Communication Rehab for Drive-by Interviewees

I have only been “retired” from my communications firm for a short while but some themes are already emerging from my reflections on the folks I have coached through various communications challenges over the last two decades.  In particular, those interviewing for jobs come to mind.

Job applicants tended to fall into two categories—one, those who insisted on absolutely only one “prep” session.   In retrospect, I realize that this was also typically on the same day as the interview itself.   In short, they waited until the very last minute.  (One gal scheduled a 7:00 a.m. appointment with me before for a 9:00 a.m. interview that same morning.  She then showed up twenty minutes late.)  In my efforts to ward off these anemic attempts to prepare I would often quip, “Let’s see if we can’t get you in here a week early to avoid a drive-by interview casualty.”  Many laughed but ignored the soft-pedaled advice.  The stress from their prolonged under or unemployment was palpable, infectious and sometimes self-perpetuating.  The second kind of applicants set aside time for a few hours of professional coaching and funds for the requisite retainer.  They didn’t “prep” but rather “prepared” with me for an employment interview.  These were folks I found to be more comprehensively committed to securing “a” or even “the” position.  By and large, they were successful.

To be sure, the aid of a professional is useful and I suppose that people who commit hard-earned money to a process do feel more invested in it and seek more from it because they have committed resources up front.  But I share here something that I realize made as much or more of a difference than anything else: deep self-reflection.  Yep.  Not appointments.  Not money changing hands.  Not mock interviews.  Not research on the company.  Not wardrobe choices.   Heck, one doesn’t even have to get out of their pajamas to do what I am describing here.  It is simply what Winnie the Pooh did each time he was faced with a new challenge: “Think Think  Think. Oh bother.”  Bingo! Think! Bother!  Whether or not you engage a coach, do make and take the time to ponder and consider who you are—constitutionally—and where you are in life.  Why?  Like Winnie the Pooh, we are most productive and magnetic to others when we work in harmony with our genuine selves and in the context of our lives.   And when these are communicated effectively to a prospective employer other matters tend to fall into place.  Let’s take these apart, latter one first.  Work in the context of your life.

It seems to me that applying for a job is like shopping for a car.  Hear me out on this.  Realize that the cars we drive reflect where we are at any point in life.  And the first thing a car shopper does is evaluate his or her need(s) for it in the context of their life.  Is it a “utility,” like a station car?   Is it a “second car” to make a busy life more convenient?  Is it a “trophy car,” a luxury vehicle to punctuate years of hard work or success with a particular venture?  Is it a “project” like a fixer-upper or a restoration of a classic?  Is it a sleek “performance car” that maneuvers well and commands respect?   Over the course of our working lives we will have many different kinds of cars and many different kinds of jobs.  Some stints are transformative and less about the compensation and more valuable as learning experiences where we hone our skills.  These jobs are like project cars.  Some jobs are shear utilities, the kind of shift-work that is often short-term and simply puts cash in our wallets while we finish school, get out of the house or publish that novel.  Some positions are downright sexy, like a stint with that celebrity client and the kinds of which future clients or employers take note.  For these, the fees generated may be of less value than the exposure and resume boost.  Some jobs are simply side-jobs or seasonal or part-time just to keep the cushion of our layered lives comfy and our reputations and skills fresh.  A few things are for certain, you won’t drive the same car for forty or fifty years.  You may share a car from time to time and have more than one at other times.  You might even need to go without your own and take public transportation.  But to make wise choices about any car purchase you need to know your needs and means and circumstances at the outset and be comfortable articulating them clearly.  Otherwise you will get ripped off, wind up at the wrong dealership or even break down.

Same is true when applying for a job.  Ask yourself this: What are your means and needs at this particular point in time?  Be specific and be candid.  When I was interviewing experts on international affairs for Foreign Affairs Speakers Bureau, candidates often shared their individual journeys as backdrop to their interest the lecture circuit.  Giving speeches on topics in world affairs is demanding work.  It is also lucrative.  But all jobs pay money.  And most highly-skills jobs that also require substantial experience pay commensurately well.  So, “Why the speaking circuit?” I would ask.  Those who could clearly articulate the context in which they were applying moved to the top of my agency’s A-list.  One world-renowned economist, TV personality and a fully-tenured professor at an Ivy-league university shared that he had just put a down payment on a condo for his adult daughter and wanted to help her pay it off.  He wanted to see her settled before he retired and declared that he was able and eager to travel the world to accomplish that goal.  That was critical information insofar as it gave me license to recommend him on a short-list to clients in Asia and Europe.  I was confident that he would show up and shine.  Another shared that he had two young children—toddlers, actually—and he wanted to get their college accounts off to a good start and also be around to help his wife manage the household.  He worked and resided in Manhattan and shared that he only wanted local appearances to save time on travel.  That was useful information as it enabled me to represent him to audiences in and around New York City and promote him as one who is available to give two talks – the actual presentation and a bonus, informal, “insider briefing,” all for a higher honorarium as there were no air travel or hotel costs for the client.  Win-win-win!

My other mantra is to work in a position that jives with your core self—your values, motivations and established “best-practices.”  Of course, the first step here is to know what they are.  This is another exercise in “think, think, think.”  Well in advance of your interview, set aside an hour.  Turn off your phone, close your laptop, sit down quietly and think.   Be candid and specific in your self-assessment.  With what are you most comfortable at work?  Autonomy?  Decision-making responsibilities?  Money?  Camaraderie with like-minded people?  Mentoring of staff?  Praise from your superiors?  Prestige?  Respect from clients?  People your own age?  Satisfaction from a job well-done?  The applause of an audience?  Health benefits?  What interferes with your productivity and satisfaction at work?  Commuting?  Accountability? Day care concerns?  Early starts?   Late nights?   Dress codes?   Meetings? Dealing with the public?  What adds up to a great day at work for you?  No emails?  New clients?   Making a deadline?  What makes for a lousy day at work for you?  Making a presentation? Air travel?  Computer malfunction?   Three hours of paperwork?

Obviously one’s candor in the self-assessment needs to be nuanced for the actual interview, but only a foundation of reality can provide the substance and make the difference in revealing whether or not there is an actionable and mutually acknowledged “fit” between applicant, job and boss.   For instance, I was thrilled to hear my intern share that she is a “night owl” and works best on creative projects between midnight and sunrise.  She shared this with an apologetic voice, gentle shrug of her shoulders and nod of her head when asked, “What one work habit holds you back?”  She and I were both delighted when I then shared that I love finding a full in-box very first thing in the morning.  I am an early riser and review new matters best when I am fresh.  Her style was quite compatible with mine and she was hired with the reassurance that she can work from home and email material so long as it is waiting for me at 7:00 a.m.

When it comes to job interviews, they are like shopping for cars: we do it numerous times over the course of our lives.  And because we get used to it we get stale.  Hence, a reminder of the basics is useful:  An interview is a special kind of conversation in which there is a bipolar exchange of views and information.  Bi-polar means two parties.  And ideally, both parties are fully prepared—interviewer and applicant alike.  But the ideal becomes out of reach when either party does not complete his or her due diligence.  As applicants, there is plenty to consider well in advance of an interview and after all the basic prep is done—research on the firm, research on the position, wording and rehearsing responses to the predictable questions, selecting out attire, etc., and there are excellent resources out there on how to go about that “standard prep.”  But for your next level of due diligence, remember Winnie the Pooh.  Avoid a drive-by interview casualty, and “think, think, think.” And do “bother.”  It’s the insurance on your vehicle—specific to your make and model.

Lisa Bernard retired after twenty-plus years of helping people achieve their goals in speeches, interviews and conversations.  She’ll tell you that, collectively, she learned as much about life from her clients as she taught them about effective communication.  Over the years, she designed workshops and seminars for organizations in the private, public and non-profit arenas, many of which she was thrilled to do because they were compatible with her parenting responsibilities and consistent with her values.  Most notably, she loved creating and delivering weekly a management studies program at a busy New York hospital.  Her deep respect for health care professionals and her teenagers’ readiness to learn to get home and dinner on the table themselves one evening a week worked beautifully with this late afternoon program and early evening commute.  Her clients’ fine examples of working in the context of your life and within your value system are lessons for which she is forever grateful and happy to share. 

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In With the Old and Season with the New: What Food Communicates from Past to New Years

When my older daughter emailed me from Israel to tell me she was coming home I wrote something as well– a grocery list. Then I put up a big pot of lentil soup. Only then did I call her and verbally express my delight. And she squealed when she received a photo of my freezer shelf lined with Mason jars filled with the lentil soup that will be here for her when she arrives. I just close my eyes and see it going down: her flight will be delayed, we’ll hit traffic, the weather will be treacherous and the wear and tear will make us both cranky. But once we get home and heat up the soup, crisp up the semolina bread, boil up those Ditalini (little thimbles pasta) and sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of freshly grated Romano cheese, she will close her eyes and feel, “I’m home.” And my message will be clear to her, “I am so happy to have you back.”

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Reflecting on the above, I realize that food communicates. It doesn’t speak, but it certainly transmits feelings and thoughts. And the way we select, preserve and edit our recipes are choices we make from year to year articulating our evolving sentiments and ideas. Last fall when I observed my annual ritual of harvesting my potted herbs before the first frost, I made pesto as usual. However, I did not use just basil; I modified my recipe to replace half the basil with sage. I gleaned that from the pesto my daughter and I shared in Tuscany last summer. It was a very different texture, color and flavor than any pesto I had ever eaten in America and it was served tossed with pasta we’d never seen before. We talked quite a bit about how we could replicate the flavors at home and with every draft of the family pesto recipe we relived our trip together and took our pride in our Italian heritage to a new level. Altogether it provided a clear interpretation of my behavior for my now adult children—from why I grow my own herbs to why I only buy the cheapest generic toilet paper but spring for extra virgin olive oil imported from a specific region in Italy that costs more than a dollar an ounce! Toilet paper is temporary. Food leaves a footprint. You can use it to trace back or guide you forward. That pesto “translated” my behavior into terms my family now understands including why my herb garden will be larger and more varied in this New Year. And when I showed up at my younger daughter’s dormitory with jars of the coveted frozen green sauce it spoke volumes to her about the transcendence of tradition across time and place.

It fascinates me that food can be less ambiguous than most other nonverbal messages. If I rub my hands together one may interpret this as me having just applied hand lotion while another may think I am nervous. Yet another might assume I am cold. But food sends clear signals. Kids attest to this. They are the keenest observers of signals long before they use words to order their world. “Out of the mouths of babes” as they say when my then ten year old came into the kitchen one morning and said, “It’s fall; you’re making oatmeal in the mornings again!” And on Fridays when they inhaled the aromas from the simmering chicken soup, roast chicken and fresh-baked challah they would dash into the kitchen, smile wide and exclaim, “It’s almost Shabbat!” No calendar required. And like word choice and tone of voice, food can transmit respect and affection. I catered my daughter’s college graduation party with a menu that was nut-free, kosher, in full Mediterranean fare and with vegetarian and vegan plates. Every guest was considered and had a tasty and thematic option that included them in this key part of the celebration and acknowledged their individual needs and preferences.

I am learning that food is a language that evolves alongside the relationships it attends. I am reminded of the changes in our meal preparation when my younger daughter was diagnosed with potentially fatal food allergies. Having almost lost her to an almond cookie seventeen years ago, I cleared our kitchen and every recipe of poppy seeds, peanuts and nuts (not to mention my bar of Amaretto and Frangelico). The table is where one finds community and sanctuary and her safe place had narrowed considerably. So then did my ingredient list. But the message she got from the safe zone I provided was large: “your well-being matters.” There was another message communicated by our abandonment of lemon-poppy seed pound cake, PB&J and cranberry-pistachio biscotti: “this is not a handicap but an inspiration!” That’s because each New Year since she was first diagnosed has yielded fresh innovations in our favorite family recipes that actually give our food its own “dialect.” When she was first diagnosed in 1996 there were few laws for labeling of foodstuffs and fewer chefs and wait-staff trained to insure “nut-free” dishes, so we ate-in for nearly ten years. We cooked and seasoned in our own unique way and all that experimentation with foods to mimic the textures and flavors of nuts and seeds not only yielded three creative cooks in the family but a rather idiomatic menu as well. Come for a meal here and we’ll share our interpretations with items we call by slang names like “salad dressing chicken” or “cheese toast.”

Set aside cooking for a moment and think about eating itself. With food so connected to relationships I wonder how many have fizzled or bloomed based on how we eat together. How we eat provides all sorts of information about our backgrounds and personalities and by extension our compatibility with others. I had a date with a man who claimed he was from New York. When he ate his sushi with a fork I seriously doubted that. Turns out, in culinary terms, he was full of baloney. He won’t be around in the New Year. On the other hand, when I walked into a random bagel shop in Fairfield, Connecticut and ordered a bagel with a schmear and the gal behind the counter didn’t bat an eye, I didn’t need to hear a New York accent to know she was indeed my home-girl from the Big Apple. That nosh and her demeanor were delicious and I will be back there in the New Year—and with my friends. Now that’s word of mouth advertising!

Bar none, my dearest memory of food-handling as a measure of creativity and commitment dates back to when my daughter with the food allergies was sitting in a diner beside her best buddy from the fifth grade. We were ordering lunch and she really had a hankering for a big juicy American burger but was concerned that the bun might have stray seeds that she must avoid. She was debating out loud and lamenting that usually the bottom half of the bun is where the errant poppy seed appears. It took him a nanosecond to accommodate her wishes and allay her fears. Eyes wide open he volunteered, “When the burgers come, I’ll give you my top and take your bottom!” Clearly, that man is one we took from past years into last year and into this New Year for sure.

This is certainly not an exact science but close enough for conversation: Tell me what you put in your eggs this morning and I’ll tell you your roots and a bit about your journey. You see, food doesn’t fib. It narrates your story just as it happened. Today, I sautéed onions and sweet red peppers in olive oil and when they were soft I added three leaves of sage I had grown last summer and froze for this purpose. I cracked in three egg whites beat with freshly ground black pepper and a dash of grated Parmesan cheese. As it gelled in the pan, I added some cubed fresh mozzarella. That went alongside a toasted slice of sesame-encrusted semolina bread with fig jam. That’s what my Italian grandparents ate, plus the egg yolks and with basil instead of sage. Those healthy and culinary changes were my own revisions from new years back. What will I bring into 2014? Nearby, there is an authentic new Middle Eastern café that prepares a variety of hummus and pita breads alongside time-honored fresh falafel. I am in the process of tasting them all so that when both my daughters are home we can pool all our finds—from nut-free dishes prepared on one’s college campus to the vegetarian delights from the salad room at the kibbutz where another works. Perhaps we’ll call it “The Cutting Board.”

Lisa Bernard retired this New Year from twenty-plus years as Principal at Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc.  She continues to publish via http://www.CueCardCommunications.com, teach at the college level and consult for people and firms with compelling communication challenges.