How to give good interview (whatever side of the desk you’re on!)

The first time I interviewed someone for a job, it turned out to be a complete disaster.

I was twenty-one, and working for a tech start-up that was expanding rapidly.  There was no HR person, so the Managing Director decided I would be it, and my first task was to interview for a new receptionist. 

The woman I chose was a compulsive liar who started out by complaining that I’d promised her a higher salary after her first month in the role (I hadn’t).  Later on, she pretended she was dying of leukaemia.  This lie went on for months, and it was only discovered after I called the hospital to check something, only to be told they didn’t actually treat leukaemia there. 

Bless her.  Anyway, it’s fair to say that the experience had taught me my first recruiting lesson: never interview people on your own, and don’t see them just once before offering them the job.

While I can’t say I didn’t make any more mistakes (a classic one being hiring people just because I felt sorry for them), I’ve successfully interviewed hundreds of people for jobs in the years that followed.  Being someone who has changed jobs regularly, I’ve sat on the other side of the desk plenty of times, too.

These days, as a freelance writer, I’m still interviewing people, albeit in a different way – now I’m trying to find interesting stories.  I’m also regularly interviewed myself, mostly about career change or writing.

From all this experience, I've learned that there are two things every interview scenario has in common: preparation and listening.  These are the magic ingredients that will lift your interview and make it more interesting, whichever side of the desk you happen to be on. 

Preparation means reading any information you’ve been given beforehand (which sounds obvious, but the amount of uninformed interviews that take place are higher than you might expect) and listening means…well, just that. 

In fact, if you’re ever feeling nervous about an upcoming interview, simply resolving to listen is a great start.  Concentrating on what the other person has to say will take the pressure off you, and just like most normal conversations, you will know how to respond.  Trust yourself.

Other tips can be swiftly broken down as follows:

If you’re going for a job interview…

- Research common questions, but not so much that you sound rehearsed and robotic.

- It sounds cheesy, but be yourself as much as possible.  Trying to fit in as somebody else is guaranteed to crush your soul.

- Don’t lie – you’ll get found out eventually.

- Ask a few questions of your own, ideally not ones that have already been covered during the interview. 

If you’re conducting a job interview…

- Don’t ask stupid questions that don’t tell you anything (examples: “if you were an animal, which would you be?” or, “how many pots of paint would it take to cover the moon?”)

- Don’t ask people where they’ll be in five years’ time.  They don’t know – nobody does.

- Try not to employ people who you like, but who aren’t really suitable for the job.

If you’re being interviewed for a magazine or website…

- Have a few ‘go-to’ stories ready that will tell people something interesting and memorable about you.  This could be how your career got started, what drives you, or a strange and funny incident that occurred at the supermarket.

If you’re conducting an information interview…

- Remember that the person you’re interviewing might be feeling nervous, so it’s your job to relax and reassure them. 

- If you can, have a quick chat before the interview starts, and let them know what to expect.

- Don’t let a story go only half-told – ask questions that will draw out more information where needed.

And finally, if you’re being interviewed by the police…

- Answer every question with “no comment”.