After your interview, did the hiring manager feel engaged, interested, and eager to talk again?

A few years ago, a friend who plays the clarinet introduced me to circular breathing. This technique allows wind players to produce a continuous tone for minutes without interruption; they do so by breathing in through the nose while simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth that has been stored in the cheeks. It’s an extraordinary thing to witness.

I just got off the phone with an excellent candidate for one of our searches. As happens with at least one strong candidate every week, the candidate took more than 20 minutes to answer a single question. I found myself wondering whether the candidate was secretly an expert in circular breathing, as I never detected even a breath, let alone anything resembling a pause! Everything the candidate said, in this instance, was both relevant and fascinating, but I was exhausted and distracted.

Because my colleagues and I see each interview as a learning experience for everyone involved, and because we want each of our candidates to put their best foot forward, I did share my observation with the candidate, and she thanked me for caring enough to point this out.

In most searches, one of our best candidates does not make it to the second round because—as reported by hiring manager after hiring manager—almost all of the talking was done by the candidate. Having experienced this candidate behavior on a regular basis, and having watched strong candidates fail to advance in a search by making this simple but critical mistake in first interviews with our clients, here is advice to better manage your airtime in an interview.

The Interview: So Much to Say and Learn, So Little Time

The interview is an unusual experience, in that candidate and hiring manager—who have in most cases never met—need to cover a lot of ground in a very short period of time. They have one hour to decide if they want to spend forty or more hours together each week for the next five or even ten years. Candidates feel that they must communicate their life stories, all their experience, all their best qualities, all the things they would bring to the organization, and all the ways in which the new position would allow them to do their best work, in the space of an hour or less. During the same hour, they must answer all the hiring manager’s questions—and perhaps even questions from ten other search committee members. And they must be prepared to ask their own intelligent questions of the hiring manager. Furthermore, particularly when discussing jobs that involve fundraising, candidates must convey that they are good listeners, even when interviews might seem structured in a way that allow for almost no demonstration of listening skills.

Hiring managers also want to gain significant information in a compressed timeframe. Yet not all that information will be received in the words that are said by candidates—much of it will come through the hiring managers’ experience of candidates: did they feel engaged, interested, and eager to talk again? Will their colleagues look forward to working with the candidate in question? One day later, can they remember a particularly vivid story? Did anything stand out? Or were they simply bombarded with a lot of facts, figures, and philosophies?

Create a Dialogue

Candidates must approach each interview with a goal of creating a dialogue. Two ways to do so are: to answer questions fully yet concisely, and to be ready to ask questions that flow naturally from the conversation in progress.


Some specific examples for candidates—answering concisely and creating dialogue:

    1. Think about when to ask questions—in some cases, asking a question or two prior to giving your answer might create dialogue even as it gives you much better background information to inform the answer you do give. Also, the earlier you ask a question, the more likely it is that your answer will be on point.
    2. If asked about approaches to increasing fundraising:
        • Rather than outlining five steps that one might read in a textbook, giving a one-paragraph description of each step, or telling multiple stories designed to illustrate every way to increase fundraising that comes to mind, tell one well-chosen story that shows you heard and understood the question and convinces the listener that you likely have ten more similar stories to tell.
      • Ask follow-up questions such as,
          • “In what areas do you feel fundraising is strongest, and in what areas is it weakest?
          • What areas have shown the most growth in recent years? What areas need the most attention?
          • Does the board have the capacity to provide leadership in giving at the new levels desired?
        • Does the institution’s strategic plan include elements that will inspire donors to higher levels of investment, if engaged appropriately?”
    3. If asked about your approach to change management:
        • Rather than listing all the books you’ve read on change management, or spending 10 minutes giving a detailed description of someone else’s philosophy of change, or telling five different stories that illustrate five different types of change you’ve helped to manage, tell one well-chosen story about change you have helped create and about your role in managing through change to successful outcomes.
          • Ask follow-up questions such as, “To what degree do you expect and want change in the areas for which this position will be responsible? What are the principal changes needed? Are they programmatic or do they involve personnel? What level of buy-in currently exists for the desired changes? Have past attempts at change backfired, and if so, why?”

Storytelling is a powerful communications tool. Hiring managers will be much more likely to remember a simple yet responsive story than a ten-point description of approach or process. Be prepared with a variety of stories that respond to the questions that will most likely be asked (based on qualifications and qualities outlined in a position description or prospectus). If you tell half a dozen of these stories during your interview, that’s good (provided you haven’t done all the talking). If these stories come up in the course of a dialogue between you and the hiring manager, as you trade questions designed to ascertain the true potential in your professional partnership, that’s even better.

An interview is a high-pressure situation. It’s hard for candidates to remember let alone convey all the information they want to share, and it’s hard for hiring managers to glean everything they need and want to know to make a fully informed decision.

Both, however, have the best chance when there’s an opportunity for real dialogue. I’ve heard it said many times, and I’ve found it consistently true, that the person who speaks most in an interview is the person who thinks it went best. When candidates do most of the talking, they often feel very good about the interview, while hiring managers leave the interview with no further interest. When candidates don’t do enough talking, tell no stories, leave questions unanswered, and otherwise fail to engage the hiring manager, no one feels good. When candidates do 50% of the talking, they often come away unsure as to whether they conveyed enough information. If, however, they captured sufficient interest with what they did convey, and if they created dialogue, they are almost always invited into further discussion.

In a high-pressure situation, it’s hard to remember many things, but candidates would do well to remember this one thing: aim to create dialogue as soon as feasible. At intervals throughout the interview, candidates should ask themselves, “Have I done all the talking, or have we started having a true conversation?” If the answer is the former, shorten answers, ask questions, and do everything possible to conclude the interview having struck a better balance. Candidates can’t convey everything—there simply isn’t enough time. But they can create a desire on the part of the hiring manager to continue the dialogue.

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