Ah, we all have beginnings. My introduction to the world of career coaching was as a career advisor to the MBA program at UC Berkeley. A typical day there consisted of seeing between eight and sixteen students for thirty to sixty minutes, to help them prepare for interviews. The students would come in to a tiny cubbyhole of an office, barely big enough for the two of us and a desk, without windows. Not the most cheery place to be, but not at all unlike some of the venues where interviews take place.
I’d ask the students about the job they wanted, and crafted a “mock interview,” on-the-fly. I’d take on my tough interviewer persona, complete with pressure-filled questions and interruptions of students’ responses to my questions. After the mock interview, I’d turn back into my otherwise charming self (Okay, the more empathic me) and give them insightful feedback that helped them clearly articulate why the company should really want them, complete with illustrative stories. With each student, I developed strategies to help him or her really connect with interviewers.
I developed a reputation on campus as a tough-ass. That’s pretty funny for a woman who doesn’t clear five feet without a pair of pumps on, and barely ninety-five pounds. So be it.
About a year into my tenure, a student walked in for a mock interview. I asked him what companies he was targeting, and I watched him nearly expire. I mean it. I thought he was choking. Then, I watched a bead of sweat roll down his face. Followed by three more beads, then five more beads, then ten more beads … in a matter of two minutes, he was soaked!
“Are you nervous?” I asked, reflexively. “Uh, no, uh, uh, no … ” he blurted out.
“Then what are those drops of water doing rushing down your face? Do you usually turn beet red in front of strangers?” I asked, with a tone of “c’mon, just relax” in my voice.
He stammered. Stuttered.
And then I gave him the news—almost everyone gets nervous during interviews.
Sure, sure there are those who love, love, love to interview. Give them an audience, and a wind-up key, and turn the crank a few times and they’re on a roll.
But for the rest of the world? I’ll share with you what I told this guy:
Interviewers generally understand if you’re a little bit nervous. Guess what? That almost assuredly means you have some real desire for the job! So, instead of try to act a lot more formal than you usually are, instead of playing some “canned” version of yourself that you bring out for interviews, you can be real.
“Well, that’s great,” you say, “But, hey, let’s remember, I probably don’t know the interviewer.” You might think to yourself, “So I get kind of nervous around strangers. How can I feel more connected with this person I’m probably meeting for the first time?”
That’s a good point. Here’s another way to put things in perspective—and feel more at ease: I’d like you to think back to your last job. If you can, I’d like you to think of the first week on the job. You were a newbie. You didn’t know the lay of the land. You probably wondered, “What do all of these people actually do?” “How does the phone system work?” “Where’s my desk?” And heck, let’s not forget “Where’s the bathroom?” That first week at work, you can feel pretty awkward. Maybe even the first month or so.
Over time, you come to feel more comfortable. You know who people are. You go out to lunch with them. They become less threatening, more familiar.
So, here’s a big secret to making your interview easier:
Look at the interviewer and mentally say to yourself (in your mind—not aloud!), “Someday, I’m going to be working with this person. I’ll feel comfortable and natural. I’ll be at ease with them. So, if I can act like I’ve already been working with them for two or three months, this conversation will be a lot easier.”
One of the most important non-verbal communication techniques you can use it to turn up the corners of your mouth. More simply put—smile! The movement of the facial muscles involved in a smile can also trigger “feel good” hormones in your body! (Please don’t use this as an excuse to bear your teeth in a silly grin, OK?)
Additionally, you can be straight with the interviewer. You can say something like, “Whew, I’m feeling a little nervous right now. Honestly, it feels like there’s a lot on the line, because I really want this job.”
Then, just pause and catch your breath. Pauses are Okay. You won’t die. Well, OK, probably not in the interview. If the employer treats you badly for being honest … do you really want to work for someone like that? I’ve found that 99 times out of 100, employers are really understanding.
What about the dripping-sweat-guy?
So, I shared these tips (plus a few more in my Interviewing Authentically workbook) with him. He used them in his next mock interview practice with me.
I swear, I barely recognized him. His mindset had changed. I asked him if he was nervous. He confided that he was, a bit, and then I watched him take a few deep breaths, before we leaped into questions.
Five weeks later, he had seven job offers from consulting firms. And their interviews ain’t no picnic. My sweaty guy had calmed his own nerves, from the inside out. And he had his pick from a bunch of great jobs.
What do you do when you feel nervous in interviews? How does your strategy play out?
By Susan Bernstein, MBA MA Job Search Coach and Founder