Differentiate Yourself in an Interview: Beyond Your Background

HR blogger and columnist Liz Ryan wrote an excellent essay on LinkedIn, The Five Deadliest Job Interview Mistakes.  All of these boil down to a single question: Are you memorable?

Per Liz’s column this could be memorable in either a good or bad way.  Not asking any questions at all?  Memorable – in a bad way.  (This assumes, however, that you’re able to get a word in edgewise.  I’ve been in interviews where the questions flew so fast that I barely had time to answer, let alone formulate a question to ask as a part of a desired – desired on my side at least – conversation… and then it was “OK, thank you, the next person will be in to talk with you” as they walk out.)  Groveling or not knowing the company’s business will also make you memorable in a negative context.  Doing your homework is necessary.

What Memorable Really Means

So I want to focus on how job seekers can work to make themselves memorable in a positive way.  Let’s talk marketing – what we’re really discussing is the marketing of yourself, and in this case, we need to discuss a key term: differentiation.  In other words, how can you show you are different than the slew of other people interviewing?

Ask Penetrating Questions


Thus far I have posted four sets of “penetrating questions” (Ask, Ask 2, Ask 3, Ask 4).  Not all of these will be appropriate for every interview, or every person interviewing you.  But many of these will set you apart.  They will remember you as someone who asked tough questions.

Why is this important?  Because people who ask strong questions are sharp, interested, and serious about the position.  And if you’re lucky, during the group discussion, someone who was challenged by one of your questions will spin off some version of “This candidate asked me some really great questions” – which will start a discussion of the questions you asked and how they convey your intellect and drive.

Seconds Count


First impressions play a key part in any hiring process.  As I wrote here, most interviews are settled within seconds, possibly even within a single second as Staffing and Recruiting consultant Donna Svei wrote here.  And I’d like to take a moment to brag by comparing my essay and hers on a key point; specifically, that we are hardwired to make such snap-judgments about others.  From my essay where I reached a conclusion by pure thought-process-and-logic (emphasis added):

This is reality: making snap judgments about others as people meet is hardwired into us as a survival trait, a trait selected-for over millions upon millions of years.  And while effort and time can overcome an initial bad impression, you as a job seeker may not be given the chance.  Making decisions emotionally based on sight, sound, and smell is hardwired into the limbic system, the seat of emotion and memory in our brain – and probably the oldest structure in the brain (I’d like to definitively say the oldest, but apparently this is the subject of some debate these days).

My conclusion about hardwiring is confirmed, as she mentioned (emphasis added):

And lest you think your interviewer might be too well trained to make snap judgments, think again. Another study, conducted at Tel Aviv University (Hassin & Trope), in a simulated interview setting, found that we’re hard-wired to make instant judgments about others.

Grooming, odors, smiles, handshakes, weight, projected energy and posture, and myriad other factors play into a first impression, where more than half the interview is won or lost before you can say more than “Nice to meet you.”

Be “Sticky”


Unlike the hiking dictum “Take only pictures, leave only footprints”, you want to leave something behind that is memorable and physical – and not just a business card.  I always bring portfolios of my work, including my resume, as something to discuss during an interview.  I typically leave one behind.  While some advisors recommend against this practice, there is a good body of work suggesting bringing something physical to leave behind.  Some guidelines as to what to leave behind recommend a mini-portfolio.  The article “Leave Behind” Your Success at Your Next Job Interview is excellent, though I do disagree with the idea of bringing reference letters to an interview – you want to customize your reference list based on the interview, not select references beforehand.  (It also puts your references at risk to being contacted willy-nilly – and thereby ticking them off.)

On the other hand, not everyone councils leaving a portfolio or other materials.  For example, Fred Nothnagel, founder of the networking group WIND, once counseled me in a coaching session that my habit of leaving my portfolio with people risks their having something to be poured over seeking things to criticize after-the-fact.  In one article recommending such leave-behinds, some commenters are highly negative about the practice.

Recruiter and job-search advisor Nick Corcodilos has two excellent articles on interviewing – among many on job searching of course: 5 “Sticky” Interview Tactics: Part 1 and 5 “Sticky” Interview Tactics: Part 2.  And that’s really what you’re trying to do – be sticky in their mind as a top candidate who is able to do the work, interested in doing the work, and will fit in.  And I will opine that part of being sticky is having something that reminds them of you – something physical.  It may not be a portfolio, but put some thought into what it might be.

The Halo Effect


Numerous articles have been written about subtly mirroring the gestures and postures of the interviewer, and I won’t go further than to mention them.  A google search is educational.  But as one article found in this search points out, “Remember, people hire people they like…”.

So let’s take that one step further: people like people like them.  Before you go on an interview, take a page from companies vetting people on social media, and do the same (after all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander).  Google the interview team; if you don’t know who they are, ask the HR person (and if they won’t tell you, that’s indicative of either they’re disorganized enough to have not settled things, or so secretive that it should be disturbing; what possible harm could come from telling you in advance who you will be meeting?).  Look them up on LinkedIn.  Can you find their Twitter feed?  Are they on Facebook?  And assuming you are brought into someone’s office for the interview, look around quickly for cues.

What are you looking for?  Commonalities.  Did you attend the same school – can you make a subtle alumni connection?  Do you have a common outside interest – especially useful if the person has pictures or mementos of the activity in their office?  Do you have common life events (e.g., living/working overseas)?  What this does is help pull you, in their perception, into their “inner circle”.

The key to this working is being subtle but sincere about it.  It’s one thing to observe someone’s scuba pictures as you go into an office, asking about them, then casually mentioning that it reminds you of the time you went wreck diving.  It is quite another to say “Oh, I looked you up on LinkedIn and saw that we share an interest in bird watching.”  While they will look at you online, and expect you to do the same, openly mentioning that you did will doubtless come across as being slightly stalker-ish.

Laughter is the Best Medicine


I cannot stress strongly enough how much of hiring decision is based on emotion.  There are very few people who do not like to laugh.  So can you be casually funny?

This doesn’t mean, of course, spinning off jokes – even clean and innocuous ones – left and right.  But if you are a quick wit, there are opportunities in this.  (Dangers too, so be judicious.)  If you can elevate their mood, they are more likely to see you as a “fit” culturally.

The Follow-Up

Everyone counsels sending thank-you notes… so it is a surprise that so many people do not.  Stand out here too; unless you’ve really goofed up this is a good chance to differentiate yourself as they debate the candidates that passed initial muster.

First, send email thank you notes ASAP: that evening (I’ve even read that you should bring a laptop and email from their parking lot; I’d advise against that… instead, spend a few minutes making some notes about each interviewer while they’re fresh in your mind for use later).  Remember that they will – literally – compare notes, so customize each note.  But second, also send a thank you note by snail-mail within two days.  This way the hiring manager gets a second reminder of you, and gets it after the immediate short-term memory of your visit is starting to fade.

There is opportunity here, whether in the email or mailed note.  Did they mention a specific problem they’re having?  Do some research; can you send a link to a helpful article, or a copy of an article?  Did they have a hobby they mentioned/you noticed from cues in their office that you share (nothing will seem phonier than researching and sending an article about a hobby that you do not share)?  Send something interesting about it.  The opportunities and possibilities are legion.  This will both show that you are attentive, and that you go the extra mile.

Boiling an Interview Down to its Essence

Ultimately, an interview is a marketing presentation, nothing more.  Just as a sales professional tries to sell their product or service as the best-value solution to a company’s problem, you are in an interview to do the same.  From the moment you arrive in their parking lot, to your follow-up thank you notes, keep in mind not only differentiation of your work background, but emotional differentiation, i.e., how you present yourself, and what makes you memorable and “sticky”.

Go get ‘em.


© 2014, David Hunt, PE

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