In the 10-plus years that I've been working with thousands of “relaunchers” (professionals returning to work after a career break for childcare, eldercare or other reasons) – the following interviewing advice has proven most effective again and again, and applies more broadly to anyone looking to make a strong impression.
Talk about your past experience as if it happened yesterday.
When asked to talk about your past work experience...
[DON’T SAY]: “Well, this is ancient history, but way back in 2001, when I was working at Xerox….”
Instead, talk about it as if it happened yesterday. Remember what’s relevant is that you HAD the experience, NOT WHEN you had it.
[DO SAY]: “When I was at Xerox, we faced very similar customer challenges. Let me tell you about one of them.”
Then launch into an anecdote from that experience…..which brings me to the second piece of advice:
Have a specific anecdote ready from each of your prior, significant work and volunteer experiences.
[DON’T SAY]: “I’ve had experience raising money. It was hard but I got great feedback and everyone thought I did a great job.” (too vague, not enough detail)
[DO SAY]: “Yes I have had eight years of fundraising experience. I was on the advancement team at University of Illinois where I was in charge of major donors, and later as a volunteer, I led the largest fundraising effort in history for our local hospital in which we raised $1 million. In my university role, the most effective way we were able to match donors with fundraising projects meaningful to them was when we ……. In one particular case we ……. For the hospital fundraising campaign, our strategy was to……..”
Memorize and practice those anecdotes as if they were lines in a theater performance.
[DON’T]: Wing it. [DO]: Practice. Repeat.
This requires repetition, patience, and a willingness to rehearse your “lines” out loud. Picturing yourself saying these lines in your head in an imaginary interview is not good enough. Saying them out loud and repeating them over and over until you are completely comfortable with the language is what is required – just like memorizing a script. Some people prefer to practice in front of an audience, others prefer to speak in front of a wall or mirror, and some favor practice sessions in the shower. Just make sure you are practicing out loud.
Former Google Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock swears by this strategy in his book Work Rules: “When I was in my second year of business school, I practiced my interview answers -- out loud -- until I could tell each story smoothly, without thinking about it (but not so smoothly that I was bored with the re-telling). My roommate walked in one day to find me sitting on the futon reciting why I thought I was a great leader again and again. He figured I was stuck in some kind of Stuart Smalley-like self-help loop. But I got 7 job offers from 5 companies (that’s another story) and was on track to get another 6 before I stopped interviewing. How is that possible? Practice.”
If coming off of a career break, be prepared to acknowledge it briefly, without apologizing, and then move on to why you are the best person for the job:
[DON’T SAY]: “I’m coming off of a long career break that started when I had three kids in four years, and then right when I was getting ready to figure out how to get back to work, my mom got sick and that was another three years and……. [TMI and TOO LONG!]
[DO SAY]: “Yes I took a career break to care for my children and now I can’t wait to get back to work. In fact, the reason I am so excited about this particular role, is when I was working at Xerox, we faced very similar customer issues. Let me tell you about one….” (see Tip 1!)
Best question to ask at the end of the interview when asked if you have questions:
[DON’T SAY]: “I don’t have any questions.”
One of our relaunchers met with an outplacement counselor and was told to ask the following question at the end of the interview when asked “do you have any questions?” It is one of the best we have seen:
[DO SAY]: “If you and I were to sit down in six months and you told me I had done an excellent job, what would I have accomplished?”
Our relauncher reported back that when she asked this question, she got a different answer than what was in the job description. In fact, in one interview for a job she eventually took, she found out the role included being in charge of an accreditation process for a manufacturing plant. This only came out in the interview when she asked this question, and was not in the job description for the position.
Do you have tried and true interviewing tips you found effective? Please share them at email@example.com.
Carol Fishman Cohen is the CEO of iRelaunch, a career reentry firm that runs the iRelaunch Return to Work Conferences and works closely with companies to create formal return-to-work programs, usually involving professional internships. Her full bio is here.