chronic personal problems
  5. Any long-range career ambitions beyond the job for which you are applying
  6. Experiences with members of the opposite sex or, if you’re gay, of the same sex
  7. Theories or beliefs about politics, religion, diet, exercise, celebrities, movies, rock bands, baseball games, etc.
  8. Awards and distinctions won in college, high school or earlier (the more significant ones should be listed on your resume, however)

If the interviewer chooses to discuss any of the above, listen politely, smile and wait for him to move onto the next question. If you join in with your own stories, you may have a wonderful bull session but will have distinguished yourself more as a potential drinking buddy than a serious applicant. The initial interview is certainly no time to let your hair down, even if the interviewer seems to invite it. “A colorful personality” is HR code for “flake”, “oddball” or “bullshitter”.

Questions You Will Want to Ask

Once the interviewer is done asking questions, she will usually invite you to ask questions you may have. This part of the interview is just as critical as the first as it gives the interviewer a second opportunity to assess your competence, interpersonal skills, stability and sincerity of interest in the company. This is your opportunity to really shine. Don’t go overboard in asking an endless series of questions, but asking several of the right questions is the best way to demonstratie your professional knowledge and experience, dedication to your profession, sincerity of interest in the prospective employer’s business and future direction.

The questions you ask should focus on one or more of the following areas:

  1. Detailed description of your prospective duties, using your knowledge of industry terminology and practices in framing your questions
  2. Corporate culture/working environment
  3. Advancement opportunities
  4. Company history
  5. Current goals and future direction

Obviously, you will have spent some time researching that employer in order to have formulated your questions in advance. If you are sincerely interested in that position, you will be expected to ask at least a few thoughtful questions. But don’t go overboard and inundate the interviewer with too many questions. What counts is the quality, not the quantity.

Questions You Must Not Ask

Equally important are the questions you don’t ask. Remember that at this stage of the interview process, it is the interviewer who is trying to decide whether to extend you an offer. You are not really in a position yet to waste time on questions about:

  1. Vacation policy
  2. Salary, bonuses, raises and stock options
  3. Sick days, personal time and maternity leave
  4. Parking permits, company laptops, cellphones, mileage, etc

Asking premature questions on those issues marks you as a presumptuous buffoon or a prima donna lacking in common sense. Those issues can (and should) be addressed in great detail once an offer has been extended.