How 'closing argument' could help your interview

I'd like to report that the heartfelt summation worked, just like it does in courtroom dramas.

Uh, no, that's not what happened here. As my client related, he knew it was pretty much a lost cause already, based on every nonverbal signal an interviewer can give without actually holding up a red card. But he did win a nod of respect from the silent-partner interviewer who hadn't said a thing throughout the meeting. She appeared to be evaluating the situation from a new light after his short speech and thanked him with what felt like sincerity as he left.

So why am I relaying a great idea that didn't work? Because I'm convinced it's still a great idea, and I'm eager to see it applied in other situations. After thinking through what my client did more or less off the cuff, I think I might have a formula that candidates can follow when using this strategy.

1. Identify your key messages for the interview. This is always my first step when preparing for an interview, but it happens to fit in well with this closing argument concept. In essence, a key message is one of a handful of points you want to emphasize during the conversation.

For simplicity, I like to stick to only three or four messages per interview. The messages will vary from one interview to the next, even in the same field or company. For example, when interviewing with a recruiter, messages will center on your overall competence and ability to do the work.

But when meeting with your future supervisor for the same job, one of your messages might be calibrated to meet his or her self-interest: "I'm a self-sufficient, low-drama team member who meets her deadlines." When paired with other messages that specify actual skills or experience, this statement can be surprisingly powerful.

2. Identify the questions you would normally ask at the end of an interview. Since you're planning to give up your Q&A slot for your big speech, you'll want to get those questions answered elsewhere in the conversation. This strategy can be very effective, by the way. When questions are woven into the fabric of the conversation, they tend to have more impact than when they're enumerated in a rush at the end.

3. Write out a paragraph incorporating your key messages in which you answer the question, "Why should we hire you for this position?" Hint: To be most persuasive, you're really answering the unspoken question, "What benefit do we get from hiring you?"

Here's an example of two sentences that seem to say the same thing. Which one is focused toward the interviewer's self-interest?

A) "One reason to hire me is that I have more than a decade of experience in all aspects of the field so I really know the work well."

B) "My decade of experience in all aspects of the work gives me techniques and outside resources that can reduce downtime on the line and get us back up and running very quickly."

Of course, the interviewer-centered message is B. Practice rephrasing your messages to ensure the benefit to the interviewer is clearly present in each one.

4. Once you have written your paragraphs, time yourself: Are you at two minutes or less? Practice until you can give this message without seeming rushed or canned. When it feels the most natural is when it will have the most impact.

5. Tell them you want the job. Believe it or not, employers still say that they do not know which candidates want the position.

Will this "closing argument" work for you? I don't have enough data to predict, but I can't see how it could hurt. At the very least, you'll know that you finished the interview well. And sometimes last impressions are even more important than first impressions.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

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