You’ve been there. It’s your big job interview or medical school interview, or maybe your moment to ask for approval on a new initiative. You practice your answers, psyche yourself up, dress to impress, and it all starts well. But then your nerves start getting in the way and you suddenly realize you are nowhere near as prepared as you thought you were.
Don’t turn and run. Turn things around. You are the one doing the talking, so you are the one who can still steer this back in a good direction. It will require a quick analysis and some focused thought though, so take a deep breath and follow these steps to recover when you’re blowing an interview.
Recover from being really tongue tied or confused.
We’ve all hit a moment when we realize we’re talking gibberish or lost our train of thought. Still, in a critical meeting it can leave you feeling flustered and even starting to feel panicky. Resist the urge to keep gibbering on, hoping you’ll eventually somehow get that train back on track. Simply stop, remind yourself that it happens to everyone and it is no big deal, then smile and say something like one of the following statements to regain your momentum:
- Sorry, I got tongue tied. What I mean is…
- Sorry. Let me say that better. What I mean is…
- Sorry, I usually express myself quite clearly. Let me say that better.What I mean is…
- Sorry, even I was getting confused by that answer. [smile] What I mean is…
Recover from saying the one thing you said you wouldn’t say.
Years ago, Art Linkletter had a radio show called Kids Say the Darndest Things, where he would interview children about pretty much anything. One of his favorite questions was “What did your parents tell you not to say?” Often without hesitation and to the delight of the audience, those kids would reveal to the world their parents’ deepest insecurities. Sometimes we all operate on the level of those kids. We are nervous about certain courses we’ve never taken or some aspect of our personality, and so we tell ourselves not to bring it up. But then, somehow, there it is sitting on the table.
The worst that can happen in this situation is that you let yourself get rattled, suddenly feeling you have to explain it away or give the full history. In fact, you may not have to even reference it further. It is likely a much bigger deal to you than to your interviewer, so don’t draw more attention to it. If it is noteworthy to them, they will likely question you further on it. For now, just move on with something that is more positive and more memorable. And you can best do this by getting yourself ready ahead of time…
On an ongoing basis, be armed with a few transitions — just a quick few words that will allow you to refocus plus a key positive point or two you want to bring up during your interview — and have them memorized so well you could say them in your sleep. Just pause for a second to catch your breath, tell your heart to slow down, and then go with the one that will best get back to where you want to be. Possible transitions include:
- Actually, one point I really want to make is…
- Something I feel would be especially valuable in this new position/course/direction is…
- You know what makes me the most excited about doing this? It’s the…
- Let me tell you something that’s really important to me…
Then move into your positive point. Pour your heart into it and let them see your passion for it. Your positive energy will almost certainly eclipse what had felt only seconds earlier like the end of all hope.
On the other hand, what if your worst fears are realized and your interviewer comes back to the beast you inadvertently unleashed? First, remind yourself that just because they are asking about it does not mean you are doomed. It just means they’re asking about it.
How to handle this precise moment has enough variations to handle countless blog posts on their own, but for now just remember to be real. Don’t brush it off but don’t get defensive either. Be honest about whatever the situation may be, say what you have learned from it or how you have dealt with it and are dealing with it now, and if it still seems to be important to the interviewer, answer a question or two. Then, once you have done that without being evasive, get back to your transition and start injecting some positive energy into the interview. Your ability to handle such moments well can actually be seen as a huge plus for you. Embrace the moment as a showcase of your ability to face challenges and rise above them.
Recover from a weak answer or skill set.
For any school or career path, there are certain things we are expected to already know. Certain skill sets we should have locked down tight before we got to this interview stage. If you have just given an answer that lacked the expertise you should have displayed, ask yourself whether it was simply because you didn’t phrase it well, or because you really do need to work on that skill. If it was because you simply gave a bad answer, treat it much the same as the transitions we just covered. Start with something like this:
- I could have said that better. [restate your answer]
- That deserves a better answer than that. Let me say that better. [pause briefly to think through your answer and then restate it]
- Hold on. I’m so much better than that. [smile, pause briefly to think it through, and then restate your answer]
Don’t do this too often. You really should be working hard to give that “better” answer the first time around. When you do need to start over though, these steps will allow you to do so a lot more easily than you might have expected.
On the other hand, if your weak answer was because of a skill set or an area of knowledge you really do lack, treat it much the same as the points above on saying something you really shouldn’t have said. Like those situations, don’t brush it off and don’t get defensive. Be honest about what you need to work on, and say what you have already been doing to address it. Then, without being evasive, go to your transition and move on to a positive point. Remember, everyone has some part of their resumé or experiences that they wish was stronger. Handling yours well can really make a positive mark. Clearly demonstrate your willingness to work hard and face what you need to change.
Recover when they say something inappropriate.
This is a tough one that you will hopefully never face, but unfortunately it does sometimes happen. Perhaps it was a question about your age, ethnicity, or family background — hiring decisions cannot be made on those factors and therefore the questions should not be asked. Or maybe it was some comment your interviewer made about the company’s policies that you feel is unfair. Or perhaps it was a joke or passing comment someone said that may have been lighthearted to them but reprehensible to you.
These are especially tough moments if you feel the interview was going great at this point. Suddenly there you are, asking yourself if you really want to risk losing everything to take a stand on this point. My personal and professional advice is to offer your best mix of grace and principle. If you sense they also realize they should not have said whatever it was, give them the benefit of the doubt and move on. This would be an ideal time to just ignore the comment, turn to one of the transitions mentioned earlier, and save their dignity while also showing your ability to stay on track.
Recover when they keep asking something inappropriate.
It is difficult to keep moving forward if the offending point was actually a question. As with anything though, you can handle it with grace or you can be confrontational. In all but the most egregious situations, I choose grace over confrontation. I would respond with “Well that’s a personal matter. What I can say is…” and move on to one of your strongest points. This ability to move on — rather than say “That’s a personal matter” and then either blow it up or just sit there in silence — is a life-changing skill. It defuses what could have easily escalated into a confrontation and the end of your interview. It may even be noted as a highlight of your interview. “Wow, this person can defuse tension and stay focused!” That’s a skill any workplace would be thrilled to bring into their mix.
If the interviewer comes back to the question, state that hiring decisions cannot be made on those decisions, and you prefer to keep your personal matters out of the workplace. Transition to a more positive point.
Draw a line.
In the case of a statement or joke that you feel was entirely inappropriate, keep in mind that your going along with it will be taken as a sign that you are okay with that. Whether it is laughing with them or accepting what they say without comment, you are making a statement about yourself. You can assert your position while still moving forward, but you may hit a time when it is best to recognize that you no longer want to do so. It is always better to save your principles and dignity by clearly communicating where you stand, rather than let those begin to be eroded right from the starting interview. That’s a road no one wants to travel.
In such a case, stop everything and state that you are not comfortable with what was said. Ask if that is indicative of what is seen as acceptable in this workplace or on this project. Or simply state that if that is the environment there, you do not feel it would be a good fit. This may earn you tremendous respect and win the day, but it is more likely to end the interview. Therefore, take such action carefully and make sure that you heard and interpreted clearly and the offending comment warranted that level of response. There is very little chance of saving the interview if you confront them and then realize you misheard or misunderstood the comment.
So what happens once it’s all over and you’re back home and in your sweats? Assuming that last scenario was not how things ended up, your interview is still not over. Not by a long shot. As much as it may feel trite or silly, taking the time to send a thank you email, card, or note can work wonders. Chances are good virtually no one else will, so you will have immediately vaulted yourself to the front of the class. Watch out for grammar and spelling errors though, whether your vocation is plumbing or customer service or crafting corporate communications. Attention to detail and caring about the little things are vital skill sets always well worth demonstrating.
A word of caution though… do not send a gift. You may think it ties into something that was said or it may be with the best of intentions, but it is too easily interpreted as a bribe. Stay safe and wow them with words.
One of the greatest mistakes people make in preparing for an interview or presentation is spending all their prep time on what to say rather than how to say it. Take the time to study both. Even if just a few quick minutes, think carefully about the situations that could derail you and how you can respond. You will give yourself an incredible boost in credibility and confidence.
What was your worst interview moment? Have you ever saved an interview you thought you had blown? Share your experience and insights in the comments below.