29 March 2021 · Absolute IT
Preparing for a job interview with a hiring manager can feel like a big deal – so when an interview is with multiple people in a panel setting it’s only understandable that you would feel nervous. And it’s true, a panel style interview can be challenging, but it’s also an excellent opportunity to meet with more people from the business you’re considering working for. With some prep and a positive mindset towards panel style interviews, you can nail these interviews just as you might a 1-1 meeting. So how do you best handle a panel? Keep reading to find out!
Make sure you know who is going to be in the room
Don’t get blindsided by an interviewer who may have specific questions that would require some preparation. Reach out and establish exactly who is attending.
Not only is it common courtesy to have done your homework on the attendees of the meeting beforehand, it’s an important step in preparation. Ideally the hiring manager will have outlined who will be in the meeting (names and roles), but in some cases this information isn’t provided straight away. If that’s the case, we’d suggest you reach out and ask for this information – don’t be afraid to be transparent as to why.
With a clear picture of those who’ll be in the meeting, you’re able to figure out what sorts of questions might be asked based on their role. For example, a senior team member might have some more technical questions for you vs. a team leader who may be more interested in your work style, culture fit etc. To prepare for this, write out some bullet points on the types of questions you may get asked and add some answers. You’ll never completely predict every question, but some prep could prove really useful in the moment.
Think about things like:
- Technical skills on specific platforms, coding languages, disciplines.
- Views on emerging technologies.
- Specific projects you’ve worked on and what you contributed.
- Challenges you’ve encountered that might be relatable to certain people in the room (and how you overcame them).
- Your preferred work style.
- What’s important to you in a workplace and team environment.
- What prompted you to look for another role.
Preparation even more important with multiple people asking you questions
A long silence can be uncomfortable 1 on 1, but multiply that by the number of people in the room and the stress can start to distract you from answering questions – not exactly an enjoyable experience! Being adequately prepared can help you answer questions from any direction in a reasonable time. This means careful, considered answers that show a level of preparedness to the panel – even just the evidence of someone doing homework beforehand can be a huge plus when shortlisting candidates. After all, it’s a sign you’re taking the process seriously and care about the job role in question.
If you’ve been asked a question that you genuinely don’t understand, make sure you let them know in a clear but respectful manner, e.g. “Do you mind just going into a bit more detail about what you mean by xyz”. Most interviewers will have no issue clarifying for you. Be sure not to draw from this well too often though, as a lack of understanding throughout the interview could be a sign that you’ve not the experience or skills for the role. Just do your best to answer each question the best you can – the rest of it lies in the hands of the panel and employer!
Address the person who asked the question, but don’t ignore the others
Remember in English class when it got to that dreaded time of year to do speeches? One of the most common pieces of advice back then was ‘make sure you address the whole class, not just the front row or one person’. For most people this was a highly unnatural process, requiring stopping the speech and looking around before burying back into cue cards. Luckily in this context, there isn’t a prepared speech, but rather an answer based on your real experiences – far more natural. But the same mistake of just talking to one person can be made in a job interview. If someone asks you a question and the answer is reasonably detailed, remember to give your answer while catching every person’s eye. This is not only polite but it brings everyone along with what you’re saying, vs. them feeling as though they’re an audience. Important though, is to start your answer while looking at the person who asked it, as not doing this can be seen as very rude or disinterested. As you unpack your answer in more detail, move around the interview participants.
Create a conversational atmosphere
In a group setting, an open free flowing conversation is much more natural and effective at showcasing who you are. To do this, make sure you combine direct answers with thoughts, questions and context that encourages dialogue between everyone in the room. One great sign that the vibe is right, is when conversation (including you) happens between the panel on a topic. Perhaps you’ve talked about a solution to a problem at a previous role that this current employer hasn’t tried and is intrigued.
Don’t be afraid to go off course into something if the panel is visibly interested. Without overstepping the mark asking about confidential business information, you can probe a little bit and offer extra tidbits of advice. It’s in these moments that the application of your expertise is on display. That will stick in a panel’s mind after the interview is concluded. If you’ve made them think about something applicable to their business, what else might you be able to help with? That sort of lasting impression gives you an excellent chance of success of securing a role.
Conversations don’t all have to be technical either. Depending on the types of personalities on the interview panel, there might be openings to discuss family, interests, weekend activity, sports, and current events. While it might not seem relevant, those non-work conversations reveal more about who you are, which can put a panel at ease. It’s just as important for a panel to go away thinking I could work with that person as their confidence you’ve satisfied the job description’s requirements.
Be conscious of time…
Remember, with more people come more questions (and more answers). You’ll be amazed at just how quickly an hour will go by with a panel of interviewers asking questions. Take care to answer the question directly early on in your answer (the interviewer writing is a sign you’re on the right track), before you go into more detail. Another way to preserve time, and keep the panel’s interest, is to mix up shorter answers with longer ones. You can pick these based on how valuable extra information might be. A question about which languages you can code in might be a fairly straightforward answer where you can earn back valuable time to spend more on a question like ‘what sort of projects have you worked on?’. You have limited time, use it wisely.
…but don’t rush
Rambling is just confusing and detrimental to your chances of being memorable to the interview panel. But rushing through your answers can make it hard for an employer to get a proper sense of your fit for the role. If someone is clearly rushing an answer, it can give the impression that they might rush work and not go deep on tasks. Worse, it might suggest the interview itself is something to quickly get done and out the way. We can say from experience that candidates who rush interviews seldom if ever land the role.
Managing your time across an interview can be made much easier with thorough prep. It means you’ve got the material there when you need it, and can draw the appropriate amount from your prep that each question requires. The employer is also responsible for structuring an interview so you have ample time to answer all the questions they have.
Eye contact and body language
We’ve touched upon the need to look at all of the panel as you answer an in depth question. But broadly, body language and eye contact can do so much for the success of the interview. Sitting up straight, open arms (feel free to gesticulate as needed!) and direct eye to eye contact helps connect you with the panel. Sitting back slumped in a chair can make the interview panel think you’re not interested. Conversely, leaning far forward across the table could make your panel a bit uncomfortable. Stay relaxed but engaged!
Need help with preparing for an interview?
Further reading about job interviews
- Body Language Tips For Your Next Job Interview – Balance Careers
- Absolute IT Resources and Advice
- Interviews – Careers NZ