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dracula.1897732142_1079d06cf9_mThis week, a mock interview client  – let’s call her Meg – reminded me of an important lesson in interview-ology that I thought I’d share. Meg was the first mock interview-ee I’ve ever had who was extremely concerned about the length of her responses! Usually, I have to explain the fact that employers (everyone, really) have very short attention spans and are not likely to continue to focus if the response drags on and on.

Meg had the opposite problem. Her replies were very short. Unfortunately, at the risk of leaving OUT key information that would help convince the interviewer to hire her.

Interviewing Meg, someone so focused on “how long she should talk” highlighted the fact that encouraging clients to keep answers short is just part of the story, and one that can be taken too literally, at the expense of a high-quality interview!

(Indulge me here a minute…)

Have you ever listened to a professional storyteller? (If not, you’re missing out, but I digress…) Usually, the story itself will be longer than the typical “listening span” we naturally have. However, the forward motion of the story, the storyteller’s investment in the tale and the intriguing details all combine to propel listeners forward. They stay with the story for a pretty simple reason – they want to KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!

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So, when you respond to interview questions, there is no need to time your answer with a stopwatch or worry how many seconds you have to reply as long as you are telling a compelling story that ANSWERS THE QUESTION. Think about it – if a child asks you to relay the Dracula story and you start out discussing Snow White – you’re going to have mutiny on your hands! Similarly, focusing on actually addressing the question at hand is the most important factor in an interview.

Your interviewer is listening for the answer to the question. If you make it clear that you are addressing the question from the get-go, you have a much better chance of maintaining his or her attention level and interest.

While I am not advocating for 20-minute, fully fleshed out tales a la a professional storyteller in the interview (lest hiring managers and recruiters try to pelt my website with tomatoes!), I do want to answer the question, “How long should your answer to an interview question be?” this way:

DO keep your answers relatively succinct. If you want to know how long it takes to answer a question, time yourself…You can probably get a lot of words into just 30 or 45 seconds. BUT – remember that it is even more important to actually answer the question with details that will support your ability to DO THE JOB! Don’t start with a lot of excessive background information that does not seem to relate to the question itself.

Get to the point – include details that will hook the reader, and be sure to actually answer the question. In the long run, as long as you don’t go on and on, the length matters less than the content.

For more on interviewing:

How to tell a STAR story.

Tips to turn your interviewer into a fan

The most important interview questions

My mock interview clients improve their interviewing skills exponentially! Could you use a job search jump start? Not sure you can put all of the great tools at your disposal to good use? Need a great resume? Learn how I can help you propel your job hunt forward.

photo by HCM Hitchhiker

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  • What a great post Miriam!

    So true. Less is more. People tend to become so worried about the interview, what to say, what not to say, that they just talk, talk, talk themselves right out of the job.

    Love your picture! 🙂

    Erin Kennedy
    Professional Resume Services
    .-= Executive Resume Writer´s last blog ..Happiness is a Choice =-.

  • Great thoughts here.

    My rule of thumb is that in an interview you, as job hunter, should aim to talk less than half the time. The rest of the time you should be really truly listening, really pay attention to the potential employer.

    And, of course, STORIES. They’re the best. Practice them at home first so they’re crisp and succinct. Another rule of thumb: don’t talk longer than a minute or two at a time. You can practice the stories and time yourself with the timer on your microwave to get a feel for how long two minutes is. It’s really pretty long.
    .-= Working Girl´s last blog ..How NOT To Start Your Cover Letter =-.

    • Miriam Salpeter

      Karen – I think that is a good rule of thumb. It is so important to listen well in an interview, which can be tough for nervous job seekers. I absolutely agree that stories are the way to go. Having good ones that demonstrate positive characteristics, overcoming obstacles and solving problems can really help in an interview! Thanks for stopping by!

  • I agree. The answer should actually be the answer to the question. Have a beginning (situation) middle(what happened) and end (result).
    It should be concise with no rambling.
    But I would also say keep in mind that a yes or no question can be an excellent opportunity to provide an example.

    Have you ever had to fire anyone? Is a yes or no question. But if you describe a time you actually terminated someone – that shows you are able to do the job.

    Pointless rambling – no.
    Concise story telling – definitely

    That should be more important then answer length.
    .-= Dianne Walker´s last blog ..Will Creigh Deeds or Bob McDonnell bring jobs to Virginia? =-.

  • Xandro Lombardi

    Oh how I wished I had read this before – but how was I to know?

    Looking at Dianne’s reply below, I rambled and DID NOT ANSWER the questions, I was not to the point, and my story telling was not concise. I really didn’t listen.

    So, I’m taking note and will focus on that I am asked – answer succinctly and think of the magic phrase from Erin Kennedy:

    “Less is more”.

    I should have known better.

    Thank you.