This week, a mock interview clientÂ – 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:
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photo by HCM Hitchhiker