Have you ever noticed how some people get ahead in life purely on what seems to be an abundance of confidence, when in fact they lack the actual skills for—and competence in—their roles? Confidence trumps competence.
I tell clients that coming across as confident can often overcome a lack of competence. Do I mean that if you have absolutely no qualifications but you believe you can do a role that you’ll get the job? No, that’s not what I mean (though it could happen). What I mean is that we can better use language to show our strengths in areas where we don’t feel adequate. Too often we sabotage ourselves by appearing unnecessarily weak, which spotlights our vulnerabilities.
During your next interview, try these tips to show up confident, even if your competence may not yet be fully formed.
Contain your story
Interviews often start with the open-ended “So, tell me about yourself,” and we’re immediately knocked off-kilter. Where to start? Most people start at the beginning of their career journey, which may have begun in college, and walk through their jobs chronologically. This is a draining experience for both the interviewer and for the interviewee. It’s a lot for the interviewer to follow, so they try to look for the parts that are relevant to who you are today (unless their mind drifts off to their to-do lists). They didn’t ask “Can you walk me through why you took and left each job?” yet that’s what many people detail.
I advise clients to say something along these lines instead: “As you can see from my résumé, I’ve had a strong career in construction management. My last role allowed me to do _____ and _____. What excites me the most in work is ______ and ______. In my next role, I’m looking to do _____, and that’s why I’m so happy to be here speaking with you today. I love what you’re doing at ABC Company, and I am excited to learn more about the role. It seems like it really aligns with my career goals.” Edit the wording to match your style and fill in (or omit) the blanks as appropriate, but the general flow will be helpful in truncating your career story. Explain what really lights you up, what you’re most proud of. Turn the answer into why you’re excited about where you’re interviewing: the role, the company, the industry, the manager; maybe it’s all four.
When you’re done, ask them if they’d like any more details. They’ll likely say “That’s great” and move the conversation along. Interviewers who use these prompts may not know where to start the interview and this vague approach gets candidates talking. But less is more. Don’t allow yourself to fall down emotional rabbit holes that could lead to remembering toxic bosses and horrible commutes or whatever things may be lurking in your career story. Maintain your poise and present your confident nature. Practice your career story before your interview(s).
Stop answering “No, but …”
One of the most important pieces of advice I give during interview prep is this: Never answer “No, but …” to any question. It’s instinct, I get it. When we’re asked if we have experience with something and we lack that experience, we have a knee-jerk response: “No, but … I’m learning” or “No, but … I’m excited to learn” or “No, but … I’ll figure it out” or “No, but … [insert the response].” But that comes off as weak and desperate and, worst of all, lacking in confidence. The interviewer needs help, that’s why they’re hiring. They want to know that, whatever their needs may be, you’ve got this—even when you don’t have the experience to know for sure whether you do.
So what to say instead? This is where creativity with language matters. Maybe you answer “That’s exactly why I’m interested in this role. I can take the knowledge I’ve gleaned over the years and expand it.” Or maybe “At my last company, we used X and Y, and they are very similar to Z, so I have no concern about my ability to pick up this program.”
Note that in both cases, I don’t suggest pretending that you have expertise you don’t have. But when we say “No, but …,” the interviewer hears the “No” followed by a justification that may even be laced with apology. And that puts you at a disadvantage. When we avoid the automatic “No, but …,” we enable a broader range of possibility in the conversation.
Use Clifton Strengths as a tool for the Strengths/Weaknesses prompt
I’m a big fan of the Clifton Strengths Assessment (formerly known as Strengths Finder). Greyzone offers a Clifton Strengths certified coach to provide in-depth consults. For interviews, I advise clients to answer the strengths question by referencing their Clifton results. For instance:
“Can you tell me about your strengths?”
“Have you heard about the Clifton Strengths Assessment tool? I recently took the test and my top results were Strategic, Maximizer, Connectedness, Intellection, and Activator. (Author note: These are my actual results). And here’s how I see them play out in the workplace … .” Elaborate with examples. You can anticipate the likely Weaknesses follow-up and include that, conversely, you don’t like or aren’t good at ______, _______, and ______ as they are the opposite of your strengths. If I were in an interview, I might talk about how my Strategic, Maximizer, Intellection, and Activator themes help me devise plans and execute them quickly. Conversely, I’m not best suited for executing a plan created by someone else nor am I someone who is very patient when projects and processes drag out. (Patience is a weakness I continue to address.)
Ideally, cite weaknesses that won’t be dealbreakers in the role at hand. By answering the weakness question before being asked, you’re demonstrating your confidence by showcasing a strong sense of self and the ability to talk about negatives in a confident manner.
Leverage the STAR Method
If you’ve been in corporate long enough and had occasion to interview candidates, you were likely trained in behavioral-based interviewing. These are the prompts such as “Tell me about a time when you… .” They are always about overcoming adversity. They never begin “Tell me about a time when everything was great and you had all the resources you needed.” To prepare to be on the interviewee side of these questions, I recommend having your “war stories” ready to go. War stories are the times you managed and resolved conflicting priorities, met unreasonable deadlines, worked with challenging or downright difficult people, and/or multitasked and managed to throw a Hail Mary pass to rescue a seemingly doomed situation.
Did you know that there’s a formula to use to answer these questions? The STAR method serves as a guide for how to craft your stories.
Situation – Begin by describing the situation. Stories leave sticky notes in the interviewer’s brain—tell a good story and they’ll remember you. Start with “There was this time … .” Set the stage and establish the stakes—that will capture their attention.
Task – Break down how you assessed the situation and developed a plan of action. Keep the details to a minimum; a high-level overview is all they need. Don’t get lost in the weeds of the story—yet.
Action – Tell them what you did to save the situation. This is the meat of the story, how the plan was executed to achieve a result. It’s OK to share what didn’t go well and how you had to pivot or accommodate to proceed—that shows resilience and problem-solving.
Result – This part is important: What was the result? And even more important: What lessons were learned through this experience? For example: “Because of quick thinking and swift action, we never had this issue arise again” or “The next time this came up, we were prepared, and we approached the situation with a plan that minimized issues to a negligible level.”
Anticipate the Salary Question
People really don’t like to discuss money but it’s inevitable in the interview process. Interviewees are often too quick to respond with their current salary because they don’t feel empowered to ask for their target. This is particularly heartbreaking when they’re already underpaid in their industry.
I advise clients to ask what’s budgeted for the role. Sometimes they’ll share a salary range. In some states, by law, companies must disclose the salary in the job posting. If anyone presses you to name a number first, fall back on the guidance I shared in my Happy Salary = High Achievers post. In that post, I advise candidates to decide on low, medium, and high targets for their next role.
In an interview, when pressed for a number, provide a salary or range somewhere between your medium and high targets. I like to say, “I understand the going rate for this role is between X and Y, but I have some flexibility in those numbers based on other factors such as bonuses and benefits.” You don’t have to cite where you found “the going rate”—you can make it up. Mentioning flexibility implies there’s a lower number you’d consider, but you’re not going to show your cards right away.
The more we strive to contain our story and show up in a controlled, confident manner, the more we’ll see a change in our interview outcomes. Don’t be so polished that the company can’t get a true vibe of who you are but control your instincts to spotlight your vulnerable areas. Be your true self, but don’t apologize for who you are and have been.
People are naturally attracted to those who exude confidence. Sometimes we have to fake a little confidence but eventually, we can overcome our insecurities and find that, one day, we’re no longer pretending: Our confident self is naturally who we’ve become.