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Under starter's orders;Career devlopment

So you've made it to interview. What next? John Caunt advises a deep breath...

I have often been struck by the way interview candidates react when they are called in from the waiting room. For a significant number it's as if a starting gun has been fired.

They leap from their seats like sprinters off the blocks and, despite every effort to slow them down, continue at a breathless pace. Invariably, it is to their detriment - interviews have more in common with the 10,000 metres than a sprint. But whether or not you are of the greyhound tendency, the world of athletics can offer some useful pointers to interview success.

Get your pre-race preparation right

Who isn't nervous at the prospect of an interview? Anxiety and a jittery stomach are natural accompaniments to any imminent mental or physical challenge. Careful preparation is the best way to ensure that you arrive at the start line composed.

Looking at the job details again, anticipating likely areas of questioning and finding out what you can about the panel, are essential parts of your build-up. Plan your travel to allow for unforeseen circumstances. A surprisingly large proportion of candidates arrive late and flustered.

Don't go off too quickly

If you spring into action when the gun goes, the pent-up tension tends to find its outlet in a torrent of words. "I could hear myself talking rubbish," is one of the most common laments as candidates survey the ruins of a botched interview performance.

Slow yourself down to ensure that your mouth does not outstrip your brain. Relax your shoulders and take long, slow breaths as you walk to the interview room. Don't rush at the opening questions - use them to get into your stride. Interviewers tend to use a couple of general starters for precisely this purpose.

Control the pace

An interview should be a two-way process rather than an inquisition. Don't let yourself be carried along by the interviewers' pace. Give yourself time to think before you reply to questions - not too long or the selectors may reach some conclusions about your speed of wit.

Smile when appropriate. It not only sends a positive signal, but makes you feel better and allows for a natural pause in your flow. If you are not sure how to answer, gain thinking time by getting interviewers to repeat the question or check your understanding of what you think they are looking for by reflecting the question back to them.

If you do dry up, don't panic. Apologise, collect your thoughts and carry on. Interviewers will understand.

Know when you're getting close to the finish

The end of an interview often takes people by surprise and they emerge feeling that they have been denied the opportunity to parade some of their greatest strengths. You will never be able to dictate the course that the interviewers' questions take, but through judicious questioning of your own you can introduce elements that the interviewers may have overlooked.

Prepare notes in advance on the things you wish to cover and do not be afraid to consult them when you are asked if you have any questions. Most interviewers will regard this as evidence of good preparation, rather than of weakness.

Some people fail to acknowledge that they have reached the finish line. The scourge of interviewers is the candidate who ploughs on through a prepared list of questions oblivious to any signs of impatience. While you should avoid treating an interview as a sprint, you will do yourself an equal disservice if you turn it into a marathon.

John Caunt was formerly director of personnel in a large FE college. He has 15 years' experience of staff selection.Next week: non-verbal communication at the interview.

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