Dear candidate - thoughts on interviews and how to survive them

Posted on: 30 Apr 2020
Posted by: Leo Winkley

Leo Winkley, headmaster at Shrewsbury School, offers tips for job applicants on how they can make a good impression in their teaching interviews.

You have to be pretty old to remember the TV show ‘Columbo’. A legendary police detective procedural that centred on the eponymous shabby and dishevelled-looking detective. Lieutenant Columbo was a man whose sharpness of mind was in direct inverse proportional relationship to the sharpness of his dress. Columbo used a negative first impression to his advantage, fooling the suspect into writing him off as a bumbling idiot. He would then reel his quarry in as they grew casual, over-confident, sloppy.

Lt. Columbo’s interview technique was crafty: and highly effective. His best trick was to appear to have ended the interview, saying something like, “Well, I’ve taken up plenty enough of your time already”, and turn to leave. And then, just as he is shuffling off, Columbo would turn round and say, “Oh – just one more thing”. This was always the killer question – the one that caught the suspect off guard. So, my advice to all interviewees is: watch out for the Columbo question…

As the annual cycle of appointments has now pretty much come to an end, I offer a few words of advice to take or leave. First up, it’s worth remembering that every moment is part of the interview – how we enter the building, how we present to Reception and other staff; how we say goodbye; how we communicate before and after the interview. It all feeds in.

It’s a cliché, but those first impressions do matter. In many cases, we will already have presented ourselves to the world via our digital avatar. It’s vital this image inspires trust and credibility. Then we meet in person. Some don’ts first:

• Avoid fancy dress: anything that is likely to trigger a negative value judgement. The interview is not the place for exciting fashion statements. We want people to sense that weare serious and that we care. That’s about it. Our clothes simply need to reinforce our sincerity. Comedy ties are great – but not for interview. Wacky jewellery, humorous socks, political slogan badges… these are not a good idea. Dark suits, simple single tone ties (not crazy colours). Shoes matter. Unless we are being interviewed by Vivienne Westwood, we should aim to look conventionally smart – not wild, wacky or scruffy.

• Avoid being over-familiar or chatty. We all need to be able to adjust our tone to the context we are in. That doesn’t mean putting on an act or being a fake. It’s possible to be natural whilst also being respectful and formal.

• Avoid cliché or platitudes: “I’m a people person/team player”; find new ways of saying things.

• Avoid being negative about other people, institutions, systems – anything really. Nobody likes to hear negativity.

• Never lie or over-embellish – we’ll most likely get found out or have to embroider more or sound unconvincing. The best interviewees are determinedly themselves. If we feel we have to lie, we will sound inauthentic.

It’s also important to look closely at what the interviewer is doing; how they are dressed; the tone of question and the way they are responding to what we are saying. Read them as they read us. Fundamentally, it is about making a connection.

This brings us to good things to do:

• Hold eye contact: but not in a fixed or challenging way

• Smile – well-timed, sincere, open smiles; not loony or fake ones

• If there’s more than one person interviewing, scan and keep people involved; sweep the room but not like an automated lighthouse

• Sit still: be firmly but not too rigidly planted; don’t sniff (bring a hanky), scratch, rummage, jangle, fidget, twiddle or otherwise distract them; convey a sense of calmness and stillness. Be a swan rather than a meerkat

• Be concise: don’t ramble, but do elaborate when asked; let there be silence; don’t try to fill it

• Answer the questions: don’t be a politician but do steer them to areas of strength and enthusiasm

• Give examples (ideally, think of them in advance): how have we shown initiative, leadership; learned from mistakes; helped change things etc – and make sure they are both true and positive

• Take our time when the curve ball question comes – and keep the answer to that brief

A good interview process will aim to put us on a stage and allow us to perform. In order to perform we need to prepare, to practise, to think about what we want to convey to our audience, and to work out how to be true to the best version of ourselves. Because, when it comes down to it, it is the real us who will have to do the job. We don’t want the interviewer or interview panel to choose some phoney, invented me. Just the best me.

Oh – and just one more thing: watch out for the Columbo question. And be ready for it…

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About Leo Winkley

Leo Winkley is headmaster at Shrewsbury School.