When it comes to interviews I’ll admit that I’m first in line when it comes to preaching the virtues of preparation. “Preparation is key to success…” “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail…” I’m guilty of all those clichés and more. And whilst I do truly believe they hold value, work with a recent client has made me realise that over-preparation can be every bit as risky. In particular, the inflexibility that it can produce in someone’s interview performance holds 3 very real and problematic possibilities:
The panic factor
Scripting answers word for word may work if you are a top actor with a great memory but, let’s face it, most of us aren’t. With over-rehearsed responses, the issue lies that candidates often lack the flexibility to think pragmatically if the mind draws a blank. And this can happen with the simplest of questions: “Tell me about yourself.” “Why do you want this job?” So much time has gone into preparing a 6 point answer, that if the candidate gets to point 3 and then loses their train of thought, a mist of panic descends. I’ve seen it happen and it can be hard to recover from.
Answering the wrong question
Candidates may be so confident with their rehearsed answers to particular questions that there is a real risk that they will skew the questions asked in order to ensure their practiced answer is heard. So “tell me about a time you worked as part of a team” leads to a description of the interviewee’s leadership skills. Or “what skills have you developed through your current position?” produces an answer which draws from all previous work and extra-curricular experiences. By over-preparing, the candidate has simply been unable to show the flexibility needed to adapt to the specifics of the question asked. Instead, they cling to the ‘safety’ offered by the answers they know best.
Hiding the real ‘you’
You can never underestimate the importance of likability in interview situations. Most recruiters want to employ people not only who they know can do they job, but who they would like to work alongside. Too much preparation can leave candidates appearing rigid and inflexible in their answers and their overall performance may seem quite uptight. Quite simply, personal characteristics like humour, enthusiasm and empathy, which often come from more natural and spontaneous responses, may be denied. And yet these are the qualities that interviewers often warm to most.
So what am I suggesting? Well, not for a minute that we go back to the ‘no preparation’ alternative. Like many things in life, the key to a perfectly planned interview lies in a successful balancing act. You must neither do too much nor too little. And whilst too little preparation is easy to remedy, once the line of too much preparation has been crossed it can be incredibly difficult to step back down from. The much simpler solution is to get it right from the start.
Be aware of your own performance style and what works best for you - an interview is a performance, after all. But never be afraid to get to the point with your preparation where you feel enough is enough. You must feel confident that you are able to identify the best examples to use in your responses to questions, whilst remaining adaptable to the unpredictability that interviews offer. Get this right and you could be on your way to a new job.
Momentum Careers Advice is based in St Albans, Hertfordshire, but can provide careers guidance support, via Skype, across the UK and beyond.