Thursday, May 13, 2010

5 rules for asking better interview questions

With the addition of 573,000 nonfarm payroll jobs since December, American workers are feeling more optimistic about their employment prospects. Those who had all but given up their job searches have started to re-enter the job market, which accounted for the rise in the unemployment rate in April despite the positive job growth.

Fewer job openings for job seekers also mean fewer interviews and it’s possible your once-sharp interview skills are now out of shape due to lack of practice. Today we have a guest blog from John Kador, author of the new second edition of “301 Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview” Practice these before your next interview, which will hopefully come before you know it.

Interview the interviewer: 5 Rules for Framing Better Questions

The landscape for job seekers today is more treacherous than at any time in recent memory. In other words, if you want a job today, you may actually have to work for it.

One way to really shine is by asking questions. Questions are the best way for you to demonstrate that you understand the company’s challenges, emphasize how you can help the company meet them, and show your interest in the most unmistakable manner possible — by actually asking for the position. These rules, excerpted from “301 Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview” will help arm you with new interview questions and techniques for selling yourself and getting the job you want.

Here are five rules for framing questions that will put you in the best light.

1. Ask open-ended questions.
Closed-ended questions can be answered “yes” or “no,” and begin with words such as “did,” “have,” “do,” “would” and “are.” Open-ended questions — usually begin with “how,” “when,” and “who” — create opportunities for a conversation and a much richer exchange of information.

This is a closed question:

Candidate: Does the company have a child-care center on-site?

Interviewer: Yes.

Open-ended question:

Candidate: How does the company support working parents?

Interviewer: Let me show you a brochure about our award-winning day care center located right here in the building. “Working Women” magazine recently rated it one of the top ten corporate day care centers in the U.S. . . .

2. Keep it short
Nothing is as disconcerting as a candidate spewing out a long, complicated question only to have the interviewer look confused and say, “I’m sorry I don’t understand your question.” Restrict every question to one point. Resist mouthfuls like this:

I know that international sales are important, so how much of the company’s revenues are derived from overseas, is that percentage growing, declining, or stable, do international tariffs present difficulties, and how will currency fluctuations impact the mix?

No interviewer should be expected to take on such a complicated question. If you really think a conversation about these points is in your interest, indicate your interest in the issue and then break the question into separate queries.

3. Don’t interrupt
Wait for the interviewer to finish the question. One candidate reported the following exchange:

Hiring Manager: I see by your resume that you’ve had six systems analyst jobs in six years . . .

Candidate [interrupting]: . . . And you want me to explain the job-hopping, right?

Hiring Manager: Actually, I was going to ask what’s one new skill you took away from each job. But since you mentioned job-hopping, I am concerned about your ability to stick with one employer for more than year.

Oops. Better to wait for the full question. How much better it would have been for the above candidate:

Hiring Manager: I see by your resume that you’ve had six systems analyst jobs in six years. Can you mention one specific skill you took away from each experience?

Candidate: You’re asking what’s one important skill I added to my portfolio from each of the jobs I’ve held, is that right?

Hiring Manager: Exactly.

Candidate: Good question. Let’s take my jobs in order . . .

4. Getting to yes
Your goal in the job interview is also to end the interview on an affirmation. In fact, the more “yes’s” and statements of agreement you can generate, the better off you will be. Why? People, including job interviewers, really prefer being agreeable. Few people enjoy saying no. Who needs arguments? The best way to avoid arguments is to say yes.

If the job interview features wave after wave of yes’s, think how much easier it will be for the interviewer to say yes to that last question, whether it’s asked explicitly or implicitly:

I think I’ve demonstrated I’m qualified for this job. I’d very much like to join the team. Can we come to an agreement?

In tactical terms, that means framing your interview questions so the answers you want or expect will be positive:

Candidate: I have long been impressed by Acme Widgets. It’s been the leader in pneumatic widgets for over 50 years, right?

Interviewer: (proudly) Yes!

Candidate: I noticed in the current annual report that the company sets aside $50 million or 2.5 percent of revenues for research and development. That’s more than all of your competitors, isn’t it?

Interviewer: Yes. We lead the industry in allocation of R&D by revenue.

Candidate: As the market for widgets gets more commoditized, the we will have to differentiate the product, right? What specifically is the company doing to preserve the market share it has gained over the years?

5. Use inclusive language
Look at the last dialogue again. Did you notice that the candidate subtly shifted from “you” to “we”? Words such as “we” and “our” subtly give the impression that the candidate is already a member of the team. The more comfortable the interviewer is with the concept of the candidate already being on the team, the better the candidate’s chances. It’s so much easier extending a job offer to someone who the interviewer on some level already perceives as part of “us” instead of “them.”

John Kador is the author of the new second edition of “301 Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview” (McGraw-Hill, 2010). He can be reached at

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