When Answering Interview Questions, Don’t Talk Too Much

I attended a wonderful job search support group meeting where new members are invited to stand up and introduce themselves to the group.

These speaking opportunities are GREAT practice for developing a good “elevator speech” about who you are and what you want.

As part of his introduction in the job club, one new member shared some details about a serious medical issue that was resolved through brain surgery over 10 years ago.

This medical event was clearly extremely significant to him, but he had completely recovered.

Don’t share too much information, particularly irrelevant information.

You may put people to sleep, but, worse, you also may cast doubt on yourself as a successful potential employee.

Members of the group counseled him, very appropriately, not to share that information with employers because it was not relevant to the job interview.

He had recovered, it was in his distant past, and, while it was an important event in his life, that event had no impact on his job performance. Nor was it an “accomplishment” relevant to the jobs he was seeking.

Why People Talk Too Much in an Interview

When people talk too much in an interview, the reason may include any or all of the following avoidable situations:

  • Feeling nervous —

    Most interviewers expect job candidates to be at least a bit nervous, so don’t panic about it. Instead, take a deep breath, and try to relax. Then, focus your attention on the interview(s) and the questions.

    Remember, only a few job candidates were invited to interview. They are interested in YOU, so help them understand more about you.

  • Trying to fill the silence —

    When you have finished answering a question, if the interviewer doesn’t ask you another question, don’t feel you must fill the silence by continuing to talk. Instead, ask them a question. Perhaps their question raised one for you? Hopefully, you have already prepared some questions to ask them, so take a quick glance at your list, and ask the question at the top (or the question that feels most appropriate).

  • Not sure how to answer —

    So, rather than rushing to immediately begin your answer, take a few seconds to think about your answer before you begin to talk. If an answer still doesn’t occur to you, then…

  • Not clear on what the question is

    Sometimes you don’t know how to answer the question because you don’t understand it. You’ll be able to give your best answer when you understand the question. So, feel comfortable asking for a clarification, with a question like this “What do you mean by…?”

  • Not well prepared —

    Do your best to schedule interviews so that you have sufficient time to prepare for the interview. Research the employer and the interviewers, carefully examine the job description, have examples and stories about how you meet (or exceed) the job’s requirements, and know your answers to the Smart Answers to Interview Questions.

Job interviews are not something most of us have a great deal of experience doing, so be patient with yourself, but also focus on presenting your best self to employers.

Focus on Answering the Question

A job interview is your opportunity to make interviewers understand that you are qualified for the job and a good fit for the organization.

When you’ve answered a question, you can wait for their next question. OR, you could ask a question of your own, turning the interview into something like a conversation which should be more comfortable for everyone involved (although some interviewers do want to be “the boss” of the situation).

Stopping speaking when the question is answered is a MUCH better strategy than sharing too much information.

Interview Answer DOs

While some people struggle to answer job interview questions, particularly when they aren’t prepared (read How to Prepare for Job Interviews for details). The very best thing to do is to focus on answering the question.

To avoid disaster, practice your Smart Answers to Interview Questions:

  • Maintain eye contact with the interviewer(s).

    Staring relentlessly is not a good idea, but looking directly at the interviewers frequently is better than looking only at your hands, your resume, or the table. You will get a better gauge of how they are responding to you and your answers to their questions, too.

  • Have relevant stories about your experiences and accomplishments ready to share.

    Write them down. Read them out loud a few times until you can say them relatively easily without reading (don’t try to memorize the words, just some key phrases, and, maybe, the end). Do it by yourself or practice with a friend or family member who can ask follow up questions. (Read more about how to answer “What is your greatest accomplishment?”)

  • Focus on sharing information relevant to your ability to do this job for this employer.

    Something that is important to you, but not relevant to the job or the employer, is something you shouldn’t mention. The interviewers are not your counselors. They may be very nice people who remind you of your parents, best friends, or your children, but, in this situation, they are evaluating your fit for a job.

  • Remember, a job interview is not an investigative interview for the Personal History Channel (if that existed).

    Sharing information that is not relevant to the job will either make you look like you are unprepared for the interview, somewhat clueless, or very inexperienced. Worst case, the information may disqualify you, depending on what you’ve shared (more on that below).

Interview Answer DO NOTs

People often blow opportunities by nervously filling up silence with things better left unsaid. Don’t feel responsible for making sure there’s no “dead air” time in the interview by sharing too much information about yourself.

  • Don’t “trash” anyone.

    People usually wonder what “the other side” of the story might reveal about you, and the assumptions made may not favor you. This is definitely time to showcase the positive side of your personality.

  • Avoid controversial topics.

    Don’t talk about topics like politics, religion, and sports. Don’t assume that everyone agrees with you. A Patriots fan might not be welcome in an office filled with Eagles fans, even in Boston.

  • Don’t share personal details.

    Your marital status is not relevant to your ability to do you job, and don’t discuss issues like child care or parental care tasks.

  • Keep your secrets private.

    Avoid sharing information about a pending divorce or other troubled personal relationships, trouble with your personal finances, or other issues that could scare off an employer. Where (or how) you live is not relevant to your ability to do the job.

The biggest problem with talking too much in a job interview is killing the opportunity by what is revealed.

The irrelevant – but potentially very damaging — medical information this job seeker shared with the group reminded me of all the things I’ve heard in response to the innocent-sounding “Tell me about yourself” interview question:

  • My spouse and I are having trouble in our marriage as a result of me being unemployed for so long. My husband thinks I should stop working and stay home to take care of the house, but that would drive me crazy. And, I’m thinking of getting a divorce, anyway…
  • I was caught driving under the influence when I was a teenager. One of my friends got a hold of a bottle of vodka and shared it with me on his 18th birthday. But the record is sealed since I was under the age of 18, so no one knows about it… (until now!)

You get the idea. Don’t disclose anything not relevant to the job you are interviewing for. This is not the time to “spill your guts” about personal problems or trash a former employer.

Bottom Line on Talking Too Much in an Interview

Answer each question, focused on your fit for the job and the benefit to the employer for hiring you. Then, shut up OR ask a question of your own. If you talk too much, you may be blowing away an opportunity to knock their socks off with your answer to a question that they don’t have time to ask. They are (or should be) trying to impress you, too, and your questions will help you decide if you want to work for/with them.

More About Effective Job Interviews

About the author…

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Job-Hunt.org. Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn.

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