How to nail a job interview

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(MoneyWatch) Every marketer knows that, if you want people to buy your product, you've got to figure out what they want. You've got to get inside the customer's head. Likewise, the first rule of communications is to know your audience so you can relate to them in some meaningful way.

The same is true of selling your ideas to management or anyone else, for that matter. It helps to know what criteria they'll use to judge your proposal and make a decision -- what matters to them, what they're looking for.

Interviewing for a job is exactly the same. Wouldn't you rather know exactly what hiring managers are looking for before the interview or, better yet, before planning your strategy on how to nail it? Of course you would.

Well, in case you didn't know, the one thing hiring managers are looking to determine in an interview is whether candidates are the right fit for the job or not. To make that determination, here are seven criteria they use and how you can best prepare to satisfy each one.

Initial gut feeling. It may not be scientific, but it does work. Good managers, executives and business owners know to trust their gut instinct. In other words, first impressions matter -- a lot. Making a good first impression is really about being in the moment and connecting with the other person. To do that, you need to relax and be yourself. Focus on her, not what you're going to say. Look her right in the eye, smile and listen.

Are you who you represent yourself to be? They clearly liked your resume, and now they need to see if that's really you or not. This may sound like a slam-dunk, but it's not. Maybe you're better in person than on paper, but most people aren't. They embellish their resumes to get an interview and then disappoint. Keep that in mind when you're "spinning" your track record. If you can't back it up face-to-face, don't do it.

Do you meet the job spec? There's always a job specification, and the hiring manager wants to find out if you meet it or not. It's typically a wish list so don't be discouraged if you don't have everything they're looking for. Still, read the spec and be prepared to highlight your knowledge, experience, skills and characteristics they're looking for and explain, without being defensive, how you plan to compensate for what you lack.

Your experience. This is critical, but not in the way you think. Get this -- what they're ideally looking for is someone who walked into the same kind of situation in the past and excelled. They want to hear specific, anecdotal evidence of that. For example, if they're looking for someone to take charge and grow a new business, they want to hear exactly how you've done that for another employer. They want to hear how you overcame obstacles. The job spec is general; this is specific. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Are you smart? The hiring manager wants to know how you think, reason and problem-solve. That's what all those weird questions you always hear about are for. The thing is, reading laundry lists of interview zingers won't change how you handle them because it doesn't change how you think, reason or problem-solve. In other words, you can't prepare for this, so don't. Your brain already knows what to do, so don't overload it.

What's your personality like? What kind of person are you? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your positive characteristics, what attributes do you need to work on, and are you aware of them? Do you have a can-do attitude and a strong work ethic, or a sense of entitlement? Are you confident and self-assured or overconfident and full of yourself? Are you grounded and self-aware?

Do you get along with others? Are you better on your own or as a team player? Are you so thin-skinned that everything rubs you the wrong way or so insular that you're completely oblivious to the needs and wants of others? How well do you actually listen? Are you aggressive and set in your ways or calm and flexible? Reference checks are part of this, but they'll still want to get a read of you in person.

Look, interviewing is all about balance and connecting with the interviewer. That's why it helps to be calm and present. So you can listen effectively and respond appropriately. You want to be friendly and personable but not overly so. You want to be forthcoming with information but in a concise and thoughtful way.

The absolute best way to prepare is to find out as much as you can about what an employer is specifically looking for, think about your knowledge and experience, find the intersection points, and deliver a couple of hard-hitting anecdotes that demonstrate you're the one who can do what they need done. Otherwise, relax and be yourself.

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