Take Control: What to Do When Job Interviewers are Tongue-tied

At a recent job interview, I was sitting before two interviewers who, between them, were certain of only one thing: They needed a technical writer. One potential boss, the one with the highest notch on the company’s IT totem pole, hid her face strategically behind the screen of her laptop. She glanced around it a few times during her fifteen-minute introduction to the company–providing information that was also readily available on the company’s Web site. She then pointed to her cohort, the other potential boss and a lead developer. For several minutes he glanced repeatedly between my face and a copy of my resume that was balanced on his knees. He’d scratch his goatee-clad chin, look up, open his lips, close them, then look down at the paper again. This went on for several minutes before he confessed: “I don’t know what to ask you.” Looking somewhat stunned at this admission, the big boss peeked around her laptop and added, “Me either. I don’t know what we need.”

When interviewing with a technical writing manager or with others who are familiar with the role of technical writers, the interview process can be a natural and productive information exchange. In such cases, interviewers can often readily define needs, assess a candidate’s experience and qualifications, peruse a portfolio with their needs in mind, and initiate questions in the interview that are relevant to the position and candidate. But, what happens when interviewers are less familiar–or unfamiliar–with the role of technical writers or the technical writing position they seek to fill? As the job candidate, you may find yourself in a situation where the interviewers don’t know what qualifications to look for, what experience is needed, what information to provide, or even what questions to ask.

This interview situation wasn’t the first time I’d encountered a tongue-tied interviewer, so I took a deep breath and did what I learned to do in such situations: I took control. As a technical communicator, my job when interviewing with potential companies is to identify communications problems, determine whether I can provide the needed solutions, and then sell myself if I can, or provide references if I can’t. Any technical writer approaching a staff or contract job can follow the same procedures for successful interviews with tongue-tied interviewers.

Get specific.  Once your interviewer turns charge of the conversation to you–either by an invitation to speak or through a confession that he’s lost–begin by asking specifics about the work. Phrase questions as if you already have the job and are prepared to start work, using who, what, why, where, how, and when questions: Who is the audience? Why do they need a writer? What is the product you are going to be writing about? What deliverables are required? What tools will be used? How will the research be conducted? When is the project due?

In my experience, this information-gathering technique offers a few benefits:

  • It can inspire the interviewer’s confidence that you can do the job
  • It can provide cues to the interviewer about issues to discuss and information to provide
  • It can provide valuable insight into the work and your prospective role. For example, will you be providing input into product development, or will you be acting as a final editor for technical copy that’s already been prepared?
  • It can provide information that will help you decide whether you want to accept the job and whether the compensation is equitable
  • It can help build an initial base of information for further research

Solve problems.  As you attempt to uncover project specifics, you may discover that your interviewers do not know what sort of deliverables they need. A good salesperson is nothing more than a solution provider, so listen to their problem and help them find an answer. Will their audience need a hardcopy manual, or an online help system, or both? Will they want a training class, or self-paced study workbooks? With basic needs outlined, you can then probe further for specifics: If they want online help for their Web-based application, help them figure out whether they need a single Web page with instructions, a Web-based help system, or an HTML-based help system. By helping them determine their needs, you can establish that you have the knowledge and experience necessary to meet those needs.

Show and tell.  After you’ve learned what deliverables the company needs, you have the power to make the most of the samples you’ve brought. Pull out your portfolio, which should consist of samples you can peruse during the interview and samples you can leave behind for the interviewers to review at their convenience. As you escort the interviewer through your portfolio:

  •  Gloss over items that may be of little interest to an interviewer’s present needs, and emphasize work that is similar to the company’s goals. If you’ve created data sheets for a marketing department, but the company needs online help, show the sheets quickly to demonstrate your versatility, but move on to your online help disks.
  • Speak positively of the projects, and do not criticize the efforts of people you’ve worked with in the past.
  • Provide specific, relevant details about your portfolio pieces, and take cues from the interviewer about how much and what kind of information to provide. The longest time I’ve ever spent with my samples was half an hour; in that instance, the person (a good interviewer) asked several questions about each piece.
  •  Then, allow the interviewers a moment or two to peruse your portfolio while you pull out samples for them to keep–excerpts or chapters from manuals you’ve written, copies of data sheets, diskettes with online help pages, or whatever samples most closely match their needs. Remember to also leave a card with your name, telephone number, mailing address, email address, and Web site URL if you have one.

Wrap it up.  Finally, ask your interviewers if they have any questions about the samples they’ve seen. Your interview will continue in your absence as they review your samples, so you don’t need to linger when all immediate questions have been answered. The interviewer may take the opportunity to close the interview; however, you may need to do so. Thank them for their time, invite them to contact you with additional questions, and close the interview without lingering.

 

Only twenty minutes had passed since I took control of the interview, and my interviewers appeared visibly relieved at our information exchange. I’d helped them to figure out what they needed for a deliverable, so they had a solution to their problem. I’d shown them samples of similar work, and I’d given them relevant materials to review. I didn’t know it at the time, but my take-charge attitude had made me their candidate of choice. Several hours later, as my emails thanking them again were still whipping through cyberspace, my phone began to ring. They had canceled the other interviews and offered me the assignment.

Not every interview will call for you to take control, but sometimes–especially when interviewers are unfamiliar with technical writers or the technical writing position–a take-charge attitude is just what your potential boss needs. Your interviewers are searching for help; provide it. When you politely ease the burden of conducting a successful interview from their shoulders, you’re sure to meet with success.

Liz Russell is a freelance writer based in Andover, Massachusetts. She specializes in online help systems and Web site content and is a regular contributor to the Equine Journal. Liz can be reached at writerliz@mediaone.net.

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