An interview is a selling situation. In most cases, you are trying to sell the interviewer on hiring you for the job. In our efforts to present ourselves in the best possible light, it’s easy to forget that it is actually possible to “oversell” oneself. Most sales experts will tell you that listening to the customer is more important than talking. Interviews are no exception. It’s unfortunate, but selling an interviewer on one of your capabilities could actually hurt you if it’s a skill that’s not central to the job.
THE CATEGORY ISSUE
Most interviewers think in terms of categories. They often view candidates as being one type of employee or another. If you sell the interviewer about a strength that they feel would be uncharacteristic of the type of person they’re trying to hire, they may eliminate you from consideration. For example, if you’re applying for a sales job and you spend a lot of time talking about how great you are at preparing sales reports and organizing your contact database, there is a danger that the interviewer could perceive you as being someone who has good computer skills but is not as aggressive on the phone.
Part of how people form their opinions about what someone can or cannot do is based on how similar the person is to people the interviewer knows who are good at the job. So they may be comparing you to that person, or to several different people they know who have varying degrees of ability in the job. To avoid this problem, it is best to first understand from the interviewer what qualities they are looking for and to address how you possess those qualities specifically, being careful not to put undue emphasis on qualities the interviewer did not say they were looking for. Another risk with selling a strength the interviewer doesn’t consider important is that it can divert the conversation away from addressing the other strengths you have that the interviewer would find more persuasive.
A specific area to watch out for in interviews is the “either/or” question. If a recruiter asks you to compare your strength in one area versus another, there is a good chance they are trying to put you into one of two categories. Our natural reaction to this kind of question is to sell the strength we’re most proud of. For example, if a recruiter for a sales position asks you to discuss your strengths in report preparation compared with your strengths in cold calling, you might feel more compelled to talk in detail about your report preparation skills because you’re proud of how quickly you learned a certain computer software package. It takes willpower to resist that temptation and to instead emphasize the skill the interviewer feels is most important. Again, if you’re not sure which is more important, ask the recruiter to clarify the role each skill will play in the job.
SKILLS THAT THREATEN THE INTERVIEWER
Most people don’t like being interviewed. You feel like you’re being judged and evaluated. Most people would rather have a conversation on equal footing with another person. It can be especially difficult if the person interviewing you is younger or seems less experienced than you are. You may feel like you want to show the interviewer you’re smarter or more qualified than they are just out of a sense of pride. However, it’s better to check your ego at the door and resist the urge to prove to the interviewer that you’re smart enough to be their boss. It might make you feel good temporarily, but most interviewers are not confident enough to hire someone who could threaten their job. This is another reason why it’s important to keep the discussion focused on what skills you have that are pertinent to the interviewer’s needs and to steer clear of creating the impression that you’re smart enough or qualified enough to take over the interviewer’s job.