should I turn my questions to interviewers into a sales pitch for myself?

A reader writes:

I have read, and made good use of, all of your posts about the best sorts of questions to ask an interviewer and how an interview should be a conversation. However, some issues have been coming up during that part of the interview in a number of recent interviews, and I am wondering if I should be acting differently when I’m asking the interviewer my own questions.

Once an interviewer responds to your question, say about “What sort of person does well at your company,” are you supposed to respond with something like, “I have experience in that sort of situation you mention, for example [x…],” and how extensive should this answer be? The answer to this question seems like it should definitely be “yes” for that sort of question, but does your answer change if I am asking more technical questions? I worry about overdoing it by following up with examples of similar work highlighting my technical knowledge.

No, please do not do that. When you ask your interviewer questions, the goal is to hear the answer — not to turn it into an opportunity for a sales pitch. I hate it when candidates do that; it makes it seem like their questions aren’t genuine and they’re not using the answers to help think critically about whether the job is right for them. And that takes away all the benefits of having a candid give and take — it denies you, the candidate, the ability to assess the interviewer’s answers in the moment, which is key to assessing whether you should even want this job, and it will make your interviewer feel like you’re stuck in sales mode. Not thinking critically, not genuinely gathering information, just … selling.

A dating analogy might help illustrate this: Imagine if you were on a first date with someone, and every time you gave him a thoughtful answer to a question, he used that as an opportunity to advocate for why you and he were a great match. You’d feel like he was overly interested in making you like him, and not nearly interested enough in actually getting to know you. It’s a similar thing here.

So ask a question, listen to the answer, and have a thoughtful response — but don’t make a point of using it to sell yourself.

And sure, on occasion your natural response might just happen to do that anyway. If you ask the interviewer about the workplace culture and in part of her answer she mentions the company’s weekly tetherball tournaments and you just happen to love tetherball, of course it’s fine to share that. But you’d let that happen naturally; you don’t need to go searching for that kind of mirroring after every answer she gives you.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Ruffingit

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, which I am paraphrasing here “Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.”

    When you’re asking questions of the interviewer, your intent should be to understand whatever it is you’re asking about – culture, how to be successful in the role, teamwork, etc. The intent is not to reply to whatever they say there and sell yourself.

  2. Joey

    There’s an art to doing it without coming off salesy. I’ve had a few people go overboard in responding to everything go with “I’ve done that” or “I have that experience.” It reminds me of Kristen wiigs character Penelope, the ultimate one upper. If its somethig new you want to speak to it needs to be conversational as opposed to feeling like a you’re trying to make an official statement. Instead of saying things like “I have experience in x” it feels much more natural to hear a follow up question or even something simple like “that sounds great.”

  3. AnotherAlison

    If they do mention tetherball, I think you should immediately say, “Hey Summer, you want to play me?” thereby further verifying cultural fit.

    (So what is the lower age limit on people who get Napoleon Dynamite references these days?)

    1. nyxalinth

      There’s a guy who used to get on my bus when I was working steadily, and he looked exactly like Napoleon Dynamite! I used to think “Hey Napoleon, where you going to on the bus today?” and him saying “Wherever I want to go! God!”

  4. Sunflower

    I never know how to respond after question’s like that. I usually say something like ‘okay that sounds like something I can definitely do’ or ‘great, that sounds in line with my visions’- and say it confidently, not overly enthusiastic like I’m trying to hard. When I don’t know what to do I just nod my head to show I understand and I’m processing what I’m hearing.

    1. OP

      OP here – This is exactly what I have been doing to date, Sunflower. I’ve just been struggling on how/whether to turn my questioning portion into more of a conversation and less of a Q&A. Glad to know I’m not alone.

      1. Enid

        I totally share this feeling — I recently had my first real job interview in a long time, and I was armed with my list of questions to ask, and then after the interviewer answered the question I realized I had no idea how I should be responding. Thanks, AAM!

  5. HAnon

    I’ve learned over the past few years that it’s more important for me to be a genuinely good fit than it is to pretend to be someone I’m not. For me, this means not pretending to be an outgoing extrovert who would be fantastic talking to people on the phone all day, when really I’m an introvert who would rather focus on my projects and deliverables. I also know that, while I’m a hard worker and I’ll do what it takes to get the job done, I’m not going to function well on a team where long hours and quick turn-around is the norm. I’ve learned that I can “sell” myself on certain things in an interview, if I need to, but it’s better to find a genuine connection, and to be able to say, yes this job sounds like a good fit for ME, I can see myself enjoying my work here. I think that’s a better long-term strategy, even if it means holding out longer or going on more interviews. I’m not advocating total transparency about everything but it’s best to know if the job is one where you will be operating in the majority areas of your strengths, and the weaknesses you have to work on to compensate will be minor, not major aspects of the job and culture. (I’m not as much of a “people person” — I have to work harder than some to be friendly and outgoing in a group or workplace setting — but it’s ok, because the majority of my job is task/project based so the extra effort I have to extend is minimal)

  6. kac

    I think there’s a way to do this and have it be genuine! I think the key is to really listen to the answer first.

    For example:
    Interviewer: Well, we really like people who are strong at a, b, and c, because we spend so much time working on x, y, and z.
    Interviewee: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that! I’ve been really looking to be part of a team that does x, y, and x. When I’ve been part of that in the past [at chocolate teapot inc], I’ve really enjoyed and done will with the work. I’m happy to hear that’s an important part of the team’s projects here.

    The key is that you are not overtly selling yourself. Instead, you are responding to the mutual *fit,* which is actual topic of your question/their answer, and indirectly you are referencing your strengths.

    Full disclosure: I work in sales, so I have a lot of experience trying to find ways to communicate without being “salesy.” I think the key is always to really listen to what the other person is saying and, in your response, have any enthusiasm you express be genuine.

  7. Laurie

    Oh interesting – I think I’ve been guilty of doing this on a few occasions. Not from an explicit intent to be sales-y, but more from an awkwardness in not knowing how to respond. I’ll need to get more comfortable with responding simply with ‘Interesting’ or ‘That’s good to know’ and then gauge if the interviewer is looking for a follow-up response.

  8. Elizabeth West

    A dating analogy might help illustrate this: Imagine if you were on a first date with someone, and every time you gave him a thoughtful answer to a question, he used that as an opportunity to advocate for why you and he were a great match.

    Hahaha, good analogy. It’s bad enough in dating; why would I want a coworker who is all about blowing his own horn?

    1. CollegeAdmin

      I’m picturing a whole series of skits in my head around this.

      “Well, I really enjoy baking…”
      “Wonderful! I love eating – I do it every day – what a happy coincidence!”

      “I’m an architect, I design houses for a living.”
      “I live in a house! We have so much in common!”

      “My passion is saving tigers from extinction.”
      “I once owned a Beanie Baby tiger as a kid – it must be fate that brought us together!”

    2. tcookson

      We had an admin once who was hired based (in part) because the hiring manager was impressed with her ability, in the interview, to talk about her abilities at great and detailed length. Okay, that’s fine. But a few of us went to lunch with her ONCE, and she talked so extensively about herself that it was like an hour-long infomercial all about her. It was completely exhausting, and we were all worn out afterward.

    1. Windchime

      Oh, we used to play tetherball in Jr High all the time. Such fun! Of course, I was very tall for my age so it was more fun for me than it was for most other people. :)

  9. Carrie

    I think the last paragraph is KEY… if it’s natural, then it’s great… forced and it’s awkward.
    One thing a recent candidate did, which was actually very nice given the context, was after I explained a part of the job, they referred back to something similar we had talked about in their job history in more detail and we ended up talking extensively about how it was similar and some of the finer points in how it was different. It was great in this interview because this was a career change for the candidate, and it helped both of us understand their fit and skills better.

    BUT the key was it was a natural extension of the conversation, and not forced.

    1. Software Developer

      I agree that it should be natural. In my last interview, I asked questions with no intention of selling myself with them, and I pretty sure that’s on of the main reasons I received an offer.

      Since it was a very niche field and entry-level position, they where looking for someone to train in stead of someone with experience.
      (I know nothing about teapots, and have never heard of them before the interview. Before the interview I Googled how they are made.)

      My question: Do you use moulds of chisels to make your teapots?
      Interviewer: We use chisels.
      Me: O, good. I have used chicles to make small ornaments once.
      Interviewer: You have? Wow! Chisels are really hard and we struggle to train people with them.

      I got the job, and it was never my intention to sell myself with my somewhat unrelated chisel skills.

  10. TootsNYC

    The way to respond is to ask another question:
    “What’s the biggest challenge?”
    Oh, our biggest challenge is coping with a rapid pace and extreme deadline pressure.
    “What are some things that have made this easier on your team?”/”How are you coping with that?” / “Do you think the team handles it well enough, or is this particularly damaging?”

    I have occasionally referenced their answers in a later part of the interview.

    Two questions later, I say, “Our deadlines at that place were particularly rough–I know you said that’s a problem for you right now. We coped by buffering staff early in the process and chewing them up at the end. I was able to retain staff despite that because they knew how respected they were, and the painful part was short and encapsulated–we weren’t on deadline crunch all the time.”

    1. TootsNYC

      Oh, or I commiserate, esp. if I can do it from an “I’ve been there” POV.
      I put myself beside them, looking at their challenge/skill requirement/whatever. Not -in front of them- for them to look at me.

      “That would be a challenge–I’d say that deadline pressure has probably been the toughest part for me in other places as well. It seems to make all the other stuff–finding qualified staff, keeping quality high–harder.”
      I sound like I’m familiar with it, but I’m not explicitly saying, “I can do that!”

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