In what could be interpreted as a positive sign regarding the current marketplace, I’ve seen a big pickup lately in people coming in to get help with their interviewing skills.  Things seem to be hopping out there and in recent weeks, I’ve had the chance to coach dozens of folks on how best to prepare for upcoming hiring discussions, answer common questions that come up, and ensure they put their best foot forward.

When I work with people on their interview preparation efforts, however, I always start by emphasizing something I haven’t seen mentioned much — if at all — in other books/articles out there on the subject.  I advise people to think hard up front about WHY interviewers ask the questions they ask.  WHY do they want to know your greatest weakness?  WHY is it important for them to know your salary expectations, up front?  WHY do they insist you provide specific examples of how you’ve dealt with ambiguity, demonstrated creative problem-solving skills, or influenced across organizational lines?  And WHY do so many hiring managers start interviews by asking you to “tell them about yourself” or something similar?

Surprisingly, when I ask many of my clients to speculate on the motives behind these kinds of questions, they’re completely stumped.  They literally can’t hazard a guess as to why these questions get asked, time and time again, or what the person across the desk is hoping to hear back.  And therein lies the rub.  If you don’t understand the motive behind a question, it’s awfully hard to provide a kick-butt answer that knocks the interviewer’s socks off.  So before anything else, when it comes to improving one’s interviewing success rate, I work with job hunters to “sharpen their psychic powers” and gain more insight into the mindset of hiring managers — so they can say all the right things to win them over.

An example of this?  Let’s go back to the statement above about how so many interviewers start the hiring conversation with an open-ended request for the other party to “tell them a little” about themselves.  In most cases, I’ve found that the manager is not only trying to buy time by putting the other person in the hot seat for a few minutes (since most hiring managers are uncomfortable about interviewing, too!) but that they also want to get a quick sense of a person’s attitude, strengths, passions, and communication skills.  As the old saying goes, a manager won’t know for sure who they’re going to hire based on the first two minutes of an interview, but they’ll for sure know who they’re NOT going to hire!

So in answering this question, make sure you avoid the common mistakes, which involve: 1) walking through the facts of your resume at great length, demonstrating poor communication and time management skills; 2) providing too brief of an answer, which hurts rapport and doesn’t give the interviewer enough time to settle in; and/or 3) sharing a series of generic, shopworn statements about your strengths (“I’m a dynamic, team-oriented problem solver”) that fail to provide the manager with any further understanding of your passions, goals, personality, or unique strengths.  None of these approaches work well, in other words, because they’re not aligned with the inherent motivations/needs behind the question itself.   Instead, a savvy interview candidate should provide a 2-3 minute structured response — practiced repeatedly — that focuses on sharing a few essential facts of their background, but more importantly provides some interesting insights into what makes them tick, why they love what they do, and what they feel sets them apart from the crowd.

Along similar lines, most interviewers who ask you to share your “greatest weakness” aren’t just asking this for their health.  They’re looking for candidates who are mature and self-aware enough to admit they aren’t perfect, can point to a specific issue that’s challenged them, and can show how they’ve improved or adapted to the deficiency at hand.  So when a candidate smugly claims that they “don’t have any weaknesses” or tries to shamelessly pass off a strength as a weakness, the party’s over.  For example, when I role-play this question with clients and they throw out the horribly trite answer that they’re a “perfectionist” my immediate response is “Okay, so if I’m understanding things correctly, you’re telling me you’d like to make more mistakes?

Then they get it.

So again, if you’re feeling insecure about your interviewing skills or have been baffled by some of the questions that commonly get asked, I’d encourage you to think hard about the likely motives in play behind each question.  This should help you hit more home runs with your answers.  And if there are some questions whose motivations continue to elude you, and defy your mind-reading abilities, perhaps ask some  recruiters or hiring managers you know if they can shed any light on things.  Or heck, feel free to post a comment below and I’ll give you my own best guess as to the motivations that might be involved.

Ultimately, though, the more you can put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from, the more on target your answers will likely be!

P.S. One other thing: if you’re ever asked to “give an example” of something in an interview, make sure to actually provide a specific, concrete, day-in-the-life illustration of the skill or strength in question — not just a high-level statement verifying you possess it.  Employers tell me constantly that when they ask people to provide an example (known as the “behavioral interviewing” technique) and don’t actually get one, that’s a big strike against the candidate…