How not to choke during your next high-stakes job interview

BY GWEN MORAN

Sure, you’re going to do your homework and be prepared. But these tips can help you deal with the pressure.

You finally got the interview for that big job or promotion. As it gets closer, you make sure to prepare. It’s a great opportunity, but you’re haunted by one recurring thought: What if you get in there and totally blow it?

“When we are under stress, sometimes things don’t come out the way we thought they would, even though we have practiced, even though we know what we want to say,” says public speaking coach Maryna Shkvorets. “Especially when we’re sitting in front of that person who could determine our fate.”

So, how do you make sure you don’t choke on the big day? We asked career and communications professionals their best advice.

EMBRACE THE WORST-CASE

When you’re heading into a high-stakes interview, it’s likely that you’ve built up a bit of a storyline around it, says executive career coach Amy Sanchez. “For example, ‘If I don’t get this job, the rest of my life will be ruined.’ We tend to go into hyperbole. ‘If I don’t get this job, I’m not going to make it to the next step in my career,’” she says. But that’s usually not the case, and it’s adding to your stress around the interview.

Instead, think through (with an objective friend or mentor, if necessary) what the worst thing that could happen might be. You may really want the job, but when you realize that not getting it won’t be career-ending, it takes some of the pressure off, she says.

GET COMFORTABLE WITH PAUSES

Pauses in conversation are a powerful tool. “So often we fill the need to fill up dead air by talking, but a well-executed pause can have a bigger impact than packing in more details. A good pause allows your last point to really sink in and gives an air of confidence,” Shkvorets says. And if you’re not used to enduring pauses when someone else speaks, you might be tempted to just ramble to fill the dead air. That rarely makes a good impression, she says.

Get comfortable with pauses by practicing them. Pause for up to five seconds after each point, she suggests. “It may feel like forever, but it comes off very natural to the person on the other side. Plus, it gives you those precious few moments to collect yourself and think of what to say next,” she says.

REMIND THEM WHY THEY WANT YOU

Career coach Melanie L. Denny recommends asking one key question early in the interview: What was it about my application that made you want to meet today? “This sets a positive tone for the interview, reminds the interviewer of why he/she wanted you, gives you ammunition for negotiations later and a boost of confidence,” she says.

Then, throughout the interview, she says it’s a good idea to tell compelling stories of the value you delivered for past employers. Choose the stories that will be most relevant to the challenges you anticipate encountering in the job for which you’re interviewing.

POSITION YOURSELF AS A PROBLEM-SOLVER

Companies hire people to solve problems. Be open-minded and listen, the ask the right questions, says career consultant Lori Scherwin, founder of consultancy Strategize That. “Be strategic. Think: goals of the firm, success factors, leadership development and growth opportunities. Ask your prospective boss their near- and long-term priorities. Position yourself as a partner rather than just an executor.” When you are in a position to provide something someone else needs, it also takes pressure off.

PREP UNDER PRESSURE

You know you need to rehearse. But, don’t just do so in front of a mirror. Try to create some of the pressure you’ll be facing in the actual interview, Shkvorets says. Schedule a session with a few friends or a mentor who can act as the team that will be interviewing you. They should be tough on you and ask the same types of questions the interviewers will ask, she says. That way, when you step into the interview setting, it will feel more familiar.

CREATE A CONNECTION

While you’re doing your homework about the company or position, gather some information about your interviewers, if possible, Denny says. Don’t get too personal—you don’t want to look up their Instagram and comment on their photos, for example. But if you look on LinkedIn and see that you share an alma mater or hometown, that’s fair game, she says.

PREP WISELY

It’s also a good idea to practice some self-care as you get ready for the interview, Sanchez says. “The night before, focus on getting a good night’s sleep—use meditation, a warm bath, or any type of calming exercise to help you wind down,” she adds. Arrive a little early and get ready to shine.