Beyond the Political: Interview Skills Learned from the Presidential Debate

At its essence, a Presidential Debate is a job interview.  The most public, high-stakes job interview I know of.  While most of us will never have to go head-to-head with our competitors in an interview (whew!), we can learn a lot about what works and doesn’t in an interview by considering how Mitt Romney and Barack Obama handled the Denver debate.

Here are eight takeaways:

1. Make eye contact.  Romney’s connection with us was much stronger, because he maintained eye contact with us (the camera) when he was making key points.  Obama’s lack of eye contact was perceived as disinterest or nervousness.

2. Express your passion for the job and its details.  Romney came across as more excited about the job and how he would approach it.  It’s okay to show energy, excitement and interest.  Your audience wants that.

3. Be respectful. Both candidates made statements that showed respect for their competitor’s experience – and then they sought to show why theirs was better.

4. Articulate the benefits to your audience.  Everyone wants to know how what you’ve done – or what you propose to do – will affect them.  Make sure you research what your audience cares about, and then explain how your experience solves their problems or helps them achieve something that they want.

5. Keep your answers focused.  Too much detail or explanation will lose people. Practice your stories and eliminate the chaff.  If you feel you’ve failed to make your point in a reasonable time, stop, think, and then restate your main points.  Don’t just keep adding more details, hoping your evaluators will find what they want in the pile of words you’ve given them.

6. Make statistics meaningful.  If you want to impress your audience with your knowledge of the data, don’t just recite it.  Explain what it shows.  “Your shares of the XYZ and LMN markets declined 5 and 7% last year, respectively.  This reduced profits and crippled your ability to invest in new product development, which will lead to lower future profits.  With my ideas and experience, we can change this dynamic.”

7. Take control to overcome a poor interviewer.  Like Jim Lehrer, some interviewers ask vague questions and don’t control the flow of the interview. And, just like a debate, most interviews have a total time limit. To get your points across, sometimes you need to direct the conversation yourself. Don’t wait to be asked about something. Instead, offer information that will help them see you as the right choice.  Be careful about seeming arrogant or condescending, though. Practice this like the candidates do.

Perhaps most importantly,

8. Don’t lie or misstate.  Just like with the debates, there will be a post-interview “fact check.”  Through digital and telephone reference checks, lies or overstatements are often revealed and will undo the positive impression you worked so hard to create.

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