Take Five: How to be yourself during a job interview

Written by
Sarah Trounce
Illustration by
Spencer Wilson

Take five minutes and read five practical steps to help you prepare for, navigate, and shape the interview process.

The email you’ve been waiting for has landed in your inbox: You’ve been invited to a job interview. Are you feeling excited or nervous? Determined or unsure? You might have a series of conversations lined up with a range of different companies, or you may be investing all your energy into pursuing one business you love. For this Guide, we’ll focus on the familiar dilemma of how to stay true to yourself during the interview process — while feeling confident in your current and future abilities and bringing energy and enthusiasm to the table. According to Alex Ostrowski, Founder and Creative Director at Lovers, “Nothing beats being yourself in a job interview.” In addition, we talked to folk at DNCO, Koto, Ragged Edge and Reed Words to hear their thoughts on how to present that tricky balance of professionalism and personality during an interview. Their insights and encouragement have informed the following five steps to help you prepare for, navigate, and shape the interview process — and, whatever the end result, get closer to doing the work you care about.

1. Research, Rehearse & Remember

Preparation is the foundation of a positive interview experience. If you do your homework, you can (temporarily) relax in the knowledge that you’ve already been generous with your time and paid attention to the concerns of your interviewer. Don’t be lazy about preparation. A quick scan of your potential employer’s website isn’t going to cut it. Closely read case studies of their past projects and seek out media coverage, talks or podcasts they’ve been involved with, opinion pieces published by their employees. Remember: this groundwork is as much for your own benefit as it is for impressing your interviewer. As Samuel Pollen, Creative Director of the Manchester arm of Reed Words, suggests: “Research the company. Research the person. Be curious about your industry, and be prepared to explain why you think the things you do.”

Peggy Nyamekye is a writer at Ragged Edge and has some valuable advice from her own experiences of interviews. She says, “Rehearse it. Get comfortable speaking about yourself and your work out loud… Practise with friends or family, or a good mirror will do. Have a routine for interview day. In terms of feeling confident, remember they want you. It may feel like they have all the power but you do too. Prepare questions in advance, it’ll remind you they need to win you over just as much as you do. You've got to believe in your work because no one will do it for you.”

2. Be Authentic & Share Your Personality

A good interview is one where both the interviewer and you, the candidate, are happy to be there. As Alice Walker, Head of Verbal Strategy at Koto, puts it: “I’d always much rather someone come across as informal and genuine rather than overly polished, but I appreciate that can feel like a risk when you’re the candidate going into the interview. For me, the best interviews are the ones that just feel like a great conversation, where people are willing to express an opinion and show curiosity. Giving a clear point of view on something, or being happy to admit where you don’t know the answer, might feel scary or controversial in the moment, but it’s much more useful than bland or generic pre-prepared statements. And if you come across as relaxed (within reason) it can communicate a level of self-assuredness that being overly formal can’t.”

Similarly, Jenny Whetstone, Managing Director at DNCO, states, “Being yourself and giving honest answers is so important. I’d rather have a frank conversation that felt meaningful, open and free from pretence. As long as you turn up committed to the conversation, interested and armed with examples of your experience, the rest of the interview should be about the authentic you and what you as an individual can bring to the role.” With the right attitude, interviews can be a powerful opportunity for personal growth and professional development, even without the offer of a job. Whetstone adds: “I love meeting new people and want to feel the time spent has been worthwhile for both of us and that we’ve both learnt something rather than just going through the motions, regardless of outcome.”

Pollen stresses the importance of revealing your unique personality through the language you use and the content of your conversation: “If I’m interviewing you, your CV and portfolio will have already told me about your skillset and experience. Yes, I’ll dig deeper into those things. But I mainly want to get a better sense of what and how you think.” For him, this emphasises the need to “be yourself” — “because people hire people”. He continues, “Don’t try to suppress your natural enthusiasm, your weird turns of phrase. Doubtless, some people won’t like them. But being yourself is a much more direct route to a job you enjoy than trying to be someone else.”

3. Prepare Nuanced, Conversation-Expanding Questions For Your Interviewer

Most interviewers won’t only ask about you — they’ll also ask you what you think about their company. It’s a common question: What could we do better? What would you do differently? This is a great chance for you to voice your opinion with both diplomacy and confidence. Small, pragmatic suggestions can demonstrate your close attention to detail, while bold provocations will indicate the scale of your creative vision. Think about how the current projects of the business might connect with or evolve into other areas of practice or expertise. For instance, are they publishing? — So what about events? Are they working with property developers — How about collaborating with architects? This coincides with a big picture attitude Pollen alludes to here: “What trends are you noticing? Which work do you like or dislike, and why? It doesn’t really matter if I agree with your opinions. I want to see that you are curious and thoughtful about the work – and the world – around you.”

Don’t be afraid to grill your interviewer in return. As Whetstone points out, “Interviews cut both ways… the more you put in, the more questions you ask and the more open you are, the more colour the employer will give in terms of company culture, expectation and the reality of the role.” So use your imagination to prepare some nuanced and conversation-expanding questions.

4. Consider How To Introduce Yourself At A Job Interview – Introduce The Future You

Authenticity is the key to creating a comfortable and productive atmosphere in which an early sense of trust can be established between you and your interviewer. At Lovers, Ostrowski encourages applicants to be open about their strengths and areas for improvement: “There’s nothing wrong with saying which areas of a job you may find new or challenging, especially if you say you know you’ll be able to pick those things up with the right support and time to grow and develop within the role. If you point these things out alongside what you’re already super-great at, it gives a really balanced, honest picture of you as a candidate.” He goes on to remind us that “The people hiring you are looking to feel confident in what you could be capable of next, not just what you’ve done before… so help them notice that, point it out.” He suggests being “really clear and honest about what you’ve done in your previous roles, where you’ve added value” as evidence for your future development.

At Koto, Walker sees candidates’ plans for the future as a helpful indicator not only of ambition, but personality too: “I always like to ask where do you see yourself in five years’ time? because it’s quite a hard one to fake, or it’s very easy to see when someone’s presenting an inauthentic answer. From a candidate’s point of view, this is a great question to show ambition and drive, balanced with a snapshot of your own personal interests and values. Yes, it’s about work, but it’s also how work shows up alongside the rest of the things you care about.”

5. Learn From The Jobs You Didn't Get

Have you had an offer? A thank you but no thank you? Have you decided as a result of the interview process that your ‘dream’ company wasn’t the right place for you after all? Either way, the end of an interview process is about moving forward. Onto a new chapter in your career, onto new paths of enquiry, new conversations. Hopefully you’ll have learned something new about yourself along the way.

Nyameyke muses, “Often the interviews that don’t go well are the ones you don’t really want. Instantly you can feel a vibe as soon as you enter the room, or Zoom. I’ve learnt you don’t always have to say yes to an interview. It’s flattering of course but it wastes everyone's time and has a knock-on effect on your confidence.”

So what does a successful interview feel like? We asked Nyameyke to reflect: “It was both thorough and decisive. Thorough because I was asked well-rounded questions about my work, my approach, personal interests and ambitions. They really took time getting to know me and I them. Decisive because they didn’t drag out the process but also gave me time and support to make my decision after I received an offer. There was no confusion on either side. It felt natural and I was completely myself. I made them laugh a few times which is always a good sign.”

Pollen points out that the final outcome of an interview is out of your control — a fact we should all take comfort in rather than fear: “In the end, you can’t see into the head of the person on the other side of the desk. Maybe they will kick you out because you cross your legs the wrong way, or say ‘casting nasturtiums’ instead of ‘casting aspersions’. Maybe your name is the same as their ex-husband’s, or their late cat’s. You have no idea. So don’t worry about it.”

Take Five

If You Could's Journal hosts a range of useful Guides to help you navigate key decisions at every stage of your career journey. Each Guide consists of 5 simple steps, alongside advice from professionals working across the creative industry. Read more from our Take Five collection here.

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