Here’s how to sail through an interview without the gimmicky, salesy feeling.

If you had a choice between having a root canal and selling yourself in an interview, which would you choose?

If you run an informal poll at the office or at a family gathering, you will see that plenty of people would rather be in a dentist’s chair. Those of us whose primary job isn’t in sales tend to rebel against the notion that we must sell ourselves in order to get a job. The words bring up every negative interaction we’ve ever had with a pushy, fast-talking, commission-focused salesperson. We don’t want to be that. Yet, in order to get the job, you still need to highlight the qualities that you have to offer to prospective employers.

Here’s how to sell yourself in an interview without feeling ingenuine.

How to sell yourself in an interview

Reframe the premise

“Selling yourself in an interview” doesn’t mean that you have to boast, praise yourself, push your candidacy, or imply that the employer would regret not hiring you.

There is a misconception that a salesperson must somehow manipulate buyers or hound customers until the deal is done. The old stereotype of a used-car salesman is still alive and well! The good news is that this isn’t the only (or the most effective) way to sell anything.

What if you were to think about the interview as a space for helping both you and the employer discover points of connection? In that reframing, your task is to demonstrate alignment between your skill set, past experience, and the job opening. Many professionals find that by focusing on having a conversation (as opposed to stressing about the sales pitch), they can release some of the pressure. Ironically, that approach also allows candidates to showcase their own qualified, creative, and enthusiastic selves and does the selling behind the scenes!

Don’t shy from the spotlight

That said, a part of your role in the interview is to help the hiring manager get the information they need to make an informed choice. Underplaying your strengths, being uncertain about your past accomplishments, and shying away from the spotlight is a disservice to you — and to your prospective employer.

Still uncomfortable about being direct about what makes you great? Then begin with the facts. Go back to the job description and write down how your past experiences, training, and certifications have prepared you for this opportunity. Be specific and think of concrete examples for each point. If your results can be quantified, make a note of the numbers. Here is what that might look like:

  • Job description: Develop, generate, and manage timely accounting reports.

  • Response: In my last job, I took charge of collaborating with senior management to understand their monthly reporting needs and developing a new report format. I worked closely with the IT department to automate the creation of the new report and ensure accuracy. I also created a template for generating report commentary. The end result was well-received by the CFO and implemented in other departments.

Or

  • Job description: Supervise and manage staff.

  • Response: In my past role, I was responsible for supervising a staff of four, including a clerk with 20 years of experience and a brand new college graduate. To ensure timely communication and optimize the team’s efforts, I instituted a weekly huddle meeting to discuss project status and shared challenges. With a focus on continuous improvement, I made it my priority to let each team member know what they were doing well and what needed attention. These informal conversations allowed me to deliver near-real-time feedback. I believe that these efforts have contributed to stronger job satisfaction scores as measured by an annual employee survey.

If you don’t like the idea of praising yourself, quote someone else’s opinion of how you’ve handled a challenging aspect of your past position. Use your past performance reviews as a starting point or have a conversation with a past boss or mentor to get this right.

Prepare — then stay present

In order to handle tough interview questions with grace, most candidates should expect to spend some time in preparation mode. After all, being at a loss when asked about accomplishments can be embarrassing!  However, at some point, you must trust that you’ve done enough prep work. There is no need to memorize scripts or practice sales pitches. In fact, being over-rehearsed can come across as rote or mindless.

Once in the actual interview, you can have notes available — but they should be questions you wish to ask the hiring manager, not notes on your answers to the questions asked. Overall, you should focus your attention on the conversation. Listen carefully and don’t get distracted by mentally composing a smart response to a question that hasn’t been asked yet. Mirror and match the interviewer’s pace and tone and don’t stress about taking a few moments to reflect and gather your thoughts.

Bring your secret weapon: great questions

Asking thoughtful and insightful questions is one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated tools for selling yourself as a candidate. Great questions can highlight your interest and qualifications and demonstrate that you have done your research, thought about the challenges and demands of the position, considered how it fits into the big picture of the company (i.e. who it supports both upwards and downwards), and imagined what a day-in-the-life of the position might look like.

How can you make sure that your questions will impress the hiring manager? First, do your research. If an answer can be found on the company’s website or in the annual report, asking the question may raise a red flag and make you look lazy or unprepared. Second, read about big-picture industry trends. If you are interviewing for a position that’s being affected by emerging technology or disrupted by customer demand, you may ask the hiring manager about his or her take on it.

Finally, be curious. Ask about the hiring manager’s biggest challenge, and how someone in your position might contribute to a solution. When the hiring manager thinks about his or her best employee, what specifically comes to mind? Which accomplishments of the team is he or she most proud of and why? The answer will reveal important information about the department’s culture, trajectory, and values. They will also underscore the seriousness with which you take the interview and the opportunity.

To sell or not to sell?

Everything we do has a sales aspect to it. From convincing a toddler to eat their broccoli to asking your roommate to help you move the couch, we all face the challenge of getting someone to do something we need done. A job interview is simply a high-stakes example of the same puzzle.

If you hate the idea of self-promotion, start with the facts. Think about what your mentor or boss would say about your greatest strengths (if you are unsure about this answer, ask them!). What comes easily to you but is challenging for many others? What examples and numbers might help substantiate your case?

Preparing for the interview can help alleviate some of the nerves you might be feeling, but be careful not to over-rehearse. Spend some time developing great questions. Finally, remember that the interview is a two-way street. Use this time and space to determine whether the position is a great fit for you and let your enthusiasm and curiosity lead the way.  

Not sure if you are showcasing yourself properly in the job interview? Let one of our TopInterview coaches help you out!

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