It can be very boring doing interviews. Interview days start early and end late as you try to see as many candidates as possible. The public sector’s strict adherence to equal opportunity best practice means all candidates do the same presentation and are asked the same questions.
(To avoid death by Powerpoint I banned it and said a flip chart would be available if required. The idea was to make candidates look and talk to us rather than read, at high speed, their slides.)
In any case, you still have to listen carefully and take detailed notes because each question is scored and if your scoring is challenged at some point then you will need to refer to your notes. Plus if you’re giving feedback to unsuccessful candidates you need to say which questions they did not answer well by referring to what they said.
So you don’t just have to listen to the answers to your own questions but to everyone else’s as well. This requires a lot of concentration.
Towards the end of the day your brain starts to go numb. You are in need of a comfort break but you’re running late. You pray for someone to do something different with the presentation. You realise you are in danger of giving bonus points to those who keep their answers short.
People on interview panels do watch TV and sometimes it would be nice to mimic Simon Cowell’s X Factor approach and say: “I am going to stop you there, we’ve heard enough”, especially when a candidate who couldn’t think of the answer hoped if they talked for long enough they would eventually hit on the right words.
Whilst the candidates can do all this - keep their answers short and relevant, speak slowly, maintain eye contact and even crack a smile - they can only answer the questions you ask. So it is up to the interview panel to come up with ways of making it livelier.
I deliberately didn’t say “entertaining” because I am not suggesting using a talent show format where the chair comments on the outcome of the assessment centre tasks in the style of The Apprentice’s Alan Sugar: “Well, you claim to be good with figures but you made a right mess of that didn’t you!”
In fact, after a recent episode I could no longer ask candidates “tell me why I should appoint you?”, because it sounds too much like Lord Sugar’s “tell me why I shouldn’t fire you” - which invariably gets the most grovelling, cringe-inducing responses.
In terms of the format, then, how about giving a choice of presentation topics? That way each candidate doesn’t choose the same one. After all this is more about communications skills than knowledge since there is only so much you can get into a 10-minute presentation.
How about a question that allows the candidate to talk about their experience and their achievement? Then encourage the panel to ask supplementary questions to probe this.
Finally tell the candidate at the beginning of the interview how many questions they will be asked and how long the interview will last, making it clear you intend to stick rigidly to the time and it is up to them to manage it.