I was most of the way through a great interview when it died an ugly death. After answering many questions well, the guy threw himself down in front of me in a hara-kiri move like a samurai from a Japanese karate film. He killed his chances in one 10-second period when, for some reason, he left his brain behind.

Later, as I thought about what had happened, I was reminded of how, in most interviews, both parties really want it to work. As an interview progresses, I (like most interviewers, I think) get more and more excited. It’s a bit like watching a judged sporting event, like figure skating: It’s a good routine so far, and you feel excited and tense, hoping the contestant can stay upright until the end.

But sometimes contestants fall down. This was one of those times. I’ll tell you later how that interview played out, but first, I’d like to provide some insight into how interviewers think about interviews.

An analytical-emotional balancing act

As an interviewer, I’m working with a checklist of items that need to be rated, and I am very conscious of the culture at my client’s organization. These two things are uppermost on my mind: the list of “must haves” and likely cultural and personal fit between the candidate and the company.

But sometimes interviewers, including me, let their gut feelings influence their decisions. You can’t help being swayed by factors that aren’t objective. This is what I call the analytical-emotional balancing act that interviewers go through as they ask questions and gauge responses. It’s like buying a car: You want it to have all the necessary features, but that thrill you feel when you test-drive it closes the deal.

Answers that move you closer to your goal

Like many (probably most) interviewers, I go into each interview assuming that the person I’m sitting down with is a prospective fit. I don’t mean to suggest that, in order to get hired, all you have to do is avoid screwing up—usually I’ll be interviewing several candidates for the position—but I consider every interviewee a real prospect until he or she proves unworthy. An interviewee’s goal, then, is—or ought to be—to subtly inspire that thrill even as they help the interviewer check off those boxes, one after the other.

The substance of your answers does matter, of course; it matters a great deal. Still, it’s not always whether or not you’ve done media development for CHO cells in a 2-liter bioreactor. It is often enthusiasm and positive energy that make the difference.

(As an aside, I’ve always felt that the best interviews are those where the candidate is being real and not spouting off some kind of scripted rah-rah response. Similarly, as you answer questions about yourself and your accomplishments, a sense of moderation is in order. Excessive self-promotion is unattractive, but so is self-deprecation.)

The first step, then, is to provide answers that are objectively satisfactory.

Here are some examples of questions that the interviewer might ask:

“Tell me about your experience managing the bioassay laboratory. What techniques are you accustomed to using?”

or

“Please tell me about the pH requirements for E. coli in a bench-top fermenter.”

Answer these questions in a way that allows us to check off those boxes with confidence, being careful not to oversell yourself. When you do this, you’re taking the first step toward swaying us on the emotional side: You’re convincing us and winning our confidence at the same time. Still, there’s more you can do to appeal to our instincts, to make us feel good about you as a candidate. And that good feeling can make all the difference in whether we decide to make you an offer.

Frame your answer with a story

People love mini-stories about your exploits, as long as they don’t come off as self-indulgent digressions. It’s not a good idea to turn every 30-second response into a 2-3 minute story, and any story you tell must be directly relevant to the question, but stories are a powerful way to get emotional buy-in.

Let’s say you’re answering that first question above about your lab and techniques. If you were asked, “What are two techniques you use in your daily work?” the only possible response is a brief reply. But because of the way that first question is posed—especially the “Tell me about your experience managing the bioassay laboratory” partit’s clear that this is an opening for a story. So, start by describing that problem, move to what your approach was (the techniques the interviewer asked for), and then describe how what you did affected your project. (Be careful: Don’t get lost in the story and forget to answer the question about techniques!) It only takes a minute, perhaps two, to describe how those techniques helped you do your job. Those three elements engage the interviewer’s emotional side while allowing them to tick off boxes. Everyone wants to hire a problem solver.

Some questions are inherently less objective, even if she is still checking boxes. With questions like these, the emphasis shifts away from the analytical and toward the emotional side, giving you even more opportunity to tell stories. For example:

“Tell me about your work style and how you interact with your lab mates on a daily basis?”

or

“Tell me about a time when you were working under pressure to get a project completed.”

It’s easier to prepare for technical-fit questions because the answers are factual. All you really need to do is review the job description, compare it with your experience, and think about some questions that are likely to come up. It’s harder to prepare for softer questions, like those two above, because there are so many variations, and because they get at things you may not have thought about.

I recommend that, prior to the interview, you review four categories of information that employers need to know about you: how you approach your work, how you think through problems, how you arrive at decisions, and how you deal with people. Examine your experience base for examples you can use—little stories—to elucidate each point. Sometimes it helps to write it down. With two or three examples in each of these categories at your disposal, you’ll be more prepared than 90% of the competition.

Back to my samurai story

To set the stage, our client—the employer—was absolutely nutty with what they call “a sense of urgency.” This is a common element of company culture in industry, and it refers to the fact that everything you do in the company—every promise you make and every project you take on—must be done now and with a spirit of utmost urgency. In this organization, that culture had risen to the level of religion. Knowing this, how would you grade my prospective director’s response?

Me: John, it was great meeting you today. Now we need to advance this to an introduction to the company’s vice president of R&D. Luckily, she’s in town for the next few days, so let’s schedule an introductory meeting over lunch. How does your schedule look for Thursday, Friday, or early next week?

John: I’m going on a long weekend the day after tomorrow for my wife’s birthday, and then next week we have a number of meetings taking place with clients. Can I get back to you on this sometime next week, or perhaps the week after?

What a letdown.

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400157