It's difficult to keep interviews on track. It's difficult for the interviewer and it's difficult for the interview candidate. There are so many reasons an interview can go wrong: stale coffee, an overcrowded mass transit system, a game that ends late the night before, ...planetary alignment. For all of the interviews which I've seen take a turn for the worst I've devised a simple strategy which seems to help turn an interview around, a perspective that helps to keep the interview on track.
Whether the interviewer follows a standard interview format or reads from a basic list of questions, the root question is always "Is this the best available candidate for this role?" All types of questions stem from this to arrive at an answer: can this person do the job, will they learn quickly, do they have integrity, will they keep busy, are they self-managed, will they represent the company well in public, will they leave a dirty coffee cup in the sink, are they going to get along with everyone, will they be difficult, will they treat the staff with respect, will they add value in the role, are they fun to be around... Who knows what the interviewer is thinking?
My premise is that to get at an answer, the interviewer's main job is to introduce doubt. And, if the interviewer's job is to introduce doubt, the candidate's only job is to resolve that doubt. Most interviews take a turn for the worst when the candidate forgets this role. And, I've seen many candidates able to turn around an interview when reminded or when they remember - my job is to resolve doubt.
Interviews can be tricky whether intentional or not. The questions, though not designed to be traps, may prompt an inappropriate response. If you remember you're job is "to reduce doubt" you'll be better prepared to avoid these traps:
Complain: I may ask behavioral questions that sound like invitations to complain: "Who's the worst boss you ever had?" or "Tell me about a time a co-worker let you down?"
Does complaining add doubt or relieve doubt? To avoid this trap, specify how you addressed the problem and how the problem was resolved. Complaining will not seem as professional as the response from the candidate who holds their breath and then gives a professional answer.
Be too opinionated: What may seem like a harmless question about your favorite sports team or a world event can stoke strong emotions. Be careful about the opinions you share. It may be hard to get on your boss' good side if you show up to an interview with your favorite Yankees pen and he's rooting for the Mets to win the pennant. Opinions are often expressed as complaints (Refer to #1)
Share personal information: EEOC guidelines prohibit employers from employment discrimination and from asking questions based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, pregnancy, age, citizenship status, disability, military status, and union membership. Explaining your personal circumstances will not help your chances in an interview and may even be perceived as unprofessional. Employers want to hear why you would be the best candidate for the position.
Go on tangents: The last trap I'll mention that you'll want to avoid is going on tangents. Thankfully, there's a tool you can use which can help you answer questions more professionally, keep your answers short and to the point and help you to resolve doubt. When answering behavioral questions, using STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) will help you to organize your response and answer the question in a complete manner.
Here's an example: Tell me about a time you missed a deadline.
Without STAR, the amount of time you spend on your answer may hint at why you missed the deadline, but with STAR your response can be concise and informative. (Remember: Take 5-10 seconds to formulate your answer - this will make you appear organized and thoughtful.)
Situation: One of my internship marketing projects was to create a newsletter.
Task: As I was creating the format, I saw the opportunity to create a template to standardize the newsletter.
Action: I realized that it would take an additional day to create the template. So, I went to my boss with the idea and the timeline and let her make the decision to develop the newsletter or wait to develop a template.
Result: My boss was pleased I worked to properly set her expectations and manage the deadline. We decided to delay the newsletter until we devised a template that fit our brand. The creation of the template enabled the team to develop other newsletters in a consistent, timely and cost-effective manner.
By addressing the situation, opportunity, action and result, you've answered the most important questions an interviewer can have about that experience. You'll avoid additional questions (additional doubt) about this example and be able to move on to another question to showcase your skills and ability.
Although I'm sure you'd like me to list other interview traps, you don't have to think about all the ways to add doubt, you just have to remember this secret. Quickly ask yourself "Does this add doubt or resolve doubt?" and then answer.