How smart people undersell themselves at interviews and fall back on standard clichés

Even the smartest job candidates can make the same mistakes as beginners when it comes to job interviews. John Lees describes how to avoid them.

Seven strategies for overcoming classic interview errors

 1. Add focus to your preparation
Research the organisation, but find short cuts by talking to people who know the organisation well. Find out what’s top of the organisational agenda, and the skills and qualities most valued in new hires.

The remaining preparation is about you. What impact will you create as you enter the room? Can you engage in small talk with confidence? Do you look and sound like an assured post holder? Pitch your first answer so it shows you really understand the job. Sounding vague about the job and why you want it gives an employer a reason to exclude you from the process.

2. Rehearse your matchmaking
Decode an employer’s shopping list so you know the difference between ‘nice to have’ and ‘essential’. Once you’ve analysed the employer’s top 10 requirements, make sure your evidence matches. This isn’t just about choosing material, but expressing it in the right language. Transferable skills need translation, especially if your experience is different to conventional candidates: employers understand transferable skills when they get excited about them.

3. Don’t undersell your best evidence
Some candidates assume that mentioning achievements in a CV is enough if you have an MBA. However most underselling involves simply listing skills when you should be unpacking them as valuable objects. Quickly explain context, skills, outcomes – but also the difficulty of the challenge. Strong candidates make sure that the difficulty is communicated, so the skills used and outcomes achieved carry weight. So, rather than just mentioning ‘trouble-shooting’ or ‘problem-solving’ as core skills, talk about significant problems you’ve solved, outcomes, and what you learned. When a listener understands the complexity of a task, the level of your skills is made clear.

4. Pitch evidence that matters
Interviews absorb staff time. Your goal is to enable a busy interviewer to tick relevant boxes - so don’t waste interviewer time explaining contexts, details and skills that have little relevance to the job. Interviewers easily zone out if unstimulated, but they will tune back in if you say something negative about yourself or reveal an obvious lack of fit to the role. It generally pays to keep answers short and very focused, and then offer to add more detail if it’s helpful.

5. Keep control of tone
Avoid telling a downbeat story. You may have had a bad experience in your last role. Resist the temptation to share that information – you’ll get sympathy, but not job offers. Recruiting employers favour risk avoidance, and prefer simple to complicated. Practise summarising your entire career so it sounds like as a single, coherent story – show clearly how the job on offer presents you with the next, logical, fulfilling chapter.

 6. Communicate energy
Most seasoned interviewers admit that after interviewing candidates all day very little information sticks in memory – but they do retain general impressions about how people came across. You may think an interview is all about facts, but we remember stories longer than we remember information. Interviewers remember high-energy stories even longer – not just because they are more interesting, but because they reveal the motivation you’ll bring to the workplace.

Tell energised stories to showcase experience and communicate your attitude to work tasks. Leave an interviewer in no doubt that you bring something special to the role. Practice so you show you really want this job, not just any job – and give clear reasons.

7. Avoid clichés which make you sound like a market entrant
Anyone who interviews for a living has heard all the standard phrases from candidates who claim to be winners, team players or self-starters. Interview clichés language switch off the interviewer’s brain – you seem to have the same message as everyone else, therefore you have nothing extra to offer.

Ensure evidence comes across as fresh and interesting, not like a dull script. Practise talking about yourself in energised stories – speak them out loud at least three times so you internalise them. Focusing on the tasks and responsibilities of the role, prepare concrete examples which evidence your track record – and potential.

John Lees is the author of Knockout Interview (see