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Interview Preparation: Pointers From Brian Cowen

by Tom O'Connor on September 8th, 2009
Taoiseach, Brian Cowen ... on Late Late Show, Friday, September 4, 2009

Taoiseach, Brian Cowen ... on Late Late Show, Friday, Sept. 4, 2009

In America, the media go to great lengths to report on the choice of books an American President takes away on vacation. They see it as a way for the general public to get a better feel for the personality of their leader – a kind of extra window into his soul. (Maybe, my old Latin teacher was on the same wavelength when he used to caution us with the double-edged barb: “beware of the man who has read one book”).

Anyway, based on the evidence of his appearance on the Late Late Show, Friday evening (September 4, 2009), we can be sure that whatever books our Taoiseach took away to Ballyconneely with him over the August period, Martin John Yate’s great interview primer, Knock ‘em Dead: Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions (ISBN 0-7494-3552-6) wasn’t among them.

In the space of 18 short minutes, the Taoiseach managed to violate many of Yate’s elementary rules that we try to drill into individuals preparing for job interview. I commend you to check it out on the RTE website, if you have an important interview coming up – just to learn in one short cameo what not to overlook. It certainly wasn’t the Taoiseach’s best outing on the airwaves & was in such sharp contrast to his appearance on the same occasion last year (September 5, 2008) with Pat Kenny, where he gave a much more assured performance.

So, what should he have done differently, then?

1. Dress Well
Straight up, he should have worn a white shirt and a brighter tie (the number he produced for the photo-shoot on the Dunbrody ship 3 days later would have been a much better choice). Why a white shirt over the light blue he actually appeared in, you might ask. Well, think about it: would the White House be the same if it wasn’t white, why do we picture the gates of heaven as pearly white, why do brides traditionally wear white dresses, the clergy white collars, the Romans white togas. Answer: white is the best choice – if you want to convey honesty, intelligence, stability.

Moreover, a bright white collar serves as an underjaw halo, a kind of uplight to draw the audience’s attention to your face. Worse still, was the fact that the Taoiseach’s foil on stage for the evening, Ryan Tubridy, should turn up attired in one of those whiter than white shirts. This simple contrast in choice of wardrobe made for an immediate impression on stage of a Taoiseach on the backfoot. (By the way, in the year earlier Late Late Show, the situation was completely reversed: the Taoiseach (wearing a bright tie and white shirt) glowed beside Pat Kenny (in his darker blue shirt).

2. Control The Interview
He should have controlled the interview. Yes, counterintuitive as it may seem, the interviewee is expected to subtly lead the interview. The expectation is that the interviewee has prepared in advance, has loaded up on some compelling content and sharpened his message to such an extent in rehearsal that the interviewer is mostly in the role of facilitating the interviewee perform at his best. All the questions posed by the interviewer on the night were fairly predictable, in advance. The Taoiseach should have hit the stage with all his answers lined up, grabbed the initiative early and got his retaliations in first.

The most telling remark from the Taoiseach on the night was when he turned to the interviewer and said: “it is your show”. Wrong attitude for any interviewee to have: an interview is always the interviewee’s show. This passive mindset cost him the first 10 minutes, before he warmed to the engagement. And, he certainly got better in the second half, but by then he had lost the game.

The raw statistics from that opening 10 minutes tell it all: the Taoiseach’s replies accounted for only 60% of the airtime. Such was the level of tentativeness displayed in the pattern of replies forthcoming, that the interviewer found himself having to repeatedly interject with questions – 34 times in all during that opening 10 minutes. 25 of these questions solicited answers no longer than 10 seconds & none greater than 45 seconds.

3. Portray a Competency Balance
Because the Taoiseach’s natural personality is mostly inclined to teamwork & loyalty, in addressing all matters he gave a monotonous portrayal of himself as someone always seeking the cover of the team, rather than taking an individual stand. This was clearly manifest in many of his replies (“none of us foresaw all this … at the time nobody was suggesting we … everything I did was on the best advice available … I don’t hold any brief for that”). While being a team player is, of course, a laudable quality in any interviewee, interview panels are equally seaching for the competency of independence (the ability to make decisions and take independent ownership for same).

So, next time you are facing an important interview, remember to make these 3 considerations central to your preparations: your choice of wardrobe, how to get on the front foot early and how to portray a healthy competency balance. (For more interview preparation pointers, read a related article or case study here.)

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