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Acing the Unconventional Interview

Unusual interviews call for unique job-winning tactics

By Linda Formicelli

Acing the Unconventional Interview

In the past, when you scored an interview you donned your best suit, trekked over to the employer's location, and interviewed in the HR department with one manager.

Boy, how things have changed. Today, you might be asked to interview by phone, in a restaurant or even via webcam. Not only that, but you may be interviewed along with several other applicants-or you may be grilled by more than one interviewer at a time.

If all of this makes you want to swear off job interviews forever, don't despair. While you may never know where or how you're going to be interviewed-there is one thing you do know for sure: you can always expect the unexpected! But if you keep these tips in mind you'll be sure to hit a home run with whatever the interviewer throws at you. Read on to find out how to make the best of even the strangest interview situations.

Let's Chat: The Instant Message Interview

Think instant messaging is only for shooting the breeze with your buddies? Think again! Some employers are using chat programs to conduct interviews. Sometimes these are done through a virtual job fair, so the employer and applicant don't have to download any special software.

Acing the Unconventional Interview

GECC Fall 2008: Acing the Unconventional Interview

"The nice part about this feature is that it allows employers to sit at a desk and communicate with a large number of people simultaneously," says Steven Rothberg, president and founder of Minneapolis-based "The chat may benefit the candidate, such as an IT candidate who is more comfortable interacting on a computer."

Expecting to chat it up with an employer? Follow these tips:

  • Don't use acronyms. "If you're chatting online with your buddy, sure, feel free to write things like 'R U ready?'" says Rothberg. "But on a professional interview you need to communicate professionalism. Smiley faces and cute acronyms aren't appropriate for any business situation."

  • As with the phone interview, practice your answers to common questions; you can even practice typing them into the computer. Have a copy of your resume handy in case you need to refer to it.

Ring, Ring! The Phone Interview

Let's face it-interviewing applicants can be expensive, especially if the employer flies in the applicants or sends the interviewers to them. Before investing the time and effort on face-to-face interviews, especially when hundreds are vying for the job, many companies do telephone interviews to narrow down the pool of candidates. Another name for a telephone interview is a screening interview; an applicant's objective is to pass the screening interview and get that face-to-face meeting.

"The main pro to doing a phone interview is that it is indeed an interview," says Donna Kozik, co-author of Get A Job! Put Your Degree To Work.

Acing the Unconventional Interview

GECC Fall 2008: Acing the Unconventional Interview

"At least you've reached the first tier of consideration," she says. "The con is that the competition is fierce. The reality is that you're one of dozens and maybe hundreds of applicants to receive a screening interview."

Increase your chances by preparing like there's no tomorrow. The good news is, preparing for a phone interview is similar to preparing for a traditional interview. "Practice your answers to the expected questions," says Kozik. "Have water, notepaper, a couple of pens, a copy of your resume, and a list of your references in front of you. Some people even dress as if they are meeting the interviewer face to face."

Here are some more tips for acing the phone interview:

  • If the interviewer offers you several interview times to choose from, choose the later appointment because of the winning strategy "last in, best remembered." Kozik says, "You should not be expected to conduct a phone interview on the spot. If that's what the person asks for, say you're in a meeting and ask when would be a good time to reschedule."

  • If you have call waiting, turn if off prior to your interview. "Nothing is more distracting or unprofessional than hearing an incoming call when you're just getting started. It says something about your attention to detail!" says Kozik.

  • Answer interview questions fully, with maybe a sentence or two of detail. Avoid saying simply "yes" or "no", but don't drone on and run the risk of boring your interviewer. "Remember, the screener's job is to find a way to eliminate you from contention, and the longer you speak the more likely he or she will find that reason," says Kozik.

  • Clean up your grammar and avoid slang during the interview. Be sure to speak slowly and clearly. The interviewer can't see you, so all she has to judge you on is your speaking style.

  • Nerves can cause you to speed up your speech or slur your words. Take slow, deep breaths throughout the interview. "You might want to even write 'breathe' or 'pause' on a piece of paper and keep it in front of you to remind yourself," says Kozik.

  • Remember: practice makes perfect. Rehearse phone interviews with a family member or friend until you're more comfortable with the process. If you're nervous, you will tend to speak more quickly, so be sure to practice pacing your speaking tempo.

Out-of-Office Experience: The Walkabout Interview

Your potential employer wants to see the real you-not a false image that has prepared and polished your statements and spell-checked your resume to perfection. That's why the employer may try to shake things up by interviewing you in an untraditional location such as a restaurant, a golf course, or on a tour of the employer's facility.

"Recruiters advise employers to try to catch you off guard, and it may rattle you to suddenly find yourself, say, on a golf course," says Joyce Lain Kennedy, author of Job Interviews for Dummies. "They want to see the whole picture, the whole person."

To fly through the walkabout interview, try these tips:

  • Do what you can in advance to make yourself as comfortable as possible. "The only way to feel assured is to remove the strangeness," says Kennedy. For example, if you know you're going to interview in a restaurant, go ahead of time to scope out the place. Check the menu and pick out a few good options so you won't have to spend a lot of time scrutinizing the menu while your potential employer is sitting across the table.

  • If you feel truly uncomfortable with the employer's choice of location (for example, if it's on a golf course and you don't know a birdie from an eagle), try to suggest alternatives. "The candidate should make an excuse based on the time or location suggested, immediately offering another time and place where the candidate would feel more comfortable," says Kennedy. She suggests saying, "Sorry, but I'll be at an appointment on the other side of town that afternoon and I would hate to hold up your tee time. I could join you at the clubhouse later-would that work for you?"

  • Practice interviewing in different locations with a friend, from restaurants to inside a moving car. If you know where your interview is going to take place, go there and have your friend grill you so you can rehearse talking in that environment.

  • Don't forget the importance of your body language. In fact, a whopping 55% of the impact of what we say comes from our body language and other visual cues, 38% from the way we sound, while only a piddling seven percent of the meaning comes from our words. Standing with your arms behind your back and leaning forward shows that you're attentive. Avoid folding your arms or moving away from the interviewer, which indicates that you're rejecting what she's saying.

Let's Get Together: The Panel Interview

Like interviewing isn't stressful enough-some employers will hit you with a panel interview, where you will face a firing squad of interviewers. "It's to save time and also to see how the candidate reacts within the 'tribe,'" says Kennedy.

"One of the core principles of getting into a company is that people like people who are similar to themselves. They want to see if you're a member of the tribe."

Here's how to make it through the panel interview with high marks:

  • Don't kiss up. "It's a mistake to try to assess who the decision maker is and address your comments only to that person," says Kennedy. "Try to divide your attention fairly equally among the panel members, because you have no way of knowing who is the decision maker."

  • Be prepared. Have enough copies of your resume on hand that you can give one to each member of the panel.

  • Make eye contact with each panel member as you answer questions, paying special attention to the person who asked the question.

  • Unobtrusively create a quick seating chart on your note pad so you can remember the names of each person and where they are sitting.

Following the Crowd: The Group Interview

More is always better, right? That's the modus operandi of some employers, who prefer to interview several candidates at once.

However, Steven Rothberg from disagrees. "I don't think the group interview allows candidates the opportunity to speak candidly," he says. "If there are issues they feel are private, it makes it more difficult for them to share those issues with the employer, especially with issues related to disability. For example, a candidate may have ADHD or epilepsy, and want the employer to know that they'll need reasonable accommodation. That information is unfair to have to share with other candidates." Nevertheless, this type of interview wins the favor of employers because it saves them valuable time.

If you get hit with one of these interviews, make the best of it with these tips:

  • Get a bunch of friends together and act out a group interview. "Do half a dozen or so, until you're at least comfortable and can anticipate how people will interact with each other in that environment," suggests Rothberg. You may also be expected to tell the group about yourself, so practice your spiel.

  • Call up someone in the company who's currently working in the same position you're applying for. Let her know that you have an interview scheduled and that you'd love to buy her a cup of coffee and pick her brain. Ask how she got started, what it's like working at the company, and if there's anything you should know about the business. "You can get some inside knowledge about what it's like to work there, what skills they value, and even some inside knowledge on the people who will be interviewing you," says Rothberg. "See what their hot buttons are so you can stay away from the things that will cast you in a bad light. The mere fact that you have gone that extra step will reflect well on you." This tip applies to all kinds of interviews, but can be even more effective in helping you stand out from a group of candidates who are interviewing at the same time.

  • You may be asked to role play or solve a problem with a group of candidates to see how well you working with a team. Employers want you to be outgoing and proactive-not bossy and domineering.

  • If the interviewer asks a question that you feel uncomfortable answering in front of a group of strangers, give as complete an answer as you're comfortable with, then tell the interviewer that you'd like to email or call in with your answer after the interview. You can say something like, "I know why you need to know this information and I have no problem providing it, but I prefer to provide it one-on-one in a way that's convenient to you." Rothberg adds, "You don't need to say anything that could be construed as being critical of their interview choice. If you say, 'I don't want to answer that question in front of all of these people,' it's like you're saying that you're critical of the group interview. So don't explain why. Most hiring managers are very reasonable, and I think they would have no problem with that. The reason for this style of interview to save time, not to put candidates into a stressful situation."

Landing the Deal

Regardless of the type of interview, chances are a few things will remain the same: you will be nervous, you will have on uncomfortable shoes, and you will be aiming to please. Hopefully, the interviewer will be able to overlook your sweaty palms and slightly uncomfortable expression (that is, of course, if you're even meeting face-to-face) and see through to all of your hard work, preparation and genuine ability.

At the core, that's what you are trying to achieve in a successful job interview-whether it's over the phone or on the golf course-you're trying to present to the interviewer a realistic, yet best-possible impression of yourself, your skills and your abilities.

And the ideal way to achieve that outcome is to prepare in advance for every possible scenario-even if it requires practicing your best webcam style at your local Kinko's!

Linda Formicelli has written for Women's Day, Wired, Family Circle and Business Start-Ups. She writes from her home in Southeast Massachusetts and can be reached at


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