Talk the talk in that all-important interview

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Do your homework before you step into that interview room – there’s no excuse to arrive unprepared.
Do your homework before you step into that interview room – there’s no excuse to arrive unprepared.
Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

Your CV and cover letter were a hit and now your potential future employers want to meet you and get to know you better – before hopefully offering you the job you’re after.

Remember, you’ve been invited to the interview because there’s a vacancy – not because the interviewer is trying to catch you out, so try to relax.

The aim of the interview is to clarify your qualifications and skills, to see if you have the level of maturity, intellect and motivation required for the position, and to decide if you’re a good fit for the company.

We speak to experts to find out how to bring out the best in you.

Read more | Is your job interview online? Here's how you can ace it

Preparing for the interview

Lots of research is essential, our experts say.

Learn as much as possible about the company, they advise, as well as the person conducting the interview.

“There’s so much information available online that there are no excuses to arrive unprepared,” says Lorna O’Brien of O’Brien Recruitment in Cape Town.

If you are meeting face to face, know where you’re going – arriving late doesn’t make a good impression, cautions Tamara Wolpert of Viv Gordon Placements in Cape Town.

“Be sure you know the route to the venue and allow enough time to arrive early.”

If it’s online, get your devices set up in plenty of time.

Before the interview, re-read the job description as well as your CV so you know exactly what the interviewer will be looking at, Lorna says.

It’s a good idea to take a printed pack of the documents you submitted with you to the interview, says Celeste Stewart, director of Bold Curiosity, a learning and development consultancy.

“This way you’ll have a copy on hand should there be any questions and you need to refer to the document you submitted months ago,” Celeste explains.

Leading questions

The most common question is the evergreen icebreaker, “So, tell us about yourself . . .”

The key to answering this question is to remember the interviewer is less interested in the content of your answer than in the way you answer it, says Alexis Kitchen of Afrizan Personnel in Johannesburg,

They already have your CV, but they want to gauge your confidence, enthusiasm and passion from the way you answer the question.

“Interviewers want to see how articulate you are and what kind of impression you’d make on the people with whom you come into contact on the job,” Alexis says.

“The biggest mistake you can make is pausing, stalling or fumbling at the start of your answer, which demonstrates a lack of self-awareness and self-esteem.”

Formulate your answers beforehand, Celeste says.

“Questions such as, ‘Tell me about a time you solved a really complex problem. What happened? What was the outcome?’ will definitely be asked.”

Many people are stumped by questions like these, not because they don’t have the answer but because it catches them off-guard, she says. So, practise your answers.

“The biggest mistake you can make is pausing, stalling or fumbling at the start of your answer, which demonstrates a lack of self-awareness and self-esteem.”
Alexis Kitchen

Other common questions include:

  • What’s your biggest strength?
  • What would you consider an area of development?
  • Why do you want to leave your current job?
  • In what ways can you make a contribution to this company?
  • Explain your responsibilities in your current role.
  • Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult colleague. What happened and what was the outcome?
  • How do you deal with pressure? Tell me about a time when you missed a deadline. What happened and what will you do differently next time?

To effectively answer questions such as these, Alexis says you need to think about the feedback you’ve received in the course of your career so you’ll be able to substantiate your answers with actual examples.

“When interviewers ask these questions they’re looking to see how you relate these qualities to your work and whether you take accountability for your own development,” she adds.

Read more | 'Should I bring up my salary in an interview?' – we asked recruitment experts

What not to say

If you and the interviewer are hitting it off, great! But keep the conversation professional and focused on the job.

Top of the don’t list is bad-mouthing your current or previous employers – just don’t ever do it.

“Even if you feel you have good reason to do so,” Alexis says. The interviewer “will probably not want to risk being the next person you bad-mouth”.

If a bad experience at work is the reason for you looking for a new job, it’s usually sufficient to tell the interviewer that “your values weren’t aligned, or that you feel it’s time to move on. You can go so far as to say that you don’t wish to badmouth your previous employer when answering this question”, Alexis says.

Other don’ts include:

  • Saying you’d prefer to do something entirely unrelated to the job for which you’re being interviewed.
  • Saying you don’t like difficult people – there are difficult people in every organisation.
  • Saying you don’t like working in a team – teamwork is important and a reality in every organisation.
  • Bringing up religion and politics. Most modern workplaces strive for diversity and tolerance and an interview is usually not the best forum for discussing these.
  • Asking what the company does.
  • Asking about salary, leave and benefits at the first interview. Focusing on these things or appearing desperate is a turnoff for employers.

Sharing personal information

The general rule is to answer questions that are asked, but don’t overshare.

“Sometimes when we get nervous and start babbling we say things we don’t mean to, so be mindful of what you’re saying,” Tamara cautions.

“Take your lead from the interviewer,” Celeste says. They’ll let you know if they need more information.

“Your family and personal circumstances will have an impact on your work so don’t shy away from disclosure in this regard,” Alexis adds, but notes, “You’re there to be assessed for suitability for a job so don’t dominate the conversation with irrelevant personal details.”

Do you have any questions?

The purpose of the interview isn’t only for the company to assess you but for you to decide if you’d fit in there too.

With this in mind, it’s a good idea to prepare a few questions beforehand that you can ask the interviewer when they give you the opportunity.

Asking questions at the end of the interview shows you’re interested in the company and have done your research, Lorna notes.

So basically it’s bad form not to ask questions at the end of the interview.

Suggested questions include:

  • Why is the job available?
  • What are the key challenges?
  • What is the company policy on career advancement?
  • What opportunities are there to get involved in volunteer groups within the company?
  • How do you manage talent in this organisation?
  • What’s your performance management system?
  • How does your induction for new employees work?
  • What support systems (coach, buddy) do you have in place for new employees?
  • Tell me more about the culture in this organisation.

And finally, Alexis says, “If you want the job, ask for that too!”

What should I wear?

Whether it’s face to face or online, dress for the part.

Err on the side of caution, our experts say. Go for a more conservative look, even if the job you’re interviewing for is known for a casual approach to workwear.

If you’re going for a corporate job “wear a business suit and heels”, says Tamara Wolpert of Viv Gordon Placements in Cape Town. Plunging necklines, short skirts, shorts and sloppy jeans are a no-no, she adds.

It’s best to plan your outfit the day before, says Celeste Stewart, director of Bold Curiosity, a learning and development consultancy. And iron it too, in case there’s a power cut on the morning of the interview! Crumpled clothes won’t make a good impression.

If you’re unsure how formal (or casual) your outfit should be, let yourself be guided by the company’s website or by people who work there to establish how formal the culture is, Celeste advises. But if you’re still unsure “always dress up”, she says, as it’s better to be told afterwards that it’s okay to dress more casually rather than not being called back for another interview.

Use common sense. “If you can wear it to a club, don’t wear it to an interview,” says Alexis Kitchen of Afrizan Personnel in Johannesburg.

Jewellery should be understated. Our experts also suggest removing face piercings and concealing tattoos.

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