The Make-or-Break Job Interview

As we discussed in last week’s article, a risumi can be a great tool to get you noticed by a company. Now you’ve incorporated a few of these ideas, and you’ve attracted the attention of several high-powered agencies. They’re flying you in for a day of interviews because you’re so terrific.

If you haven’t been on a job interview lately, here are some tips to help you glide effortlessly through the day.

Big Brother really is watching. From the minute you enter the company’s door, people are checking you out. What is the first impression you make? Don’t bitch to the secretary that the plane was late, that you were stuck next to The World’s Fattest Man on the plane, or that airline food still sucks. There’s plenty of time to discuss this once you’re hired.

What the hell is “upscale casual”? Doesn’t matter. Look better than you have to. Get a suit that fits right or a dress that doesn’t show what you don’t want showing (that last part was for women only, in case you were wondering). This is no time to experiment with fun, sexy clothing. Again, there’s time for that once you’re hired.

Grooming. Sounds silly to bring this up, but make sure that your hair looks presentable and not like something from A Flock of Seagulls. Even the wackiest creative department has a dress code. Right now, I’m typing this in a pair of jeans, a Grateful Dead shirt, and a pair of Reeboks. But I have the job. I didn’t show up for the interview this way.

Ready, set, impress. They say that whether you get hired or not is settled in the first 30 seconds. The rest of the interview is merely to confirm that the opinion the interviewer formed is correct. That’s scary. Make the most of that first part of the interview: Shake hands firmly, and look the person in the eye.

Trash talking — save it for the basketball court. Is your current boss a cross-dressing duckpin bowler who dates dwarfs? Now isn’t the time to spill the beans about it. Two reasons why: If you trash your current boss, you’ll do it to the company you’re interviewing with, too. Nobody wants that. And, more important, what if the guy you’re sitting across from is also a cross-dressing duckpin bowling dwarf dater? (Say that last one fast three times.) Don’t spread gossip about your present company, coworkers, or boss. It will always reflect badly on you.

Bring copies of everything. Many companies will have you in for a long, grueling day where you might have to meet with 10 or more people. Keep extra copies of your risumi with you. It’s embarrassing to be without one when you need it.

For creative people only! Even though you have a terrific Web site and an online portfolio, bring a real portfolio with you. If you’re stuck in an interview room without Internet access, it’s kind of tough to say, “Imagine a direct mail piece with a blue envelope.”

Practice your portfolio pitch. Pick work that you’re proud of, and one really bad stinker. When I was hired at a very large company, the creative director told me that the deciding factor was the last piece of my portfolio: The worst conceived piece of crap that ever came out of an ad agency. Underneath it I wrote, “This is what happens when good ideas go terribly wrong.” It showed that I had a sense of humor, and it intrigued him enough to bring me in for an interview. The story of how a simple DM piece strayed so far off base held my audience captive and helped get me the job. (If you want a copy of the offending piece of crap, let me know. I rent it out by the week.)

My card. Your card. Everyone’s got a business card. Collect them throughout the day. Jot down any impressions of those people on the back. “Loves the Cubs.” “Worked with my Dad at McCann.” When you get home, write a personal thank-you note to each person you met and reference that detail. But wouldn’t email be faster? Sure it would, but writing a brief, thoughtful thank-you letter referencing some bit of conversation shows the recipients that you’re serious about wanting to work there and that you follow through on your commitments.

And, above all…

Go with your gut. Did you ever walk into a client’s office and get the heebie-jeebies? You wonder how the hell anyone could work there? The karma is bad, the mojo stinks, whatever you want to call it… it’s a gut reaction that turns you off immediately. The same goes for a job interview. It’s tough, but don’t be blinded by a good offer if the feeling is wrong. Here’s one way to check the karma level: Ask to use the restroom, then get a little bit lost. Take a few minutes and wander around looking at people and their work spaces. Is anyone laughing? Are all the doors shut? Is Dilbert everywhere on the cubicle walls? Then ask yourself if this is a company you really want to work for. If it isn’t, write a very polite thank-you note anyway and decline the offer.

If you have some amusing interview stories, I’d love to share them with everyone. Please email them to me at Thanks.

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