The Interview: Communications Flow


The key to your success in the interview is to become a partner with the interviewer in managing the communications flow, that is, the percentage of talk by each participant.  This task is complicated by the conventions we just discussed, including the interviewer’s need to remain in control.  Yet a change from question/answer to an open, interactive dialogue is well worth the effort because it makes the interview more exciting, stimulating, and challenging, and it dramatically increases your chances for success.

The best example we can give to illustrate the point is one that all of us have experienced.  Think back to your high school years and identify your two or three best teachers (using any criteria you want).  Let’s call all the other teachers in your high school the control group.  Now let’s focus on just one variable, the percentage of talk.  Part one is to decide whether the best teachers, on average, talked more or less in their classes than the control group teachers.  Part two is to determine what percentage of time each group of teachers talked.  When you have your answer, read on.

We’ll bet your answer is that the best teachers talked less.  Did you guess that the best teachers talked about 50 percent of the time, while the control group teachers talked 80 percent or more of the time?  You were right.

Your outstanding teachers probably managed to have stimulating, challenging classes that seemed to fly by because they involved you in interesting material and maintained a highly interactive conversation.  Do you see the kind of climate we are trying to create in the interview?

If you plot the pattern that most interviewers follow, then examine the pattern you would like to see, you’ll be able to observe the similarities and disparities.  When the agendas are the same, you won’t have to worry about conversation management.  When there are disparities, you’ll recognize what is happening and look for opportunities to improve your position.

The pattern most interviewers want to follow starts with an interactive rapport building with each participant talking about 50 percent of the time (Phase 1).  When the interviewer makes the transition to the business portion she likes to ask short, open-ended questions and have you talk 85-90 percent of the time (Phase 2).  She is clearly a buyer at this time.  If your answers satisfy her and hit the mark, she allows a gradual change to 50 percent talk each in the last third of the business portion of the interview (beginning in Phase 3).  Assuming you are a viable candidate, she does some selling during this time.

Figure 1 graphs the communication flow that most interviewers follow as the interview progresses from phase 1 (on the left), which is the rapport building phase, through phase 5 (on the right), which is the close  The communications flow, which identifies the percentages of candidate and interviewer talk, is shown by line (A).

The pattern you as the candidate want to follow starts with the same interactive rapport building (50 percent talk each) as the interviewer pattern.  The difference comes in the business portion, where you would like to continue the same pattern throughout the interview.  This provides you with the opportunity to identify the company’s needs, to clarify them, and to present your skills and abilities to accomplish the needs.  Then you could test your candidacy with the interviewer, overcome any concerns, and accomplish additional rapport building while the interviewer is closing the meeting.

Figure 2 graphs the communication flow the way the candidate would like, which is shown by line (B).  The phases of the interview describe the candidate’s agenda.

Figure 3 merges the communication flow of the interviewer model (Figure 1) and the candidate model (Figure 2).  The communication flow is shown by line A (the interviewer’s model) and line B (the candidate’s model).  The gray area shows divergence.  The interviewer’s and candidate’s agendas are identified at the bottom of the graph.

It is clear that the agendas are parallel in phases 1, 4, and 5 and divergent in phases 2 and 3.  The divergence (gray area) represents an opportunity for the candidate and the interviewer to change the communications flow from a candidate-dominated pattern (talking 85-90 percent of the time) to one that approaches 50 percent talk each.  That is the candidate’s goal.

Seeking Clarification

Another technique for changing the communications flow and testing your focus is to ask for clarification.  This works well when the interviewer is reluctant to change from question/answer to business discussion or when you are not sure what information interests the interviewer.  Suppose, for example, the interviewer asks, “What are some of your outstanding accomplishments?”  This question is so broad that you have no idea what information might be of interest.  The more direction you can get, the more you can focus your answer.  You might proceed as follows: “Ms. Jones, is there a particular area of my background on which you would like me to focus?”


You might hear, “Anything you want to tell me,” and in that case you take your best shot at giving an outstanding accomplishment as briefly as possible.  Our experience, however, is that this does not happen as often as you might think.  Executives are busy and many prefer to get to the heart of the matter.  Consequently, you might hear, “Certainly, I’m most interested in your experience evaluating businesses to keep, fix or sell”, or “Tell me about the transition from a staff function to running a business.”



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