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Issue Date:  October 31, 2004

Better Left Unsaid
How to Avoid Foot-in-Mouth Interviews

by Craig Harrison

Let's face it, some people have a silver tongue, while others are unspeakably tarnished. Many a well-intentioned job candidate has put their foot in their mouth during a job interview. Whether saying too much or just the wrong thing, they manage to talk themselves right out of a job offer.

The good news: they'll never hear Donald Trump tell them "you're fired," mostly because he will never tell them "you're hired."

Here are some true tales of talk-itis from the loser's lounge. Did you hear about the candidate who . . .

On a first interview, interrupted the hiring manager's first question with his own list of queries, the first of which was "Just how much are you willing to pay me, because I ain't cheap!"

The upshot: He's now poor. He's been looking for a year now.

  • During her first interview, pulled a sheet of paper from her briefcase with a two page, typed list of perks she required. They included size of office, list of conferences she wanted to attend, and additional dates off such as her sister's anniversary and dog's birthday.

    The upshot: Most employers are picky about perk-iness. Avoid preoccupation with perks. Win the job first, then negotiate reasonable benefits.

  • When asked what he liked to do for fun, answered, "I heal people." When asked to elaborate, he indicated on work breaks he would place his hands on co-workers' bodies to heal their maladies and infuse them with love and light.

    The upshot: Even the most enlightened organizations expect employees to keep their hands to themselves on company time.

  • Boasted how his current manager thought he was at a conference that day while he was interviewing with the competitor. He mocked how naive his current manager was.

    The upshot: If you want to be trusted, demonstrate trustworthiness.

  • In an internal interview, bad-mouthed his current department as full of brown-nosers and wannabe's intent on saying what their boss wanted to hear.

    The upshot: He was told to consider self-employment, since pleasing the boss was required at that employer's office.

  • Spoke so much about his side businesses that the interviewer couldn't discern what his primary job was and what his secondary and tertiary businesses were.

    The upshot: Some candidates are perceived to be too enterprising to work for others.

  • Kept leaving longer and longer messages on a recruiter's machine expressing incredulity that he hadn't received 'his' job offer, or even return phone calls since his initial screening interview.

    The upshot: He was politely told to 'bleep' off.

    Interview Rules of Thumb (and Tongue)

    1. Focus on answering the question asked, no more and no less. If an interviewer wants more information then you will usually be asked a follow-up question. Keep answers crisp and succinct.

    2. Be cautious about sharing too much about your personal life. Why give an interviewer more reasons to disqualify you. They often can't ask you personal questions anyway, so elaborate at your own risk.

    3. Be mindful that your religious and political beliefs and personal lifestyle are your own business. Be cautious about disclosing them to strangers whose own preferences you don't know.

    4. Quell any nervousness through breathing exercises, drinking water, meditating or visualization activities prior to the interview. During the interview, don't over-talk or ramble. It suggests you're nervous, unfocused and not a clear thinker.

    5. Sometimes repeating a question out loud makes it easier to decide how you feel about it. Also, repeating it aloud buys you a few seconds to collect your thoughts.

    6. When confused by a question, ask the interviewer to repeat it, or say:

    • "I want to make sure I understand your question, can you please clarify your meaning?"
    • "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Can you pose it differently?"
    • "I believe what you are asking me is [rephrase their question]. Is that correct?"

    7. The best defense against talking too much or saying the wrong thing may be to do more listening. Ask the interviewer questions so you can listen and learn. They'll do more of the talking and you can gain valuable insights.

    8. If you fear you have said too much, don't acknowledge it. Just close your mouth. Usually apologizing for being too talkative only exacerbates the perception that you're a gabby blabbie. (See the movie Swingers for a classic example of talking one's way out of success.)

    9. Certain things are meant to be kept confidential. Learn what is in good taste and bad. Refrain from disclosing the latter. Practice restraint and don't succumb to the sin of TMI: too much information.

    10. Small talk can be toxic. Conversation before or at the beginning of the interview is sometimes used to loosen you up. Don't lose sight that you are in an interview. Seemingly innocuous questions may in fact be calculated to extract information about you and how you think. It all counts. Even when discussing your hobbies, family or weekend, you're on the record. Don't ramble or get too detailed.

    11. Jokes are dangerous. Beware of telling them in job interviews. They potentially do more damage than good, by offending the interviewer, demonstrating insensitivity, or giving the impression that you are not a serious candidate. When in doubt, leave them out!

    When Talk Isn't Cheap

    There are times when saying nothing may make you appear a fool, while opening your mouth removes all doubt. In job interviews, saying just enough shows good judgment. Saying too much speaks volumes about you.

    Use interviews to demonstrate your competence, confidence and clear thinking. Thoughtful, direct responses to interview questions show you to be intelligent, knowledgeable and professional. Leave the interviewer with an impression that you are well-spoken and a good listener, and you're likely to leave with a job offer. Need I say more?

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