June 14, 2011

Signal in the Noise

I was sitting in a coffeeshop yesterday practicing interviewing with my best friend (*waves at her*) when she pointed out to me that I'm much more subdued in my "interview mode" than I am in Real Life, in my Normal Life. I hadn't even realized it, but when she pointed it out to me I started putting the cards together.

I realized that I was subdued in interviews because I've been told to be subdued in interviews. I've been told to keep my hand gestures to a minimum, to be pleasant and controlled and utterly bland. But, at the same time, I'm supposed to have verve, personality, a certain je ne sais quois that transcends the interviewer. My feedback has always been polarizing; be more, be less.

Be honest, but coach and prep your answers. Be cheerful, but not too excited. Be courteous, but not reserved. Playing the middle of the road of all of these simply makes one bland.

So, how do we separate the signal from the noise? What advice should we be following in an interview? I think maybe that the first rule -- the oldest rule -- is the best one to be following:

Know your audience.

It's that simple. Marketing firm? Be really funny and outgoing, talk and laugh and smile and gesture. Accounting firm? Cheerful but buttoned-down, with a touch of cool geekiness.

Consulting firm? This one's trickier; you want to sound practiced, but effortless, with the same kind of energy that a marketing firm wants but with the control of an investment banker. Consulting firms want you to always be thinking, just like investment bankers want you to always be closing. Finally, remember the clutch question of a consulting hire: would I want to be trapped in an airport with this person for a 4-hour layover? If the answer is yes, you're in.

Startup? This one's tricky, too. This is likely a fairly casual company, but you still want to come off as polished and pro. Have a sense of humor, and know their sandbox as well as one can. Have a good idea about their scope, and don't be afraid to ask tough financial questions.

The list goes on, but ultimately the most important thing is to be aware of your audience, and be who they want you to be, as mercenary as that sounds. Then again, this is exactly what you do on a cover letter: demonstrate why you are right for the position.

The other piece of advice I've received that trumps all the others is, likewise, direct:

Be yourself.

Trite as it may same, don't put on airs or misrepresent yourself. Be honest, be direct, and be loyal to yourself and your image of yourself. After all, if you aren't loyal to your own brand, how can anyone else be?

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