Four decades ago, I had the good luck of running an English as a Second Language program for a consortium of Wall Street banks. It was in the early days of equal opportunity legislation, and each bank was looking around for minority employees on staff who might be promoted. My job was to take recent immigrants -- I had Chinese, Russians, Haitians, Egyptians, and lots of Latin Americans in my classes -- and improve their English language skills sufficiently so that they could be promoted from menial into low-level clerical jobs. After a few weeks of classes, I realized that nearly all of my students could speak, read, and write English well enough to do practically any job that the banks wanted. They just didn’t project their ability.
They mumbled when they spoke. They avoided eye contact, and when you engaged them in one-on-one conversation -- the type of conversation that is all-important in interviews -- their words came out in a tumbling rush, making their accents far more pronounced than they really were. What to do? I took a course offered by Dorothy Sarnoff, a well-respected public relations woman. In the early 1970s, important people were coming to the realization that TV was an important and persuasive medium and that how well yourself presented on TV could make or break your future if you were, say, a politician appearing for the first time on "Meet the Press" or a chief executive being grilled by a reporter. Sarnoff’s course taught important people how to deal with the camera, and I reasoned that her lessons might apply to my students.
Armed with the lessons of the course and an expensive video camera and tape deck -- this was the early 1970s, when such hardware cost a small fortune -- I began taping my students and allowing them to watch themselves on a monitor on playback. The initial shock of seeing themselves made them all acutely self-conscious, but once they got over it, I could teach them the basics of Sarnoff’s technique. These are the same, simple techniques you need to master in order to become a better interviewee.
1.) Know what you want to say. You likely have been on enough interviews by now that you have a pretty good understanding of what people are going to ask you, so develop good, whole sentence short answers to what likely will be the most commonly asked questions. Not one or two word answers. Whole sentences, so that the interviewer knows that you are articulate.
2.) Look people in the eye. This is the hardest one. When you are inside an unfamiliar room, you have a tendency to let your eyes wander, to take in as much information as possible as part of the natural flight-or-fight response. Fight the tendency. Keep your eyes focused on the person you are speaking with, even if it begins to make the listener uncomfortable.
3.) Speak up. People have a tendency to speak softly when they are in the presence of strangers, especially strangers who have power. That’s submissive behavior, and it will cost you any chance at a job. The trick is to speak at one notch above your normal speaking voice until you begin to establish a real dialogue, and then dial your voice back down until it is in a normal range. Down is easier than up, and most interviewers will put the fact that your voice initially is louder than normal off to enthusiasm, which is a good thing.
4.) Speak slowly. Long before I took Sarnof'f''s course, I had a fourth grade teacher who believed that everyone should be a good public speaker. His solution was to have us read stories into a tape recorder, and then listen to our voices -- a similar technique to Sarnoff’s one with TV. By practicing with a tape recorder -- the little digital ones are inexpensive and easy to use -- you will learn how you sound to other people and how to use breath control to modulate your voice. Use children’s books for practice, because the sentences and paragraphs are short, and the sing-song nature of their language will help you learn how to develop better voice control.
These techniques, if practiced diligently, will put you in better control of interviews and make you a better speaker when you are asked to stand up in front of a crowd to present information.