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How to... Tackle tough interviews

Your career; Interviews

What makes a tough interview? The message from the experts is that any interview could turn out to be difficult, so never assume that you are in for an easy time.

'It's like giving a presentation - you need the adrenaline rush to do it well.' says Alison Straw, co-author of 'Tackling Tough Interview Questions in a Week'. 'If you go in expecting it to be a done deal, you are likely to come over as arrogant. Preparation is always essential.'

Problem areas which you should prepare for with particular care include gaps in your career history, decisions which you regret, and relationship issues, whether with an organisation you have worked for or with your last boss.

Engineers need to be more careful than most that they have thought the issues through and worked out exactly what they want to say in advance. This should enable interviewees to negotiate their way around the trickiest questions. Often, what makes a question difficult is the fact that it is something you have not considered, rather than the fact it is intrinsically complex.

Graham Jackson, a consultant with Potensis, a Bristol-based firm of head hunters which specialises in the property, construction and engineering sectors, recommends doing as much ground work as possible.

'We find out as much as we can about the format of the interview when putting clients forward and give candidates press cuttings about the company, so they know about share prices, people changes and any other snippets of information which might be useful.' All of which helps when the unexpected questions come up.

A former structural engineer, Jackson says that civil engineers who succeed in climbing the management career ladder tend to be those who communicate well and so come across best in a tough interview situation. 'When I came into this job, I was surprised just how good at communicating senior engineers were,' he says.

'But people in more junior roles fail to see the importance of communication skills. A lot of people are technically excellent, but if you can't deal effectively with clients and colleagues, you are not going to get above the level of senior engineer.'

So how do you prepare for the interview from hell if you do not think your ability to communicate is on a par with that of Tony Blair? Alison Straw suggests not only preparing the information that you want to put over, but also the actual words you are going to use and the way you speak. 'Talk it out, and speak out loud,' she says. 'Also make sure you have concrete examples, drawn from your own experience, to answer each query.

'Engineers are very good about talking about their experience in terms of the 'what' - but you also need to include the 'how' and the 'who'.

If all else fails, despite all your best efforts, and a question comes winging your way which sends you reeling, then the trick is to stay cool and play for time. Straw suggests the time honoured politicians ruse of repeating the question so you have a chance to think For instance: 'Let me be clear, you are asking me...' In the meantime, think about what the interviewer is trying to get out of you.

If this all sounds discouraging, remember that interviews which tend to be more structured and searching work in your favour as well as the employer's. It is all about making sure the right person gets the job.

Tackling Tough Interviews In a Week by Mo Shapiro and Alison Straw is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price (pounds)6.99.

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