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Developing Your Agenda for Interview

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Think of an agenda as a flexible outline of the points you want to convey about yourself and the questions you want to ask. Flexibility is key. Because you cannot know ahead of time what questions will be asked, you must be flexible in framing the points you want to make in terms that answer questions put to you. This may seem an impossible task, but it is actually much easier than you might think.

When you have an agenda, you will find you are likely to respond to questions with material from it. If you don't have an agenda-if you simply sit in an interview fielding questions as they come along-you are likely to blurt out just about anything in response to an open-ended question like, "Tell me about yourself." Or, conversely, you are likely to answer it by walking your interviewer through your resume (what a drag).

But if you know that one of the major points you want to make about yourself is that you are an excellent team member and leader, you will probably give an answer like:

I think of myself as basically a team animal. I enjoy working in teams, and I have ever since junior high, when I first became involved in team sports. In college, I put together a team of students to help the administration define its strategy for attracting top students; I both selected the team members and served as the team's leader. As a junior engineer on my first job, I was a member of several project teams and task forces, and always got superior ratings from my co-workers and bosses. And in my most recent job, one of the accomplishments of which I feel proudest is turning around a sales team with sagging morale and making it one of the best in the industry. In fact, one of the things that appeals to me most about Syntax is your emphasis on teamwork.

Notice several characteristics of the above answer:
  • It is brief compared with most answers to open-ended questions-it takes less than a minute to deliver, even at a relatively slow pace and with the pauses and hesitations characteristic of impromptu speech. A question like, "Tell me about yourself," is likely to come near the beginning of an interview, when you do not want to surpass the limits of your listener's attention with long, rambling answers.

  • It is focused on a single theme. It presents information with a point, and the point is clearly stated in the first sentence. Long, discursive answers, while providing a great deal of information, often leave no overall impression and thus take up a great deal of time without having a great deal of impact.

  • It relates the information it presents directly to the organization and job being discussed and demonstrates that the candidate has done his or her homework.

  • It points the way toward continued questioning by ending on two points that almost beg for elaboration-how the candidate accomplished the turnaround and what else about Syntax the candidate finds attractive. Leading answers are among the interviewee's most powerful tools for shaping an interview.
Without an agenda, you will find it almost impossible to give answers with the above characteristics.

Preparing your agenda for a given interview will involve reviewing the information you have gathered in your research and extracting from it what you believe to be the most salient points about the organization's character and the challenges the organization faces. Write these down.

Next, dig up whatever information you have been able to collect about the position or kind of work the organization offers. This may include a job description and various pieces of information you have gleaned from more general readings and from contacts made while you were setting up the interview. From this information, along with your general knowledge of the organization, prepare a profile of a perfect candidate for the job from the organization's point of view. Now you are ready to create a "Preparation Sheet". On this sheet you will first list your assets and liabilities as a candidate for the job. Let's take a look at an example to see how this works. Suppose you are Chris McKinney, an electronics engineer with experience both in engineering and in selling consulting services. Your last job was as sales manager at a 500-person firm of consulting engineers. You are interviewing for the position of marketing director at Syntax, a midsized (fictional) company that makes and markets bioengineering technology. Your assets might include:
  • An engineering background in instrumentation

  • Ability to work well with teams

  • Five years of experience as sales manager for a consulting engineering firm

  • Strong interest in the emerging field of bioengineering and technology

  • Graduate-level course work in marketing.

  • A high energy level.

  • Superior analytical and quantitative skills.

  • Ability to explain technical concepts simply and clearly.

  • Persistence and creativity in tackling complex problems.

  • Ability to translate corporate objectives into operational priorities.

  • Fluency in Japanese.

  • On the liability side of the preparation sheet, you might list:

  • No experience in marketing as opposed to sales.

  • No experience in the specialized bioengineering field.

  • Limited experience in strategic planning.

  • Involuntary termination of last job and being out of work for eight months.

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