A simple psychological suggestion for acing your next job interview

Interviewing tips are a dime a dozen. “10 steps to a killer interview…” “5 words to avoid in any interview…” As far as I can tell, though, precious few of these tips are based on much scientific evidence.

What does science (psychology in particular) have to say about comporting ourselves in a job interview? Quite a lot, actually, but one of the most important lessons concerns how we present our abilities—namely, whether we wow them with the breadth of our abilities or focus on a thematic few. I’ll leave you in suspense about the bottom line except to say that its adoption can make interviewing more negotiable.

Consider the following scenario. You’re interviewing for a highly senior job at a highly impressive company. You’ve been invited to meet with three separate interviewers (separately), after which the three of them will presumably meet to discuss you and the other candidates.

Now, here’s the question. In your meetings with the three interviewers, should you:

  1. Emphasize the same three abilities to all three people, telling everyone about your impressive analytic, bookkeeping, and communication (A/B/C) skills, for example, or…
  2. Emphasize three separate abilities to each person, telling the first interviewer about your A/B/C skills but the next person about your diligence, extraversion, and flexibility (D/E/F) and the third person about your G/H/I?

It depends on the relevance of these particular skills for the job, of course, but let’s assume abilities A-I are all quite relevant. Which option should you choose?

I’ve asked this question of many students, and most prefer the latter. If you could emphasize three separate abilities to three separate people for a whopping total of nine, why would you ever emphasize a wimpy three? Wouldn’t that just leave them wondering about your diligence, extraversion, and flexibility, for example?

Well, mathematically, yes: 9 > 3. But we need more than math to understand what will happen here—we need psychology.

Imagine you emphasized your three separate skills to the three separate interviewers, and they’re now meeting to discuss your candidacy. How will the conversation go? Something like this:

  • Interviewer 1: “I was really impressed with her analytic skills!”
  • Interviewer 2: “Huh? Well, I don’t know anything about that, but I was sure impressed with her flexibility.”
  • Interview 1: “Huh? Not sure what you mean, but her bookkeeping skills could really help us out.”
  • Interviewer 3: “Huh?

You get the picture: This conversation’s not gonna go very smoothly, and guess who’ll pay the price.

But now let’s imagine you’d emphasized the same three skills to all three interviewers. How’s that meeting likely to go?

  • Interviewer 1: “I was really impressed with her analytic skills!”
  • Interviewers 2 and 3 (jumping out of their chairs with enthusiasm): “Me too!”
  • Interviewer 2: “And how about those bookkeeping skills?!?”
  • Interviewers 1 and 3: “Amazing!”

Just moments later, all three interviewers would go out for beers, having identified the right candidate in the first one minute.

You get the picture. Since you stayed on message with all three interviewers, you gave them a lot of common ground—what psychology calls common information or common knowledge. Decades of research show that, when groups of people make a decision together, they rely heavily on common information—information on which they all already agreed even before meeting. Indeed, compared to whatever private information they might have brought into the meeting, group members tend to trust, discuss, and use the common information a whole lot more. So when they share a lot of common information—about your A/B/C skills perhaps—the decision becomes easy. But when they have little in common—as they did when you mentioned nine separate skills—well, the conversation quickly becomes contentious. It seems they can’t agree on anything, so you seem scattered and unhirable.

The implication of the common information effect is pretty simple: If you want to make a good impression on a group of interviewers, you’re well-advised to stick to a few common themes rather than wow them with the breadth of your abilities. Be thematic!

But what if your three thematic skills don’t cover all the skills they need? Well, it doesn’t have to be three. Include as many skills as you’d like, knowing that they probably won’t remember more than 3 to 7. But what if they ask questions that have nothing to do with your three thematic skills? You obviously want to answer the question that’s asked; otherwise you’ll seem awfully strange.

  • Interviewer 1: “Tell me about your flexibility”
  • You: “Well, I’m very good at bookkeeping.”

But, as any experienced interviewee knows, any question has many appropriate answers, some of them relating more closely to your themes.

Bottom line: consistency is generally helpful when meeting with a group of interviewers. Just one suggestion from psychology. Hopefully it helps!

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