There’s a lot of advice on this blog about how to interview: Tell good stories, ask good questions, be a closer. But here’s only one most important thing to remember: when it comes to discussing your potential salary, never give the number first.

The right answer to the question, “What’s your salary range?” is almost always some version of “I’m not telling you.”

The person who gives the first number sets the starting point. But if that’s you, you lose. If you request a salary higher than the range for the job, the interviewer will tell you you’re high, and you’ve just lost money. If you request a salary lower than the range, the interviewer will say nothing, and you’ve just lost money.

So you can only hurt yourself by giving the first number. You want the interviewer to tell you the range for the position, because then you can focus on getting to the high end of that range. But you can’t work to the high point if you don’t know it.

So if there are two good salary negotiators in the room, it will be a game to see who has to give the first number. Fortunately, the company cannot make you an offer without also offering a salary, so the cards are stacked in your favor, as long as you hold your ground.

So here’s a list of responses for all the ways the interviewer will ask you how much money you expect to make. The more times you can fend off the question, the less likely you will have to be the one to give the first number. This works, even if you don’t have the upper hand and you really need the job.

What salary range are you looking for?
“Let’s talk about the job requirements and expectations first, so I can get a sense of what you need.” That’s a soft answer to a soft way to ask the question.

What did you make at your last job?
“This position is not exactly the same as my last job. So let’s discuss what my responsibilities would be here and then determine a fair salary for this job.” It’s hard to argue with words like “fair” and “responsibilities”—you’re earning respect with this one.

What are you expecting to make in terms of salary?
“I am interested in finding a job that is a good fit for me. I’m sure whatever salary you’re paying is consistent with the rest of the market.” In other words, I respect myself and I want to think I can respect this company.

I need to know what salary you want in order to make you an offer. Can you tell me a range?
“I’d appreciate it if you could make me an offer based on whatever you have budgeted for this position and we can go from there.” This is a pretty direct response, so using words like “appreciate” focuses on drawing out the interviewer’s better qualities instead of her tougher side.

Why don’t you want to give your salary requirements?
“I think you have a good idea of what this position is worth to your company, and that’s important information for me to know.” Enough dancing–this is one last attempt to force you to give the number first. Hold your line here and you win.

You can see the pattern, right? If you think you sound obnoxious or obstinate by not answering the question, think of how he feels asking the question more than once. The interviewer is just trying to get a leg up on you in negotiations. If you give in, you look like a poor negotiator, and the interviewer is probably not looking for someone like that.

So stand your ground, and understand that the interviewer is being as insistent as you are. And it might encourage you to know that research shows that if you mirror the behavior of the interviewer, you are more likely to get the job. Sure, this usually applies to tone of voice, level of enthusiasm, and body language, but who’s to say it doesn’t apply to negotiation tactics, too? Try it. You could come away lots richer.

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.

Every once in a while I’ll publish job-hunt questions people ask me a lot. And it’s that time again. But today I’m publishing a question that stumped me:

“Why don’t interviewers get back to me after the interview? I go to the interview, I feel like we click, and the hiring manager or human resource representative never says another thing to me again. Ever.”

I sent this question to my well-placed, hot-shot human resource friend who works at a company that a slew of you want to work for but cannot be named in this blog, and this is what he told me about the issue:

The primary reason candidates don’t hear back after the interview is that most recruiters and/or interviewers don’t shut the discussion down when they know it’s a non-fit. This is rooted in human nature and avoiding conflict.

For example, two weeks ago I interviewed a terrible candidate. I spoke with him for a half-hour, and then told him, “You know what? I have to be honest with you that I’m going to pursue other candidates who appear more highly suited for this role. I want to be transparent about that because I know you may have other job opportunities you are considering, and I want to be up front that compared to other candidates I’m considering, they appear to be more strongly suited for the role.”

Most people won’t have that conversation in the moment, and instead say, “Thanks for your time, I have some more people to interview, and then I’ll get back to you with the decision on whether we’ll be moving forward.” This closing remark creates more work and clutter, and then the “getting back to them” never happens.

By not being transparent, the interviewer feigns that there will be more evaluation, and I believe interviewers think that it makes the eventual turn-down more palatable. But in all honesty, it just creates inefficiency and friction in the system.

Another way to look at this problem though, is that it’s simply poor execution, because the opportunity cost of letting people dangle doesn’t have to be absorbed by the interviewer. Example: If you interview with me, what are the consequences for me treating you poorly? Not any really. You as the candidate don’t want to burn a bridge lest [my company] should happen to call you in the future, so it’s not like you are going to take me to task.

In the mix of hundreds of candidates in process, there’s no clear measurement of what is really going on, unless you write a letter to my boss or blog about it (which few people take the time to do).

So what can you conclude from this? The people who get back to you and tell you flat out no, or, better yet, are transparent enough to tell you no right there in the interview, are the people who are the best to work for. And that’s not helpful, is it? I mean, they are rejecting you. So what are you going to do with that piece of knowledge?

Here’s an idea for candidates in the post-interview process. How about sending a thank you note, placing a followup call or two to show interest, and then if you don’t hear anything, move on?

And instead of spending time whining about how rude the interview process is, focus on turning the next interview into a job offer. If you get good at interviews, you don’t have to worry about people who don’t let you know about rejection because you won’t get rejected.

Is it okay to look for a new job while I’m at my current job?

Yes. You have to be able to look for a job while you have a job or it’s indentured servitude. Most people in their twenties change jobs every two years. At any given moment 70% of the workforce is job hunting, which surely means that 99% of the workforce under 30 is job hunting. So looking for a job at your current job is totally normal.

You do not need to tell the company you’re interviewing at to not say anything. It is common courtesy to not say anything to a candidate’s current employer. If it’s a small town and there’s nothing you can do, well, then, there’s nothing you can do. If someone asks you at your work if you’re looking you can say, “I’m always looking. Isn’t everyone?”

You should not make yourself look sneaky or paranoid. It’s not good for you.

What should I do if no one responds to my followup calls and emails after an interview?

If you are writing to the person who is in charge of moving you to the next step, and he doesn’t respond, there’s not a lot you can do. If there is another person who might be able to move you to the next step, try following up with that person. Or, if there’s someone there you interviewed with who really liked you, you could try that route. But only one more email – you don’t want to be a stalker. Also, did you get the interview with a connection? Ask that person who helped you get the interview to inquire how things went, in a way that might keep you in the running.

Things to consider:

1. They might just be slow and you are still in the running and you don’t want to be annoying and take yourself out of the running.

2. If they are not talking to you they might not want to hire you and that’s okay. If you are right for this kind of job, with persistence you will get one, somewhere. If you’re not right for this kind of job, the world has a way of telling you in a nice way that prevents you from going down a bad career path: not hiring you.

2. There are other jobs for you. This is not the only job in the world for you. If you find other jobs to apply to you will be less invested in this one. Not helpful advice for getting this job, I know, but helpful advice for maintaining your sanity. You will have many many job hunts in your life. It’s important to develop the mental skills to do interviews for job you want without losing sleep over did you get it.

What do I need to disclose in an interview if I’m pregnant?

Women should disclose a lot less than they do.

1. Try to interview before the second trimester. It’s a lot easier to interview if you’re not showing. And if you’re not showing, don’t tell. Think of it this way. A man interviewing for a job does not tell the interviewer that his wife just threw him out of the house and he’s probably going to have to take time off of work to move and deal with the divorce. He gets the job and then deals with his personal life however he wants.

2. You do not need to say that you are considering maternity leave. When you have the baby you can say you changed your mind. There is no law that says you have to be certain how you feel about having a baby. There is no law that says you have to reveal everything you are thinking about this very personal topic. Also, even if you think you want to take maternity leave, you never know how you’ll feel when you actually have the baby. Some women want to go back to work. So in the interview, saying you have no firm plans for maternity leave would be a truthful answer if you are leaving doors open for yourself.

3. Interview to get the best possible work you can. Don’t worry about your upcoming departure. You are not under moral obligation to accept only projects that will end before the baby comes. CEOs leave jobs all the time, right in the middle of projects. The world goes on, and people do not bring up morality tales. Your company will be fine if you leave in the middle of a big project. It’s good to get that project on your resume.

As part of my book promotion tour, my publisher sent me to media training with Clarity Media Group. I thought the media trainer would talk with me about being on television — how to sit, where to put my hands, what to wear. Instead, he focused on how to not be a loose cannon.

I know this about myself — that I have a sub-standard edit button. It is not uncommon that our biggest strength is also our biggest weakness. In my case, I’m good at saying what I really think, but in some situations I need to be better at saying the second thing that comes to mind instead of the first.

A good example of this problem is my sex analogies. I don’t know why, but sex seems like an appropriate analogy for almost every point I’ve wanted to make, ever. My editor at Business 2.0 told me early on that I need to stop writing references to sex in my column, and when I didn’t, he just deleted them without asking me.

Five years later, when I had not gotten much better about it, Marci Alboher, a woman I trust, told me I should stop talking about sex because I risk offending people. Actually, she specified a sex act. Which I reference a lot, but need to stop referencing, and will not say here to prove that I am not too old a dog to learn new tricks.

So, anyway, the media trainer spent a lot of time teaching me how to edit myself better as I’m talking out loud.

Luckily, most of his advice was about preparing beforehand. Knowing what answer you’re going to give way before you have to field a question. This is very similar to advice I have given about getting a job, so you should pay attention whether you are being interviewed by the press or by a potential employer. Here’s a quote from the material my media trainer gave me.

“Don’t try to prepare for every possible question that could arise. Determine the 6-8 topics that are likely to come up during your interview and then:

a. Hone a key message for each topic.

b. Identify anecdotes you can tell that illustrate each message.

c. Prepare specific examples or compelling data to prove your point.

d. Think of clever analogies if appropriate.

Think of these interviews as the equivalent of a good movie trailer, in which your quest is to independently drive to the very best scenes, anecdotes and newsworthy revelations in the book.”

Here’s an example of me putting all that training into action: Peter Clayton interviewed me for Total Picture Radio. He is a total pro. I am not quite there. You will notice that after all that training, I still made a reference to sex.

I am always coming across new ideas for being more effective when you look for a job. Here are some I’ve collected:

1. Don’t answer the phone when it wakes you up.
I know people get giddy for interview call backs like they get giddy for good-date callbacks. But the combination of giddy for phone calls, and sleeping late because you’re unemployed could be lethal.

Time magazine reports that “the morning haze you experience when the alarm clock goes off is known as sleep inertia, and it clouds your brain more than sleep deprivation. The impairment is most severe in the first ten minutes but can linger for up to two hours.” Bottom line: Let the call go to voicemail and go get some coffee.

2. Edit a wikipedia entry to show you’re an expert.
Writing a blog on a given topic is great for your career. It shows that you specialize and you know you’re stuff. But a blog is a big time investment. I got the idea of taking charge of a wikipedia entry from reading this blog post. It seemed totally natural to this woman to contribute to wikipedia in an area she was becoming knowledgeable in.

We should all think this way. In general, editing wikipedia is not rocket science. It shows that we are good at working in a team (which is what a wikipedia entry is), and that we have expertise.

3. Handle hard interview questions with a positive bent.
“Most times people ask trick questions, the person is looking for you to go negative,” says Cynthia Shapiro, former human resource executive and author of Corporate Confidential. An example of one of these questions is, Tell me about a difficult boss and how you got around it.

The impact of being positive in an interview, and in life, cannot be overestimated. Optimistic people are happier and more fulfilled than the not-so-optimistic.

4. Don’t provide two email addresses.
Why do I see so many resumes with multiple email addresses? If you can’t make up your mind which email address is best, then how will you make decisions for anything once you’re hired? Providing two email addresses is not being thorough. It’s being annoying. Know the difference.

5. Make your resume a tease.
I write all the time about how a resume is a marketing document and not a list of your achievements or (worse yet) your job duties.

But David Perry, author of the Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters, takes that one step further and says a resume should be a tease. You don’t want to tell absolutely everything. You want to tell someone enough to get them to call you to ask for more.

6. Pitch your cover letter from the right angle.
A reader, Harry Hollenberg, wrote in with this tip: “Don’t spend your cover letter telling me why my firm is perfect for you. Tell me why you’re perfect for our firm.”

7. Turn your job hunt into a publicity campaign.
This is actually something to do before you need the job. Debra Feldman, Job Whiz (and Coachology veteran) writes:

“Try Googling yourself. If you can’t find anything that promotes you as an expert in your field, take steps to establish a web presence so recruiters and colleagues can find you and learn about your strengths. You can do this and control the content by establishing your own professional website (not family trips) and including information detailing your achievements, links to other references, white papers, articles, presentations at industry conferences and keynote speeches, internal training you’ve developed or delivered, PowerPoint presentations of general interest.”

“The idea,” writes Feldman, “is to let yourself be found by recruiters and others who are looking for certain skills or qualifications. This tends to make you a more interesting and attractive potential candidate than if you submit a resume or write to introduce yourself. Think how you feel when you unearth a gem.”

The last phone interview I did was for my job at the Boston Globe. And let me just confess that I wasn’t that great in the interview, and I stressed a lot afterwards about not getting the job. But, of course, I did get the job, which I think might be evidence that I write so much about career advice that I am becoming way too hard on myself.

At any rate, I have done tons of phone interviews—on both sides of the hiring equation—so when Sia asked me to write a post on how to do a phone interview, I was surprised that I hadn’t written one already. (Although I have written a bunch about interviews.)

So, here are five tips for doing well in a phone interview:

1. Attend to your surroundings.
If you have an interview scheduled, take precautions beforehand to get in a good spot physically.

Don’t take the interview when you are at your desk and can’t talk freely. Don’t take the call when there is too much noise in the background. And don’t walk from one place to another because the breathlessness that comes from walking and talking at the same time subconsciously conveys lack of authority to someone who doesn’t know you.

If you did not schedule it beforehand, feel free to ask the interviewer if you can call back at a better time. You will not sound disinterested, but rather, you will sound concerned for managing your life by organizing your commitments.

2. Dress for the part.
Consider getting dressed up for your interview, even though no one will see you.

The emails you write to a hiring manager are different than your emails to your friends. You can’t talk to an interviewer the same way you talk with your friends. You know this, but the shift is difficult without practice. And if you are not practiced at talking about business on the phone, it’s hard to get into business mode for the call.

A way to compensate for this is to dress for an interview even though the interviewer can’t see you. In the 90s when people debated the virtues of dumping suits at the workplace in favor of business casual, there was a fair amount of research to show that people took their work more seriously when they were in a suit. That makes sense. Girls act more like a princess when they’re in a prom dress than when they’re in running shorts, and the same happens with people in work clothes.

I’m not saying you should wear a suit all the time. I’m saying that when there’s a risk of sounding too casual or unprofessional on the phone, dressing up a little can actually change how you sound.

3. Stand up.
No kidding. You’ll sound more self confident and dynamic if you stand while you speak than if you sit. Walking around a bit, but not too much, also keeps the call going smoothly. If your body is confined, your speech sounds different than if you have run of the room. It’s one reason that the best speakers walk around instead of standing in one place at the podium.

Using hand gestures is very natural for talking, so allow yourself to use them, even though you’re on the phone. You don’t have to force it. They will just come, as long as your hands are free. And you want to sound natural on the phone because authentic is more likeable. So walking around a room with a headset will actually give you the freedom to be more yourself on the call.

4. Prepare for the most obvious questions.
A resume is to get someone to pay attention to you. An in-person interview is to see if people like you. Somewhere in between those two events, people need to make sure you are qualified and you don’t have any huge red flags. So in a phone interview you can expect people to focus on those two concerns.

You will probably get questions asking you to show that you actually have the skills to accomplish the goals for the open position. Be prepared to give organized, rehearsed examples of how you have performed at work in the past in order to show your skill set.

Also, be ready for a question about the most obvious problem on your resume—often frequent job changes or big gaps in work. These are answers you should practice. Even if your answer isn’t great, a good delivery can make the difference between getting through a phone screen or not.

5. Don’t forget to close.
An interview is about selling yourself, and the best salespeople are closers. Your goal for a phone interview is to get an in-person interview. So don’t get off the phone until you have made some efforts to get to that step. Ask what the process is for deciding who to interview face-to-face. Ask for decision-making timelines, and try to find out who is making the decisions. Don’t barrage the interviewer with questions in this regard, but the more information you have, the more able you will be to get yourself to the next step.

And don’t forget a key component of a successful close—even for a phone interview–is a thank you note to followup.

Finally, after you get done with a phone interview, send out a few more resumes, or go fill out a few more job applications. Hopefully, you won’t need to keep hunting because the phone interview will clinch the job. But it will make you crazy to just sit and wait for the interviewer to take action. If you keep job hunting you are taking action yourself which will make you feel more in control over your situation.

The best way to ace an interview is to be interviewing for your dream job. It’s so easy to sell yourself when you are a perfect fit for a job you’re dying to have. But it’s really hard to identify what that dream job is. And then, of course, you need a path to get to that job. Here’s a course helps you identify the best job for you and shows you how to get it: Get Your Dream Job Now!

Yep, that’s right. Our very own Google Guy Jason Warner is doing Coachology this week. For those of you who don’t know, Jason has interviewed a bazillion candidates as an in-house recruiter at Microsoft, Starbucks and now, at Google. And he has strong opinions about what works.

This week Jason is offering to coach one of you on what to do in an interview so that you get the job. Jason will spend an hour on the phone with you practicing strategies and techniques you can use to shine.

When I was asking Jason to do this week’s Coachology, he agreed immediately, but he said he wanted to do follow-ups until the person got the job. This is something I love about Jason – that he genuinely wants to help. So in addition to the initial phone call, next time you’re interviewing for a job, Jason will talk with you again, to prepare for that specific interview.

If you want to work with Jason, send an email to me with Coachology in the subject line and include three sentences about why you would be good to work with Jason. Deadline is Saturday, March 30. Jason will pick the winner.

A good way to think about the process of getting a job is that a resume gets you in the door, and an interview is where you close the deal.

Here are nine ways to ace an interview and get the job:

1. Tell good stories.

When someone says, “Tell me about yourself,” they don’t want to hear you rattle off a list of what you’ve done or what you’ve accomplished. People want stories. Stories are what make you stick in people’s minds.

The problem is, most people can’t figure out a story to tell about themselves, so they start listing facts. This is boring, and research shows that listing facts about ourselves instead of telling stories actually makes us feel disjointed — which is, of course, no good in an interview. Compelling stories make us believe in ourselves. So find a story arc to your career, and tell it during every interview.

2. Understand the behavioral interview.

When someone asks you a question that begins, “Tell me about a time when…” it’s a cue that you’re in a behavioral interview. There are established ways to answer this type of question.

The interviewer is trying to see how you acted in the past, which is a good predictor of how you’ll act in the future. You need to tell the interviewer about a situation you encountered, the action you took to solve the problem, and quantify the results. This is called the STAR response — Situation or Task, Action, Results.

3. Ask questions at the beginning, not the end.

Don’t wait until the end to ask good questions. What’s the point? You just spent the whole interview telling the person you’re right for the job — it’s a little late to be asking questions about the job, right? So ask your questions at the beginning. And then use the answers to better position yourself for the job during the interview.

At the end, when the interviewer says, Do you have any questions?” you can say, “No, I think I asked everything I needed to ask at the beginning of the interview. But thank you” instead of thinking of a pile of pseudo-questions

4. Stop stressing about your MySpace page.

Look, there’s nothing we can do about the fact that nearly every college kid is writing stupid things to his friend and posting it on MySpace or Facebook.

Hiring managers care less and less about these pages; it’s not earth-shattering news to human resources that college kids do stupid things. Which is lucky, because often, trying to clean up an online footprint is a lost cause.

So instead of worrying about what you did in the past, focus on what you’re doing now. Write articles online, or write a blog — do anything that will come up higher on Googlethan your prom date photo. Getting your ideas at the top of a search is the way to impress an interviewer. You want to get hired for your ideas, not your clean record on MySpace.

5. Explain away job hopping and long gaps.

It doesn’t matter what you do with your time as long as you’re doing productive, interesting things. So a gap is fine, as long as you can talk about what you learned, and how you grew during the gap. And job hopping is fine as long as you can show you made a significant, quantifiable contribution everywhere you went.

6. Present a plan.

Show the interviewer that you’ve done a bit of thinking about the company and the job. Brendon Connelly at Slacker Manager suggests that you go to the interview with a plan for the first three months you’re in the job.

Show some humility — say, “This is just something I came up with that we might use to get the interview started.” Of course, you can only do this if you know a lot about the job. But the best way to get the job is to know a lot about it.

7. Manage your parents.
It’s common today for parents to be involved in their twentysomething child’s job hunt. Parental involvement is so ubiquitous during interviews for summer internship programs that companies like Merrill Lynch will actually send an acceptance letter to a parent if the candidate requests one.

But some parents hover so close by that they make their kid look incompetent. Get help from your parents, but don’t get too much. Check out to find out where your parents fall on the spectrum.

8. Play to stereotypes.
You’ll probably interview with more than one person. And each person you talk with will have some sort of personal agenda that will infiltrate your interview. Your job is to identify the type of person you’re talking to so that you can give the type of answer they’re looking for.

Understanding personality types will be helpful. But also take a look at Guy Kawasaki’s hilarious list of interviewer stereotypes and how to wow each type with your answers.

9. Practice. A lot.

An interview isn’t an improvisation — it’s a rehearsed performance. And it’s no mystery what the most common interview questions are, so prepare you answers. Even if you end up fielding a question you didn’t anticipate, surely a version of one the 50 answers you did prepare will work with the surprise question.

You can practice with a friend, or you can go back to your college counseling office, which will probably help you out no matter where you are in your career. But Alexandra Levit at Water Cooler Wisdom recommends using InterviewTrue to practice on video.

By Jason Warner — I’ve been interviewing people for a very long time. Sometimes I think maybe too long. You have to go back to my very first recruiting job at Microsoft to understand. This was when Microsoft was The Place to Work in the Technology World, circa the mid 1990s.

In this well-defined and very measured job, my objective was to interview candidates 7 hours a day via the telephone. Sometimes it was 8 or 9 hours a day, but on average it was 35, one-hour phone interviews per week, for an average of 7 hours a day. Because of this experience, I’m pretty sure that the limit of human capabilities when it comes to interviewing is an average of 7 hours a day. Anything more is perhaps dangerous.

Now, most professional recruiters would call this phone-screen-Hell. I suspect many of the candidates may have felt that way also, come to think of it. In essence, I would sit at my computer, headset perched on one ear, and interview until late in the day at which point my brain began to melt, all while tapping furiously on my keyboard to take notes.

I did this job for approximately 18 months, which is pretty remarkable given how tedious it was. By my math, I did approximately two-thousand, six-hundred and twenty five interviews during this part of my career (and I’ve done probably half that many again since). That is a lot of interviews. So I got pretty good at it.

One of the things I learned during that time was to structure behaviour interview questions, so I could determine what a candidate’s competencies were. These competencies have names like “Interpersonal Savvy” and “Planning and Organizing” and “Drive for Results” and the theory is that they are supported by behavioural examples – times in a candidate’s life when they’ve demonstrated behaviors which reflect these competencies.

Lest I bore you with HR theory and practice, what I’m getting at is that knowing how interviews are done will make you a better candidate, and one of the keys to any interview is structuring your answers correctly. I’d say less than 3% of all candidates frame up their answers in this way, and the ones who do really stand out. That should be you.

Not every question will be best suited to this approach, but it works well on any of the questions that start with phrasing like, “Tell me about a time when…”. I know, you hate those questions. But here is how to answer them.

Many of the questions you are asked can be answered using a 4-part sequencing to your answer. An easy way to remember this is an acronym called SARI, and it stands for Situation, Action, Result, and Interesting Features. You can remember it by considering if you don’t learn this interview technique you may be SARI.

So, let’s say that the question is, “Tell me about a time that demonstrates your leadership capabilities…” You should structure your answer like this:

Situation: Explain the situation in a way that gives the interviewer context. Less detail is better, but give enough detail to paint the picture.

So, in our example, you might say, “I was transferred into a new department at work, and had to take on a whole new team. One of the key factors was that morale was really low because the department was not resourced properly and turnover had spiked.”

Action: Here is where you explain what you did. Note that I said you, not we. Referring to the action in terms of the intangible “we” is one of the most common interview mistakes I see. You are the one interviewing, so your answer should describe specific behaviors that you actually did.

In our example, you would say, “So the first thing I did was to schedule 1:1 meetings with everyone, to really understand what the issues were, and what was troubling with the team. I also asked them what they thought I should I do, and what the biggest challenge was that each of them faced. I then followed up with everyone as a group. And the most important step I took was I took action quickly against the issue that was causing the team the most grief…”

Result: Here’s where you share the net result to the business. You should quantify this with numbers or other business metrics, even if they are fudged or fuzzy. It probably goes without saying, but always try to pick an example where the net result was positive. (Hey, you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard.)

In our example, something like this, “The net result of my leadership actions was that morale was significantly improved after 60 days – you could just feel the energy in the department. Most importantly, we reduced turnover from 40% annualized to zero during the first 6 months…”

Interesting Features: This where you tell the interviewer something special and/or memorable about the story, so that they really remember it. If you can, tie it back to competencies to strengthen your answer.

“I think this example really demonstrates a servant-leader approach to generating business results. In fact, my team still talks about the turnaround today. I am proud of this example because I think it demonstrates strong leadership.”

So, by now you are probably thinking, “This is great, Jason, but there’s no way I am ever going to remember all this in the middle of an interview…” And you are right, unless you practice.

This is easy to practice. Simply have a friend or your significant other ask you a few “Tell me about a time when…” questions and then practice answering them using the 4-part sequence SARI.

After just a few questions, it will become second nature.