These days, presidential debates are more like job interviews than debates. That is, there's not much issue debating but a whole lot of Q&A-ing and candidates telling why they're the best man or woman for the job. The downside of this is it can be hard to differentiate candidates' stances on the issues; the upside is debates can teach you a lot about interviewing—including how to improve your interviewing skills.
1. You need to prepare your answers ahead of time, but you can't sound scripted.
When answering debate questions, there's almost nothing worse than candidates sounding like they're reading straight from answers they prepared ahead of time. Of course, before debates, candidates need to prepare and practice answers to questions they're likely to receive. But when their answers sound rehearsed, candidates risk coming across as insincere and dishonest or, at best, very cold.
And so, the trick for candidates, just like it is for you when you interview, is to prepare ahead of time but when it comes time to speak, speak from the heart, not the head. In other words, yes, practice your general responses for likely interview questions prior to your interviews, but when giving your answers, go off-script a bit, not word for word. And give your answers with feeling, with emotion, not just with your head, your intellect, your memory. If you just memorize and regurgitate, your interviewers will think you’re not a genuine, trustworthy person, and, when it comes to voting on your candidacy, they'll give you the thumbs down.
2. If you’re not going to answer the question right away, say that you’ll get to it in a bit.
When answering debate questions, political candidates love not answering the questions they’re asked, instead chiming in on something another candidate just said or adding to a response they didn’t get to finish earlier. This isn’t terrible—as long as they also answer the question they’re asked later. And so, there’s nothing wrong with a candidate saying something like this when answering a debate question: “First, I’d like to comment on …” and then, after that, saying, “And as for your question, this is what I …” However, just going off on another topic (or another candidate) without ever getting back to the question asked is, indeed, terrible. It makes a candidate seem argumentative and untrustworthy.
The same goes for interviewing. There could be a time when you want to add something to a previous answer that only came to you later (while you were asked a different question). Or, there could be a time when a thought arises that seems best to get out right away, not later. In these cases (and others like them), if your interviewer just asked you question, it’s okay to say something like, “Before I answer that, I just thought of something I’d like to add about …” And then, after getting across what you wanted to get across about a previous question, you come back to the question at hand. “As for your question about …”
3. Yes or No questions are almost never really just Yes or No questions.
Sometimes, in debates, candidates receive questions that don’t really require more than a Yes or No. Such as: Do you approve of the A and B? Do you think that it’s wrong to X and Y? You supported D, E, and F, correct? However, these questions aren’t really just asking candidates to answer Yes or No; they’re asking for more than that, for candidates to answer Yes or No, and then tell why they feel that way, why they side one way the other.
The same is true (almost always) when you receive a Yes or No question in an interview. In an interview, you might be asked a wide range of Yes or No questions, such as: Did you like your last job? Did you find your studies challenging? Do you have trouble working through the night if something needs to get done by the following morning? Etc. All of these questions, and others like them, are really asking you to explain your answer after you say Yes or No. You don’t want to merely answer with a Yes or No, and then have to deal with dead air before your interview asks, uncomfortably, “Could you explain a little more about that?” This will show that you don’t understand basic social cues, which won’t go very far toward boosting your candidacy.
4. Use your hands wisely.
Candidates love to speak with their hands. And many, you'll see if you watch presidential debates, have cultivated specific hand-speaking styles. Some candidates like to hold up their fingers to count out their points. "Number one [index finger goes into the air] ... Number two [index and middle finger rise] ...," etc. Other candidates like to make slow slicing movements with their hands when making their points (maybe to make themselves seem more decisive?). Still others like to raise their hands above their shoulders (like giving an oath) when they're trying to make a particularly significant point. The point is, hand-speaking is common, and it's effective, but only when done properly. The aforementioned gestures are fine (at least in debates). But hand gestures like interlocking all fingers of both of hands or keeping both palms flat on a podium or desk can come across as odd, or like you have something to hide.
As for how this can be applied to interviewing, allow yourself to speak with your hands, but be mindful of what you're doing with them at all times. Know that it's accepted and encouraged to animate your speech with simple hand gestures. It's a sign of warmth, as well as engagement with your words. So, if you naturally move your hands in natural ways when you speak, then by all means allow yourself to do that in interviews. If you don't naturally engage your hands, then make sure they're not folded, in your pockets, hidden in your lap, or behind your back. You want your interviewer to be able to see your hands, as it's a sign of openness and will go a long way toward expressing that you're an honest and trustworthy candidate.
As a final note about gestures, the next time you watch a presidential debate, try this: Turn off the volume for a few minutes and pay attention to what the candidates do with their hands while they're speaking and while they're waiting to speak. Take note, while the sound is muted, of what their gestures bring to mind and what their gestures seem to indicate. It's likely that, by doing so, you'll learn new information about the candidates. It's also likely that you'll learn new information to use in your next interview.
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