The Directed Interview
In this kind of interview, as its name suggests, the interviewer directs the interview through a series of relatively closed questions that have been determined beforehand. Generally, the same set of questions is put to every candidate, and the questions tend to stick closely to the facts of each candidate's background. Although relatively rarely used in interviewing candidates for managerial and professional positions, you may run into a directed interview during initial screening. The purpose of a directed interview is to collect the same kind of information from a variety of candidates to facilitate their comparison.
In a sense, a directed interview is the easiest sort to give and to get. Your job is basically to supply information clearly and succinctly, keeping elaboration to a minimum.
The Undirected Interview
The opposite of a directed interview, the undirected interview gives the candidate the widest latitude to present his or her case on his or her own terms. It is characterized by open ended questions such as, "Tell me a little about yourself," "Tell me more about your work with ABC, Inc.," "Describe your relationship with your last boss," and "Why did you decide to go back to school for your MBA?" In fact, some interviewers will start with a question like, "What can I do for you today?" or "What brings you here today?" The interviewer may have identified certain areas of your background and particular issues to cover but does not have a set of specific questions prepared beforehand. Often, the interviewer takes cues from the interviewee, crafting questions based on previous responses.
If you are well prepared, you can shine in an undirected interview because you will have wide latitude to cover the points on your agenda. If you are poorly prepared, on the other hand, you will probably find undirected interviews unnerving. If the interviewer is not giving the interview direction and you arrive with little sense of direction, you will feel as if you and the interview are drifting aimlessly out to sea and you will be right.
Sometimes candidates mistake an undirected style of interviewing for lack of preparation on the interviewer's part. Interviewers sometimes do fail to prepare adequately and wind up using open ended questions to fish for material to pursue further. More likely, however, your interviewer is deliberately shifting power, responsibility, and control to you to see how you handle them. If you feel uncomfortable on the one hand or become overbearing on the other, you will fail the test.
Discomfort may reveal itself by a candidate's repeatedly asking that the interviewer clarify or narrow open questions or by giving very short answers that lack specificity. Conversely, the overbearing candidate will dominate the interview, showing little sensitivity to the interviewer's degree of interest in answers. Overbearing candidates often fail to listen closely to questions or attend to the interviewer's nonverbal communications; as a result, his or her answers are likely to be unresponsive to the interviewer's underlying concerns or attention span.
In general, you should seek clarification or narrowing of an open question only if you truly do not understand it. When an interviewer asks you to "Tell me a little about yourself" it is not a good idea to respond with, "Well, what would you like to know?" If the interviewer wanted to ask a more specific question, he or she could certainly have done so. What interviewers want to see if they ask open questions is: (1) how you will handle the opportunity to shape the interview, (2) what you think most significant about yourself, and (3) whether you have done enough home work to know what would or would not be relevant information about yourself, given the organization's needs. If you immediately turn the question back to the interviewer, you will be indicating discomfort with responsibility, an inability to recognize and take advantage of opportunities, or a lack of preparation.
On the other hand, you should not talk on and on, trying to cram all relevant information about yourself into the answer to a single question. Open questions are challenging in part because you never know when you have answered them adequately. How much or how little does the interviewer really want to know when asking you to tell a little about yourself? Does he or she expect an outline of your entire career or an answer that focuses on your most recent work experience or a reply that indicates why you are looking for work at this particular organization? Rather than tying yourself into knots with such concerns, remember that an interview is a form of conversation. Information should flow in both directions. When you have said what you want to say in reply to an open question, stop. Tolerate several moments of silence, if necessary, to give your interviewer time to take in what you have said and formulate a reply or another question. If the interviewer wants you to elaborate on points you have made or to give different information, he or she can ask for it.
You are not expected to be a mind reader, but you are expected to give your interviewer a chance to reveal what he or she has in mind so that you can respond accordingly.