Having role-played hundreds of mock interviews over the years with professionals seeking to improve their presentation skills and increase their “batting average” for closing offers, there’s a tendency I’ve started to notice that’s pretty fascinating.

Nine out of ten times, minimum, the people I’m interviewing bury the lead whenever I ask them a question.  What this means, in newspaper terminology, is that they don’t put their BEST and MOST INTERESTING material right up front.  Instead, I’ll watch them nervously hem, haw, and spout 20-30 seconds of fairly vague generalities before their brain kicks into gear and the real highlights and pearls of wisdom start to come out.  And in many cases, the most profound show-stopper information about their talents doesn’t make an appearance unless I put my “nice interviewer” hat on (which not every hiring manager will) and I ask a specific, leading follow-up question.

Let me be clear about this, folks: this tendency can easily cost you a great job opportunity!

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.  Most of the time, when interviewing a management-level candidate, I’ll usually throw out the question “What is your management philosophy?” at some point, which seems to me to be an eminently reasonable thing to inquire about.  When I do this, though, my ears are almost always treated to a nebulous answer that stumbles around like a drunken sailor for a minute or two, citing age-old truisms about management related to “open-door policies” or “shared vision” or “putting people in the right places to succeed.”  Such answers don’t impress me or fill me with confidence that you have the answers I need to get my workforce fired up here in 2011 or get my company off the rocks in this sketchy economy.  They won’t impress real hiring managers, either.

When I give the candidate a second chance, however, and follow up by asking something like: “Can you be more specific and tell me how you get the best out of the people who work for you?” the candidate usually does a 180-degree turn and I hear some AMAZING answers!  A leader might talk about how they’ve learned to adapt their style to the preferences of different generational groups — or walk me though some innovative way they’ve found to improve communication in the office, keep people motivated, or weld a disparate group of employees into a unified team.  As to whether it’s the incisive brilliance of my follow-up questions (ha ha) that causes this, or the mere fact that people have had a slightly longer time to think about the issue by that point, I’m not sure.  All I know is that it happens time after time.  The candidate’s first attempt to answer a question?  D-minus.  The second effort, when prompted?  B-plus or A-minus.

Same thing with sound bites.  I recently interviewed somebody for a job involving project management and asked them what they felt the keys were to pulling off a complex project successfully, within time and budget parameters.  After a minute or two of boring generalities, they finally said “…and the biggest key of all, I’ve found, is to always deal with bad news immediately — and make sure your team isn’t afraid to tell you when something’s going wrong.”  Now I’m not a PM by trade, so can’t speak to how important this factor might be in a real work setting, but I’ll tell you one thing.  This final tacked-on thought was the most interesting, original, and memorable thing that came out of this candidate’s mouth with regard to the topic in question.  The problem?  It came last.  Well after I’d almost lost patience with the answer and could easily have moved on to a different subject!

Had the person answered the question in an assertive, prepared way, they perhaps could have said something along the lines of:

“You know, Matt, that’s a great question and I certainly could walk you through all the standard by-the-book stuff everybody and their brother knows about project management, but I’ll tell you the single most important lesson I’ve learned over the years: always empower your team to give you bad news.  I’ve found that it’s far easier to tackle any issues that arise (and they always do arise, in any project) immediately, versus letting them fester to the point they become incredibly expensive and problematic.  So when kicking off a project, I make a distinct point to call my team together, outline this policy, and ask them to trust me and come to me immediately when things aren’t going according to plan.  Over the years, I can’t tell you how many expensive setbacks and timeline snafus this philosophy has allowed me to avoid on behalf of my employers…”

See the difference?  It’s night and day to me, at least, and I can only imagine that people who interview even more than I do (e.g. recruiters, HR professionals…) will appreciate somebody coming right out front with their best and most original stuff, versus hoping to trip across something interesting, later, by accident.

So my advice to all of you out there who are in the interviewing process — or hope to be there, shortly — is to think hard, up front, about the most profound “pearls of wisdom” you can offer when encountering some of the predictable questions you’re likely going to get asked for any given job.  Build your answers around a great sound bite or two.  Put your gold nuggets first, not last.  And above all, don’t bury your leads!  In the fleeting and judgmental context of a typical interview, you’re not always going to be given a second, third, or even fourth chance to share them…