Best Way to Answer Questions Properly During an Interview

An interview involves an exchange of information. So both the interviewer and the interviewee must understand not only how to elicit information, but also how to convey it.

Until now, we have concentrated primarily on how to elicit information—by making the other person comfort­able, by using the resume effectively, by asking good ques­tions, and by avoiding bad questions.  We will try to identify what makes a good answer. As you will see, the same elements go into an effective answer, regardless of which side of the table you sit on. Here are ten guidelines that will help both interviewers and interviewees improve the quality of their answers.

Questions Properly During Interview Best Way to Answer Questions Properly During an Interview

Answer the question that’s asked.

This principle seems so basic you would think it doesn’t need to be repeated, but it does. For one thing, some experts on interviewing advise interviewees who want to avoid answering a question simply to answer a different question, ignoring the one that is asked. I think that is poor advice because it assumes the interviewer is dumb enough not to recognize that his question was not answered. Anybody who didn’t answer questions I asked didn’t get hired.

Apart from intentionally not answering the question that is asked, though, interviewers and interviewees often do that without meaning to. Either they do not listen to the question, or they do not understand it. Their answer, then, comes across as unresponsive and marks them either as not very bright or evasive, neither of which, of course, helps them achieve their objectives in the interview. If you are unsure about the question, ask the other person to repeat it. Or paraphrase the question your­self to test whether you’ve understood it.

Show respect for the questioner

This is important because both the interviewer and interviewee want to gain the other’s admiration (either to obtain a desirable offer or to encourage a qualified candidate to accept an offer). And when is the last time you admired somebody who did not respect you?

Consider every question to be worthy of your attention. That may not be so easy for interviewees confronted with some of the worst questions. But remember that if you treat a question as silly or irrelevant, you are treating the questioner as silly or irrelevant, as well.

On the other hand, if you indicate “that’s a good question” or “that’s an interesting question,” you are complimenting the questioner. Of course, you should not use these complimentary phrases repeat­edly during the interview; nor should you ever use them unless you truly mean it. Another way of show­ing you regard the question as worthwhile is by pausing to think prior to answering it.

You may also show a lack of respect for the ques­tioner by talking down to him. Typically (though not always), this is a mistake made by interviewers, rather than interviewees. Phrases such as “this may be hard for you to understand,” “I used to think the same thing when I was your age,” or “you may not believe me, but you will find out eventually” denigrate the questioner. An interviewee may make this mistake, too, by using phrases such as “as I’ve said before,” or “as I thought I indicated on my resume.” Finally, using profane language or lan­guage that the questioner should not be expected to understand—either because it is too technical or too hip—also shows disrespect.

Answer questions honestly and directly.

Every inter­viewer and interviewee wants to deal with somebody he can trust. Answering questions honestly and directly shows the other person that he can trust you.

Interviewers or interviewees who waffle in re­sponse to uncomfortable questions hurt their causes. An honest and direct answer, on the other hand, is extremely disarming and, because it is relatively rare, is very effective.

For example, imagine two interviewees each of whom is asked whether he has ever produced an unsatisfactory work product. One interviewee responds as follows:

“Well, not really. I mean I guess sometimes I am more satisfied with my work product than others. There may have been a few times when I wasn’t really given a sufficient amount of time to polish up one of my jobs quite as much as I would like to. But I’d say that is pretty rare. Usually, I do my best.”

The other interviewee answers as follows:

“Yes. Summer before last I worked at XYZ Corpora­tion. One of the vice-presidents asked me to write a memo on how we might attract a new client in the cosmetics industry. She really ripped my memo apart. She showed me how I should have organized it, pointed out approaches I should have considered, and stressed how I needed to support each of my conclusions. I redid the memo and the company used my revised memo as a basis to pitch the new client. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the business. I felt pretty down when I got the criticism, but at the end of the summer I went back in to thank the person who criticized me.”

Which answer do you think is more likely to impress the interviewer?

Organize your answer

Flitting about from point to point, going forward, backward, and every which way in answering a question suggests that you would do the same thing on the job. Do not be afraid to take a little time before plunging into your answer. Consider ways to give your answer structure, either by organizing your response chro­nologically, organizing your points in order of their importance, or simply by starting your answer with a statement such as, “There are three things I would consider in answering that question. First …”

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Make your answers consistent with other answers you have given and with other behavior you have exhibited in the interview.

For example, if you have told an employer you are a hard worker, then asking a bar­rage of questions about whether you will have to work evenings, whether there is weekend work, and the length of vacations offered by the company will call into question your earlier self-assessment. Incon­sistency on even one unimportant point may lead the other person to question the reliability of everything you have said in the interview.

Do not run on at too great a length in response to a question.

An interview is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue. Neither interviewers nor inter­viewees appreciate an interview in which the other does almost all of the talking. Running on and on (and on) is a breach of the unwritten rules of inter­view etiquette.

If you think you might be going on too long, cut your answer short. If the other person wants more information, he can always ask a follow-up question. Experienced interviewers and interviewees can gauge whether their answer is going on too long simply by watching the other person’s reaction. A bored, expressionless look on the other’s face, or shifting eyes, is a tip off that you are running on too long.

Deliver your answers in a way that demonstrates you are interested in them and shows some energy on your part.

Often, this interest or energy is shown in your tone of voice or body language. Few things are worse than listening to an interviewer or interviewee drone on in response to a question in a monotone with an expression on her face that shows she would rather be almost any place other than where she is now. If you are not interested in or energized by your response, how can you expect the other person to be?

Make sure your answer is credible and candid.

This is not a repeat of guideline number three because an answer can be honest, but not credible. For example, consider an interviewer who, in response to being asked what he would change about his job replies, “No, there’s not a single thing I can think of right now.” Later, it turns out he has just begun his pres­ent position today. The initial reply is honest, but (without the explanation) not credible.

Don’t memorize specific answers to questions you anticipate. Your answers will sound rehearsed and will lack spontaneity and credibility. For exam­ple, one “expert” on interviewing suggests in his book that interviewees answer the question, “What do you look for in a job?” as follows: “Personal fulfillment, consistent with effective administra­tion.” Anybody who gave me that stilted and phony answer would be out on his ear quickly.

Make your answer interesting to the other party

Of course, to do that, you need some sense of what the other person will be interested in. Using appropriate stories to illustrate your answer will help to make that answer both interesting and credible. It also helps to be aware of, and avoid, the clichés that have evolved and are used by both sides of the table in the interview process. These clichés vary from industry to industry and, within an industry, from year to year. For example, in law firms, the cliché of the year has moved from “collegial atmosphere” to “cutting edge work” to “quality of life.” Be sensitive to the cliché of the year in your industry— and avoid using it.

Answer in a way that shows you understand, not only the question, but also the other person’s reason for asking the question.

For example, the interviewee who asks about whether long hours are required on the job, may well not be interested in knowing whether she will be able to leave at five-thirty, six, or six-thirty on an average night. More likely, she is interested in knowing whether she will have any life outside of work at all. Therefore, a response that said, “Yes, we work rather hard here, but we also have time for ourselves. For example, I am an avid skeet shooter, and I rarely miss one of our Wednes­day evening or Saturday afternoon skeet-shooting club meetings,” is far more responsive to the inter­viewee’s concern than would be a reply such as, “On average, we work nineteen hundred hours per year.” If you’re in doubt about the reason for a question, ask the other person specifically why he asked it.

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Of course, the substance of your answer counts. But, as the above guidelines suggest, the manner and form you use to convey your answer will determine how the other party responds to you. Put another way, you may say all the right things, but if you do not convey them with respect, credibility, directness, clarity, interest, conciseness, and understanding, you are unlikely to accomplish your purposes in the interview.

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