If you’re just easing your way into the working world, your first few interviews can be nerve-wracking. You probably feel self-conscious sitting in front of someone whose sole job is to judge your qualifications. You don’t want to make a mistake and you can’t help but obsess silently in your mind about what the interviewer thinks of you. The problem with this kind of performance anxiety is that it can send the interview spiraling into a dark place. When you’re spending the whole time in your head, you can ironically draw a blank in the moment and completely forget what you had planned to say.
The best cure for this awkward situation is of course prevention, first and foremost. It is extremely important to practice interviewing beforehand, so that your responses and body language become second nature. In this way, all of your mental energy can go towards answering questions, instead of agonizing internally about what you might be doing wrong.
Mock interview preparation will help you become more comfortable with the interviewing process. It’s natural to be less nervous in situations that are already familiar to you, and you can build that familiarity through practice. This is why we highly recommend using our Interview Simulator to practice mock job interview questions specific to your position.
While prevention is important, sometimes you can still be caught off guard in the moment and not know what to say in spite of all of your preparations. To break past “the wall” when you find yourself stuck, follow these key tips:
1) Ask the Interviewer Exactly What He or She Means
Sometimes when you have no idea what to say, the problem is that the recruiter has asked you a question that is too abstract. For example, “Where do you think you will fit in this organization?” can have so many interpretations.
Try to get at the meat of what the interviewer wants by asking them to re-frame the question in more specific terms. For the above example, you could ask the recruiter if they want to know about what kind of skills you can contribute, or if they are curious about whether you will fit in with the culture of the company as a whole. This will not only buy you some time to think, but the added specificity will help you think of a better response.
2) Think Concretely. Think in Narrative.
In the corporate world, there are lots of buzzwords and people can sometimes talk themselves into a corner using abstract generalities that don’t really mean anything. In fact, it’s something that we can be tempted to do when we don’t have much to say.
Rather than telling someone that you’re a “team player,” and then trying to come up with some examples that support that assertion from a mental vacuum, start with the example first. Always think in concrete terms. Look back on your professional career as a narrative, like a story with a beginning, a middle, and a most recent end. Re-experience your past volunteer or school work in your mind, and talk about specific events that took place. It is much easier to remember real events than vague interpretations of your own character.
Again the key is to practice this mindset ahead of time so that it is more natural the day of the real interview.
3) Imagine What the Company Needs
A lot of the anxiety that comes with interviews is due to the tendency for our brains to try to worry about how the recruiter sees us. With this mindset, though, our performance is almost certain to be poor. Instead, try as best you can to focus on the recruiter and the company’s needs. If you were the person sitting right in front of you, what would you be looking for?
First of all, you would probably be dying to find a suitable candidate for the job as soon as possible. Nobody likes conducting dozens of interviews and swimming through piles of resumés. Chances are, they just want the search to be over.
The same could be said of the company as a whole. They just want a certain problem solved, so they are hiring someone to solve it. Try to hone in on what that problem is, and pivot your responses towards addressing the solution. Sometimes it’s easier to think about the problems of your industry and how you would address them than it is to try to come up with reasons why you should get a position in the company.
4) Ask Meaningful Questions
Not only will a recruiter find it strange if you don’t ask questions about the job, but asking the right questions can also save you in an awkward moment. Though you generally don’t want to change the subject when your interviewer tries to discuss something specific, if you are really drawing a complete blank, pivoting the conversation into a detour with the right question can help you out. Make sure that your questions are relevant and flow with the solution-oriented attitude mentioned earlier.
For instance, let’s say that your recruiter asks, “What kind of experience do you have with Linux administration?” If you don’t know where to start, you could quickly say, “Oh, is this company looking to upgrade their servers?” This will give you some time to think of how to address the question, and their response will also allow you to craft your answer to suit the company’s relevant needs.
5) Be Honest
Sometimes being upfront can seem unthinkable when you’re wearing your “interview mask” of professionalism, but you are a human being and your interviewer probably understands this. Be honest and tell them that you can’t think of a good answer at the moment, and that you would like to come back to the question. Some recruiters may even appreciate the fact that you’re taking the interview seriously enough to give thoughtful answers.
Acknowledging the awkwardness is sometimes the key to breaking past it and getting on with the rest of the interview.
An interview is more than just a linear series of questions. It is ideally a dynamic conversation that will flow through certain key topics, so don’t be afraid to go “off script” if you find yourself stuck. If anything, this will also show your interviewer that you can think outside the box. However, there are a few things that you should definitely not do if your mind goes blank:
-Do not just say any old thing. People say the strangest things when they’re nervous, and it can be hard to recover once you’ve said them. Try to restrain yourself from babbling to fill the silence. Allow yourself to pause for a moment. Ask for more time, or use one of the other tips above, but don’t allow your mouth to work without your brain.
-Do not drastically change the subject. If there’s no conceivable segue, don’t blatantly try to avoid the question like a politician by abruptly changing the subject and hoping that the recruiter won’t notice. Be upfront and ask to revisit the question later.
-Do not make up a lie. Though it may be tempting to talk about how you rescued a bus full of orphan children when you’re asked about your greatest accomplishments and can’t think of anything, it’s easy enough to fact-check people’s lies these days.
-Do not crack evasive jokes. Unless you’re a skilled comedian, it’s extremely transparent when someone is trying to avoid answering a question by making a nervous joke. While it’s fine to be lighthearted if that’s the tone of the interview, stay serious and don’t hide your silent agony behind a veil of humor.
Of course, the #1 way to avoid this drama altogether is to simply be properly prepared. If you already know what you’re going to say in 99% of cases, then you’re much less likely to spend the interview stuttering. For mock interview preparation use the Interview Simulator on our website which will provide you with relevant interview questions. Practice until you feel that you can handle any kind of question from your prospective employer. With enough practice, you’ll have a “bank” of answers in your mind that you can always go to.
Lastly, make sure that you have a good idea of how the company you’re interviewing for works and what their needs are. This will be the key to answering the more important, non-generic questions that will let your interviewer know what you have to contribute.