Why applicants don’t ‘get’ your questions

During selection panel training programs, staff tackle the task of writing a quality interview question. Mostly these draft questions are long, complicated, vague and riddled with abstract language. Here’s an example.

A group of staff is developing an interview question related to ‘developing productive working relationships with stakeholders.’ They write something like:

‘In this job we require a person to develop productive working relationships with a range of internal and external stakeholders. Tell us about a time when you have strategically engaged with stakeholders, how you maintained and build the relationship.’

On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable question. In reality applicants are likely to be stumped by it. Partly because they are nervous. This makes it more difficult to hear and focus.

A book called ‘Made to Stick, Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck’, by Chip and Dan Heath, throws further light on why applicants often struggle to give intelligent answers to interview questions like the one above. They suggest that abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and to remember it. While an interview is a different context from the ones the authors are considering, the problem of abstract language still applies.

In an interview situation, make the questions as concrete and simple as possible, particularly for lower level positions that do not require highly abstract thought and for external applicants who are not familiar with public service jargon. The above example could be reworded to:

‘In our work there are many people who have a vested interested in what we do. These people can be inside our agency, in other agencies and in industry sectors.  It’s important that we build good connections with these people so they understand and support what we do. Tell us about your experience with getting to know such people. How do you go about this?

Follow up questions might be, depending on the context:

  • What has been your most challenging experience?
  • How do you keep in touch with people?
  • What do you do when people disagree with your approach?’

This might be longer, but brevity is not the key factor that makes a quality question. It identifies in more concrete language exactly what it is you want to know. The applicant isn’t faced with an onslaught of abstractions nor with having to second guess what it is you actually want to know about. The question also suggests that the panel has given thought to what behaviours are critical to stakeholder management for this job.

Once you have drafted your interview questions, based on the specific behaviours sought, check the language. If there are abstractions, vague words, long sentences, jargon, and the point is not clear, rewrite it.

A simpler, more concrete question will give you the evidence you need and make the selection process easier for all concerned.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.