How the Presidential Debate Can Make You a Better Interviewer

by Rachel Marx Boufford | October 04, 2012

Have an interview coming up? You might want to re-watch last night’s presidential debate for some pointers.

No, I’m not suggesting that you talk over the person asking you questions (like one candidate) or show up looking like you could use a nap (like the other candidate).

But listen closely to each question, and at the end of the candidate’s response, ask yourself: are we now on an entirely different topic?

In nearly every presidential debate, candidates don’t quite answer the questions posed by the moderator. Instead, debaters use a technique called “pivoting”—or answering a question by addressing a different subject.

According to Brett O'Donnell, a debate consultant for Republican candidates, both parties use the pivoting technique at least 60 to 70 percent of the time. And yesterday, NPR reported that the technique—when used subtly—is often undetectable to the audience.

So how can you use the pivoting technique to perform better in interviews?

It all comes down to preparation. Before an interview, make a list of several points you want to communicate. It could be how your major or degree applies to the position, what you learned from studying abroad, how you led a project at work from conception to execution, or why you chose the topic of your thesis. Come up with well thought-out sound bites to describe your strengths and accomplishments.

(It’s worth noting that many interview questions will allow you to use your talking points without pivoting at all. For example, if you are asked what your greatest strength is, or my personal favorite question—“Tell me about yourself”—you are being given free range to pitch yourself to the interviewer, no pivoting necessary.)

Now, it’s time to practice the pivot. When you’re asked a question, address it briefly. Then, transition into one of the points you planned:

Question: Why are you interested in this position?
Answer strategy: Start by conveying your enthusiasm for the company and position, using a specific example that shows you have researched the organization and understand the role’s requirements. Next, transition into one of your sound bites—for example, by describing a prior accomplishment. Make sure to connect your sound bite back to the question by noting that your experience influenced your desire to move into the role you’re interviewing for.

Question: What is your greatest weakness?
Answer strategy: You’ll risk annoying your interviewer if you don’t actually name a weakness here, but the trick to pivoting on this question is to turn your answer into a story about how you’ve addressed your weakness to make sure it isn’t an issue for you or your organization. For example, if one of the talking points you want to address is how you led a group of five colleagues through a large project from start to finish, you might describe how prior to heading up the project, you had a tough time delegating to others. Describe how leading the group taught you how to be an efficient delegator while still ensuring a superb finished product.

Question: Tell me about your experience working at [past job].
Answer strategy: If one of your goals was to discuss a project or accomplishment at the job your interviewer asks about, no pivot is needed. But if that’s not the case, give a brief description of the organization or role in question, then transition to one of your sound bites. For example, if you are asked about your experience as an intern at a public relations agency, but you want to convey that you have client development experience from another position, say: “The public relations agency where I interned specialized in non-profit clients. I was responsible for drafting press releases, as well as tracking media contacts. I was actually able to build on that experience in my most recent position at [company name], where I was responsible for maintaining and tracking client contacts. I further developed client relationships by creating relevant presentations and keeping on top of industry trends to anticipate client needs.”

With a little practice, you’ll be pivoting like Obama and Romney in no time.

Earlier: Tough Interview Questions--And How to Answer Them

Filed Under: Interviewing


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