5 Ways to flub a job interview


We spend so much of our careers doing good work, meeting interesting people, and learning new skills. But it really all starts with one moment: the interview.

Once you get there, you need to be able to package everything together for a nice, neat presentation that’s memorable in exactly the right way.

Here are five mistakes a lot of people make — even people who are great at doing interviews:

1. Not preparing for a phone interview.

Most hiring managers screen candidates on the phone before they bring the candidate in for an interview. This is to make sure there aren’t any glaring problems.

A phone interview saves time. If you can’t get the answers to basic questions right on the phone, there’s no point in interviewers watching you botch those questions in person. Also, the hiring manager is looking for you to make a mistake that would rule you out. For example, not knowing that you shouldn’t take a call with a screaming baby in the background.

So instead of thinking of the phone interview as a precursor to the real thing, think of it as something you can prepare for. Learn the rules.

2. Misunderstanding the point of a face-to-face interview.

Hiring managers today have a lot of tools at their disposal to figure out if you’re qualified for a job. The Internet reveals your history, and often the content and quality of your work;LinkedIn can provide a plethora of references from people who have worked with you, whether you actually provide them to the employer yourself or not. And a phone screen can give a sense of your verbal abilities.

So what’s left? Whether or not you click with them — whether they like you. Remember that intangible thing that happens on a date when you decide if you like the person or not? The same thing happens with hiring.

This is what the face-to-face interview is all about. So make a great first impression, and focus on making sure the interviewer likes you.

3. Neglecting talking points.

When President Bush walks into a press conference, he doesn’t worry what journalists are going to ask him because he already has the answers he’s going to provide — no matter what the questions are. Such answers are called talking points.

Politicians want to frame an issue, so they listen to a question and then decide which of their talking points they’ll use to answer that question. In this way, each question they’re asked is an opportunity to get their own points across.

I once had a media trainer teach me how to stick to talking points, and it works for a wide range of situations — including job interviews.

You control what five topics you want to discuss, so you should pick five things about yourself that you want to get across in an interview, and each point should come with some sort of story or example. You listen to each question and then figure out which point fits in well for a particular question.

You’re not George W. Bush, though, so you can’t totally ignore questions that don’t have pat answers. But you’d be surprised how often you can answer an interview question with one of the five answers about yourself that you’ve prepared. This is a way to control an interview and make sure the focus is on your strengths.

A great resource for helping you understand how to frame your answer for any question is the “The Complete Q & A Job Interview Book” by Jeffrey Allen.

4. Thinking the job description is set in stone.

When you start an interview, find out what you’re interviewing for. Typically, the person who writes and publishes a job description is not the person making the hiring decision. Ask the hiring manager what the goals are for the position, and ask who the new hire will work most closely with so you know who’ll have the biggest say in whether or not you get hired.

And, if you get the job, remember that it could change all over again. Immediately. So don’t ever assume you know what your job is until you investigate. The only constant about your job description is that you must be invaluable to your boss in order to succeed.

5. Failing to close.

A job interview is a sales call, and all good salespeople know that you don’t have a deal until you close it. An almost-deal is not a deal, in the same way that a good interview is not a job.

So toward the end of the interview, if you think things are going well, say, “Do you have any reservations about hiring me?” Most hiring managers will answer this question truthfully, and it’ll give you a chance to assuage their fears.

This is a hard question to ask, because you’ll be faced with your weaknesses right there in the midst of the interview. But if you don’t take the time to explain how you’ll overcome those weaknesses it won’t come up, and you’re much less likely to get the job.

31 replies
  1. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    My comment on Yahoo:

    “Nice article – I would also like to add that being a genuine person and showing some vulnerability is a good way to let the interviewer in. When I interviewed I mentioned that I dislike talking about myself, which I do immensley. The interviewer knew exactly what I meant because he is the same way – I told him I let my work speak for me which he again agreed. Another good point is knowing how to read people. If your interviewer is more stiff, stick to the points…don’t wander off…but if they are personable and start off by asking about your family follow it up with a funny story about your kids, or something your wife and you did. Everywhere I go people are looking for personable employees that work well with others. Use that to your advantage!”

    I guess the only other thing I can add is to use your network to get some inside scoop. Hopefully your network helped you land the interview. Ask them what the important parts are, what the boss is like and what they are looking for. Tailor your answers around those points.

  2. Rick75
    Rick75 says:

    Nice post with some good advice. But an interviewer may likely see right through the "talking points." Having a list of four or five of these is fine, but if you stick strictly to these points, an interviewer may well come to the conclusion that a) you're either ducking the question, or b) you can't think well on your feet.

    So, while it's a good idea to come into the interview with four or five talking points that reflect the job description, your skills and background, and how you believe you would fit in with the company, you need to be ready to address something that doesn't fit in with those points. If you're asked a question that you feel you may not have answered adequately, ask the interviewer a follow-up question, such as "Is that the kind of answer you were looking for?" Or, "Have I answered your question adequately?" That demonstrates to the interviewer that you're engaged in the conversation and not blowing off the question for the sake of sticking to a "script."

  3. Scott Williamson
    Scott Williamson says:

    I like the ‘talking points’. If you make sure to weave the talking points into the responses, you’ll be sure to get your point across. It will leave the interviewer understanding what you want them to know about you.

    Not all questions lend themselves to this and care should be given not appear to be ducking the question.

    Another tip would be to take your time in preparing your responses. You don’t have to answer right away. It’s OK to take a moment and formulate a good response, not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind.

    * * * * * *
    Scott, thank you for so succinctly and effectively saying why talking points work well. I wish I had said it that way.


  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    PT wrote: “Hiring managers today have a lot of tools at their disposal to figure out if you're qualified for a job. The Internet reveals your history, and often the content and quality of your work; LinkedIn can provide a plethora of references from people who have worked with you, whether you actually provide them to the employer yourself or not.”

    Sometimes, when I read your advice, I wonder just exactly who your target audience is. I know that I often fall well outside of your target. This statement is a good example. The internet will reveal little or nothing about me, and you certainly won’t find anything about the content or quality of my work there. I’ve looked at LinkedIn and decided that it did help me at all in my circles. I guess that kind of advice is good if you are writing a blog for profit, but it doesn’t work for me. Here at my current position, there are about 2000 people who mostly have little or nothing about them on the net (excluding of course private entries like My Space) My last workplace, a large multi-national, had about 3000 people locally and 20,000 across the US in our division alone. the people I worked with would have lost their jobs (at the very least) had information about their work been found on the net.

    Just something to keep in mind – many of us do not leave wide trails on the net for good reasons.

    * * * * * *

    If people can’t find out anything about you online, ask yourself why. LinkedIn is very popular with people who work in the Fortune 500. And blogging is for talking about your ideas, not for divulging company secrets. A simple blog can let people know what your ideas are about your field and that, after all, is what you want to be hired for, right?


  5. Helnee
    Helnee says:

    The biggest problem with “sticking points” is sticking to them! And it gets even more challenging when the interviewer is disorganized and asks terrible questions!! That said, using them is great advice.

    Thanks Penelope.


  6. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    Oh, how I wish I had learned number one before my recruiting season last year! It is very easy to think that the most important thing is to show your aptitude for the job. You’re so right that they already know you can do the job based on your education and experience. Being liked is the most important thing!

    Yesterday I happened to read one of your archived posts about the qualities of a likeable person. Could you link to that post in this one?

  7. Tim
    Tim says:

    Pretty sound advice. I have interviewed hundreds of people for jobs and just recently began interviewing myself. (for the first time in twenty years) The talking points is a good one and as a previous comment mentioned, weaving into a response is the way to go. However, if the interviewer doesn’t ask, and you really want to bing to light something important about your background, you really need the mental talking points “checklist” in your head.

    I also really liked the tip about LinkedIn. I’m an older guy and even though I keep up with technology to an extent, I was not aware of that site. I signed up and saw dozens of people I know in my industry. All these guys are senior people as well. Since it links with MS Outlook, it also took my address book and told me who in my list is in “LinkedIn” Very cool.

  8. David Harper
    David Harper says:

    Those are fine, Penelope, maybe you can be redeemed. I am still deciding. I would add:

    * For pre-interview homework, see if you can figure out the key success factors for the job (e.g., what do good performers do). There are usually a few key items on the job description that really matter – 80/20 rule – you want to emphasize your fit vis a vis the most important features of the job

    * Remember you are interviewing them, too. Match talking points with listening points. A rookie mistake is to “sell, sell, sell” but people judge you (mostly) by the quality of your questions. And questions have a double-benefit: they help you decide learn about the opportunity. The mature interviewee understands that interviews are competitive, but ultimately both parties are served by a good fit, so if you can try to think about it as a conversation toward learning about a good fit, you will be well perceived

    * Even if you are desparate, try and act like you could take it or leave it

    * The ‘failing to close’ is really good: it is very good to surface reservations on the spot. Many candidates lose jobs because in the committee aftermath, somebody raises an objection and it’s too late to counter it. However, at the same time, rarely can you really close. Lower expectations in this regard: the “buying decision” typically is hard to discern from the outside. Don’t overreach on closing.

    * The other great point here is focusing on the future manager. There is the paper job description, it matters only so far. The HR hiring manager typically, sorry to say, has little influence. Your future boss is the key person, what others say in the shiny interview process will melt away and your experience will largely be determined by this key person

    * If you are lucky to interview subordinates of your future boss (your potential future peers), use this is an opportunity to “interview the company” and find out what the job/boss is really like – here is where you could be forewarned with red flags

  9. Chris Young
    Chris Young says:

    Careful what you wish for – you just might get that job from hell because you aced the interview!

    It’s a game. The interviewer prepares to ask the “good” questions and the candidate prepares the “perfect” answer.

    I’ve aced every job interview I’ve had. Why? Because I prepared as you described. I’m 37 now and have had several jobs I hated because I got the wrong job. If only I could get that time back.

    This is a real epidemic. The wrong people get hired for the job and it becomes painfully obvious within 3-6 weeks. Then it takes 2 years for the employee or the employer to muster the courage to terminate the relationship.


    What’s scary is that many employers still use job interviews as a primary method of determining whether someone should be hired. Less than 15 percent of the successful hiring outcome is attributed to the interview.

    The future is in personality profiling. Smart organizations use the job interview in tandem with personality profiles. You can’t “ace” the personality profile.

    Interesting as always, Penelope!

  10. GreatManagement
    GreatManagement says:

    Great post.

    One thing I also recommend is to have a few notes to refer to. I don’t mean pages and pages worth – just a few bullet points. The interview is not a memory test so have them to hand.


  11. +DJ FunkyGrrL+
    +DJ FunkyGrrL+ says:

    Bush “purposedly” talks long winded, fumbling his words to avoid (or delay) questions; he knows some reporters will ask.

    Regarding your question, alot of college kids are so laid back in their speech (and dress).
    It gives off unprofessional appearance.
    So much really depends on the job requirements.

    Many women tend to confuse “professional dress” with leg showing cocktail hour at the Ritz *lol*

  12. David Graddick
    David Graddick says:

    Interesting post. I have been reading for awhile. Sometimes though, I think your columns should have a freshness date, meaning at what age this advice would apply to an individual.

    Twentysomethings should be cautious about dressing up in Boomer or even Gen X clothing. Forget talking points and selling, find out if a job or organization is something you want to buy with some of the best years of your life. Ask about your future employer’s management style, pet peeves, or any unresolved issues from childhood. Ask about how they settle disputes, build consensus or funnel new ideas in the company (because age and corporate tunnel vision seem to go hand and hand). Ask about employee satisfaction and turnover and to meet future coworkers. Ask about immediate training opportunities(not six months from now, not a year from now,the ones that start tomorrow). You’ll do many tasks landing a new job, but the real work is with people. At least find out if they are worth surrounding yourself with. Would these people, this organization get a Facebook add, get politely ignored or flat out denied. Twentysomethings, it’s important to make the distinction.

  13. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    I really enjoyed the part about closing the interview. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done, but in the interview for my current job, I asked a version of that question, and I think it really made an impact. It also helped me set a standard for myself from the get-go as someone with self-condfidence and follow-though.

  14. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    “You're not George W. Bush, though, so you can't totally ignore questions that don't have pat answers.”

    A digression from the thrust of the post, but perhaps interesting.

    Linguists are of the view that Mr Bush is not into scripted answers which explains his bloopers, and malpropisms and not to forget, ‘Bushisms’; in fact, linguistic analysis of the transcripts of 2000 elections show that it was Al Gore who deviated the least from his scripted lines which made him starchy and stiff as opposed to the general likeability of Mr Bush.

    However post 2004, Mr Bush’s documented blunders are remarkably reduced, which makes one wonder.

    Perhaps in interviews too, it can be seen as aggressive to steer the conversation too much. If an employer does not like one’s authenticity, perhaps it is NOT worth going into the potentially soul-destroying situation in the first place?


  15. Ginny Klemm
    Ginny Klemm says:

    I don’t comment a lot but on this one I had to.

    I am simply shocked at what poor interviews candidates give. I am the hiring decision maker so by the time you get to me be sure that you have:

    1. Done your research on the company.
    2. Have your facts in front of you that prove your worth (successes, etc.) If you’re in sales, know your stats – this shows that you’re close to your numbers.
    3. ASK insightful questions about the role, company, etc. Then take that info and use it to explain why YOU would be such a great fit for the role and detail what contributions you would make.
    4. GO for the close and FOLLOW-UP with why I should hire you.

    These seem like simple things that most, if not all professionals would/should know how to do but unfortunately I rarely see it and move on until I do.

  16. Ginny Klemm
    Ginny Klemm says:

    Sorry folks, one last point.

    I don’t meet with a candidate face to face unless I love them from the phone interview. I will typically find out most if not all of what I need to know from the phone interview and won’t waste my time on a face to face unless they nail the telephone interview.

  17. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    I really like David Graddick’s comment above! Those are points that matter to twentysomethings (at least to me), and maybe we wouldn’t change jobs so much if we had that information beforehand.

    Interviewers should think the candidate is truly serious and forward-thinking by asking these probing questions. While I can see how some interviewers might not want to answer some of them, that would be a good indicator that it’s not a good place to work. If they can’t be honest about what it is really like to work there, you don’t want to work there.

  18. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Penelope, you’re right. You can control the conversation by having a lot to say about key issues.

    But you still have to let the interviewer take the lead. This means that you have to prepare to stretch your message to encompass more than the most simple kind of boasting.

    For instance, if someone asks what your biggest mistake has been, you’d better not say that you tend to be too dedicated. This kind of bluff is too obvious and irritating.

    Instead, you’d better come up with a real error. But if you prepare correctly, you can discuss one that you managed to correct and you can tell the interviewer what you learned from it.

    In this way, you can exert some control but not total control.

    I once had a client who told me to ask potential candidates what they did when the project went off the rails. He told me that if the candidate said no project goes off the rails to rule them out because they were liars.

  19. Kate
    Kate says:

    Interesting advice, and like most of your columns, there is some that applies to everyone and some to just a few. I liked the advice about talking points; going through the job search process, this time around I have been determined to sell myself to a higher level, and I’ve been working hard on finding things to say about myself (particularly why I left my last job).

  20. Dale
    Dale says:

    I find that in many – not all – situations, the face to face interview is simply a comparison of the front runner with two to five possibles. This means that for the all candidates need every edge they can get. Aside from the other four suggestions, the final on closing the deal becomes extremely important as it will help one candidate stand out from those who do not seek to allay reservations, and most won’t in this direct manner.

  21. AxelDC
    AxelDC says:

    Wow! You are quoting the most unpopular president in US history of how to impress people??

    People hate insincerity, and Bush and other politicians reek of insincerity. Their refusal to honestly answer questions and give only their rehearsed, stonewalling answers is one of the primary reasons.

    If I were to asks someone a question and he gives a stock answer that refuses to address the question, it only makes me angry. Do I want to hire someone who won’t be honest with me?

    People can smell insincerity. Being sincere doesn’t mean giving everything away, but it does mean believing in what you say.

  22. BestInterviewAnswers
    BestInterviewAnswers says:

    An earlier commenter said that she had no presence ‘on the web’ other than social space like My Space. LinkidIn and others may be a place to give positive impression of individuals on the internet but for many people the social media is their downfall. Especially the twentysomethings and teenagers. Any casual look over many of the social media sites will show a plethora of comments that would shock most mothers. As someone who uses many tools to assess candidates I always do a web search on individuals and look for social media accounts specifically. Perpetual use of bad language, description of drunken nights out (and even pictures!) and many extremely personal situations revealed to all and sundry are a sure show stopper for many candidates. I don’t think there is a real understanding of just how damaging social media sites can be. They are treated like private diaries but the reality is that many managers are very internet savvy and it is not hard to find peoples full details and reverse engineer into social media and other accounts.

  23. E-Professional
    E-Professional says:

    Hi, everyone, I wanted to share a webinar that I thought others might find interesting.  The webinar is about Advanced Interviewing Strategies and I found it very helpful as I prepared for interviews.  It’s hosted by Ivy Exec, http://www.ivyexec.com, a career resource network for top tier professionals.  The presenter, Sarah Stamboulie, is an experienced HR professional, formerly with Columbia Business School, Morgan Stanley, and Nortel.  You can find the webinar here: http://bit.ly/uzTCwp.

  24. Wedding Photographer Derby
    Wedding Photographer Derby says:

    When I have prepared for an interview one of the main mistakes i find that people make is not talking about the subject they have prepared. Even if you are not asked the question you should find a way of getting it into the conversation and take control of the interview, it is your only opportunity to impress the company

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. CollegeRecruiter.com Insights by Career Counselors Blog says:

    Mastering the Phone Interview…

    Over on the Brazen Careerist blog, Penelope Trunk has an informative post about the top five interview blunders. One of her blunders is not being prepared for a phone interview. Here are ten additional tips for mastering the phone interview…….

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