Preparing for a Tough Job Interview

To ace your next one, try some of the same preparation techniques used by police officers competing for highly competitive promotions

I recently gave a communications lecture to a group of big city police officers. Most of the men and women were lieutenants preparing for the most important job interview of their careers—promotion to captain. The selection process is intense. These officers only get the opportunity to apply once every four years, and only a few will make it. Some are nearing retirement, so for them it could be the last chance to attain the rank of captain and all that goes with it: increased responsibility, higher visibility, more pay, and a far better pension for the rest of their lives.

Holding the rank of captain in a police department means communicating with various audiences: staff, commanders, media, elected officials, and community groups. So it makes sense that far greater weight is given to the oral section of the exam than in tests for previous positions. What's fascinating is that how these job candidates perform on the oral exam will account for more than 50% of the grade.

Here are three techniques officers I met used to prepare for their grueling interview process. They could help you ace your next job interview:

1. Role-Play

Some of the officers I spoke to meet every week to study and conduct mock interviews with each other. They ask the toughest questions possible and critique each other on their answers. And get this—they even bring video cameras to the exercise so they can review their performances.

Most job candidates fail to prepare adequately. Preparation means more than simply reviewing possible questions in your head. It means sitting across from someone playing the role of the questioner. It means rehearsing answers to every potential question (or category of questions). It means placing a small video camera on a tripod and recording your interview. Put yourself through a mock interview scenario to succeed during the real deal.

2. Command Attention

I was impressed by the fact that during their practice sessions, role-playing began before participants had even stepped into the office. Since the actual job interview begins as soon as you knock on the door, the job candidates rehearsed how they would stand, walk, and make eye contact to everyone in the room. You see, as officers these men and women know the importance of a commanding presence—body language that commands authority, confidence, and respect.

People make impressions about you in the first 90 seconds of your conversation. That's not much time for conversation; it's your body language that communicates competence. Confidence begins with a firm handshake and eye contact. Enter the room with a warm smile and maintain solid eye contact. During the conversation, feel free to break eye contact briefly but maintain eye contact for 80% to 90% of the conversation. It reflects confidence and control. Your body speaks volumes before you open your mouth; make sure it's leaving a positive impression.

3. Dress the Part

Before I began the lecture, I overheard two officers discussing what they would wear during the job interview, including the color of their shirts. Again, this is something few job candidates put any thought into. Dress like the position for which you're interviewing. Police captains are visible in the community and must pay attention to the impression they make when speaking to groups.

When deciding on what to wear, pay attention to your body type and your hair color and skin tone. Complement your body type with clothes that fit properly (hint: spend the extra cash to get your clothes expertly tailored). Also complement your skin tone and hair color. If you have gray hair, a gray shirt and a gray suit will make you look, well, gray. Add some color to stand out.

After spending time with the police officers, I left with an even greater appreciation for those men and women whose job it is to protect and to serve. They were professional, prepared, friendly, articulate, and smart—everything an employer would want! I learned as much from them as I hope they learned from me.

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