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When to Shut Your Mouth

Whenever I ran cross country, my coach always used to tell me, “If you’re thirsty, it’s too late. You’re already dehydrated and you won’t get rehydrated until you stop running.” The same sort of thing happens when you run your mouth in an interview. If you think you’ve been talking a lot, you’ve been talking way too much. And shutting up after you’ve figured this all out won’t help.

How long should my interview answers be then?

Most people who break this cardinal rule play it off as innocent. “Oh, I was just trying to explain myself fully.” Some even take it offensively. “I thought you wanted me to answer the questions completely.” And maybe they were innocent but imagining a meeting with this person where they are going lecture the group on the finer points of keyboarding for twenty minutes is not necessary. Being able to type is. Most of the time though, these long winded folks are simply searching for the right answer and hoping to stumble upon it within the ten minutes.

Here are four steps which you can pretty much guarantee that you will answer the question with the right timing:

  1. Demonstrate that you know what the interviewer is asking. Ask right at the beginning if you have any clarifying questions before you start to answer. It helps to pause before you answer the question and think about what they asked. If you have prepared yourself, this should be no sweat.
  2. Be detail oriented but leave out the kitchen sink. I like details about the questions I ask. Keep it detailed but focused on the question. As an example, if the interviewer asks “Tell me about a recent disagreement you’ve had with your supervisor,” don’t give a long back story about the history of your relationship with your boss or your relationship with bosses in general. Talk about the disagreement you had giving the interviewer enough details to have the answer they are looking for. Using that example, you definitely want to include that you resolved it to everyone’s satisfaction but you don’t need to go into the great time you had at the pub later.
  3. Confidently end your answer. If you linger out an answer like you might continue answering, I’m not going to interupt you. I am waiting for you to finish your thought and if you make it sound like you are going to continue, I’ll let you. I think this is probaby why many people don’t know when to shut their mouth: I won’t interupt them. In a behavioral interview, it takes some people a little while to put all their thoughts together and so I’ve learned to shut my mouth until you’re done speaking.
  4. If you don’t know the answer, make it snappy. THere are good ways and bad ways to use a non-answer. Good: “I don’t know the answer to that but here are the three steps I would take to figure it out.” Bad: “Hmmm, I…. ohhh… well, that’s a good one. I don’t know the… OH WAIT! If I…. no… hmmm” + 5 minutes. A lot of people fly their plane into the ground instead of knowing when to hit the eject button and say you don’t know.

And I’ll end with a story about a guy who ran his mouth for too long:

I am interviewing this fellow for a retail job and I ask him what a former supervisor would say about him if we called him. He gave this strange look and said “I don’t know what he would say. Probably that I am a cool guy and I am a good skateboarder. Hmmm…” And I just sat there waiting for him. Then he said “Well, it doesn’t matter. I don’t work there anymore and you guys don’t really need to call him?” Again, I just sit there. “Well, I guess he would say I was a pretty decent worker when I wanted to be and that I was late a ton because I was busy skateboarding all the time.”

To be fair though, there wasn’t a really great way he could have answered the question anyway. When you’re constantly late for the entirety of your employment, that is pretty much all your supervisor will talk about.

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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