“Why should we choose you over someone else?”
This is one of the most common questions asked in job interviews. And it’s totally stupid – impossible to answer, because you don’t know who else has applied.
Thankfully, there’s a secret, smarter question lurking beneath the silly one. What prospective employers – and most strangers who meet you for the first time – are really trying to understand is this.
“What makes you special?”
If you learn how to answer that question in a clear and confident way, in a variety of different personal and professional situations, you massively stack the odds of your own success. If you don’t, no amount of innate brilliance or hard work will get you to where you want to go.
Carrie is an extremely bright young woman who came to me for some coaching support. Carrie has wanted to be a lawyer since she was eight years old (it happens, apparently!). She’d held onto her ambition through her teenage years, watching back episodes of LA Law, and gone on to get a good law degree.
But Carrie’s passion for her subject got her nowhere when it came to applying for a job.
The feedback from her interviews was consistent – she came over in a rehearsed way and didn’t engage. These law firms were looking for someone that could win the trust of clients, take ownership for projects and ultimately sell their expertise, but Carrie interviewed as nervous and passive. She was good at the work, but she didn’t leave the interviewers feeling eager to spend more time with her. And so she got rejected, again and again.
Tom, on the other hand, did manage to secure a place on the corporate graduate programme he was aiming for. Six months in, however, his boss was wondering how he had managed it. Tom was a straight A student, used to following the process to get a brilliant result. But when he had to work without clear direction, think on his feet and deal with quickly changing goal posts, he found himself out of his depth.
Instead of recognizing what was going on, noticing how he was reacting to it, and having the conversations he needed to turn things around, Tom withdrew and grew increasingly angry. This wasn’t what he had been sold! Tom began to question his career choices while the organization, slowly but surely, wrote him off.
Both Carrie and Tom demonstrate the same point: without impact, talent goes to waste. It’s not that rare to be good at something. Most of us have natural gifts or hard-won accomplishments. What’s really rare is the ability to make an immediate and positive impression on others. And it’s especially hard when you’re young.
We tend to think of ‘presence’ as a personality trait, something you’ve either got or you haven’t. In fact, it is a precise and teachable set of skills. I am often asked – if I could coach young people on just one thing, what would it be? And without a doubt, it would be the ability to make an impact.
Success and happiness do not come from what we can do. They come from how good we are at engaging others. Research backs this up. One study has shown that people make a decision about you in an average of seven seconds; the rest of the time, they’re simply looking for evidence that validates that first impression. Similarly, recruitment surveys show that the top reason interviewers choose one candidate over another is because of the connection they make with them, regardless of how well they do in tests.
People who make a powerful impact display clear traits.
They feel comfortable in their own skin;
they communicate in a clear and engaging way, whether they are talking to a friend or a complete stranger;
they remain fully present when they’re with people by listening, sharing and contributing; and
they tell stories that others remember.
One of the most impactful CEOs I know has progressed from being a commission-only sales guy to running one of the leading software businesses in the world. He puts his success down to being truly comfortable with himself and knowing how to connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But that wasn’t always the case. Aged eight, this CEO was a ginger-haired boy with a drunk for a dad and hand-knitted jumpers. He was relentlessly teased and, by 16, seriously depressed.
But at that point, rather than accepting he was doomed, he decided that he was going to become the kind of person that he himself would like. He read voraciously, he took classes at a drama school to learn how to speak confidently, he eventually worked with a series of top coaches who could help him boost his impact. Now you can see him regularly on TV, rubbing shoulders with presidents and rock stars. He is never nervous – just himself. People are compelled to be with him. And he never stops learning about who he is and how he shows up.
So yes – you can learn how to have more of that elusive ‘presence’. But you need to work at it.
The journey starts by asking yourself three challenging questions.
1. How good are you in the moment? You get in a lift and meet someone who could make all the difference to your career. You have the time it takes to get to the 7th floor to make an impression. How do you do?
2. How compelling are you? Do people want to hang out with you? Are you regularly invited to events? Would you want to sit next to yourself on a long journey? Do people remember who you are?
3. What do people say about you when you are not in the room? Who do you know that would go out on a limb for you? Would others recommend your talents? Would they recommend you as one to watch?
Presence is the secret superpower of really successful people. Are you ready to find yours?
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Stephen is one of the Ivy House Alumni, and when he completed the Programme he made a commitment to himself: take on and conquer the Brighton Half Marathon.
The game of doing the right thing on the surface, whilst at the same time making your real feelings perfectly clear, is as common as it is destructive.