how to interview long-winded job candidates who won’t stop talking

A reader writes:

While I try to be understanding of job candidates who give 5-minute responses to several interview questions that should never ever take that long to answer, I just can’t get past it, and it makes me want to fidget uncomfortably.

Would it be rude to phrase the first question with, “In 90 seconds or less, please tell us how your work experience relates to the teapot inspector position?”

I’ve tried a lot of tactics to trim down excessive long-winded responses. Some that have helped include instructing candidates to be thorough yet brief in their responses, providing them with the number of questions and time constraints at the beginning of an interview and advising them to monitor their time, and also starting some interview questions with the word briefly. Some of my committee members have been more cutthroat and often cut off the chatty ones with a rushed, “OK. Thank you.” of finality when the candidate finally takes a big enough breath. I’ve even gotten “meaner” over time by trying to convey with body language that I’m losing interest.

Unfortunately, first interviews with my employer have to be structured strictly by a script once the questions begin, so there isn’t a lot of leeway to help overly chatty candidates correct their course.

Long-windedness in interviews is my pet peeve. I really don’t like it. I have a certain amount of time set aside and a lot of questions to get through, and long-winded interviewees mean that I’m not going to be able to cover everything that I want to cover.

But you know what? Candidates who go on and on and on are giving me valuable information about themselves: They’re telling me that they’re not well-matched with roles that require them to be concise or that require them to pick up on other people’s cues in conversation (because I make a point of giving cues about the amount of time we have, both at the start of the conversation and — if necessary — as we continue).

So as annoying as I find long-windedness, I’m glad to have the info now, rather than discovering after hiring them that every conversation will be three times as long as it needs to be. I want them to show that to me now, so that I can decide if it’s likely to be a problem in the job or not.

Of course, there are jobs and some work cultures where long-windedness doesn’t really matter. If that’s the case, then I hear you on needing a way to move the conversation along and get the info that you need.

But I wouldn’t say “in 90 seconds or less, tell me ___.” While that might get you shorter answers, it will turn off candidates who aren’t longwinded, because it will seem weirdly rigid and overly proscriptive. It’s not really conducive to having a conversational interview, which is the kind you want.

What you can do (some of which you’re already trying):

* Tell people at the start of the interview how much time you’ve set aside and roughly how many questions you’re hoping to get through in that time.

* If you’re finding someone is still being long-winded, you can say, “I don’t want to cut you off, but I want to make sure that I’m able to get through all my questions and want to leave plenty of time for your own questions as well.”

* If necessary, you can say directly, “We have about X more questions to get through and only Y minutes, so we might need to keep discussion of these next few items fairly brief.”

Also! If you’re interested in having the most useful interviews possible, truly the most important change you could make is to drop the prohibition on deviating from the interview script. That rule is weakening your interviews way more than the chattiest candidate could ever do. I realize that might be outside your control, but if you’re in any sort of position to push back on that, please do.

{ 164 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Madness

    As someone who is sometimes long-winded, I always appreciate when interviewers call me out. When it has happened, it’s usually something like what is stated above, “We have to get through a few more questions, so we need concise answers.” Being long winded is a-no-so great habit I am trying to fix, but I don’t always realize when I have fallen back into it. A comment like this snaps me right out and gives me the opportunity to correct instead of annoy the interviewer.

  2. AndersonDarling

    When beginning the interview, I’d remind the candidate that this is an initial screening and subsequent interviews will dig deeper. At this point you just need concise responses.
    I can understand the need for a candidate to continue talking if they believe this is the only chance they will have to provide information.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      What I find with candidates who do this is that it’s not about providing more information. They tend to repeat things in different ways, or go off on tangents, or just take a long time to get to their answer to the question.

      1. Beezus

        I used to be TERRIBLE at this. I improved after taking a public speaking class, where I realized that I was uncomfortable with pauses in conversation. If I was just ad-libbing, I would ramble, because I was afraid to pause long enough to organize my thoughts, and afraid to stop talking. If I had a defined speech planned, already organized with a clear close, I would still “ummm” and “uhhh” for those brief moments while my brain and my mouth were syncing up, because I was still afraid of pausing.

        Realizing I was just trying to fill silence, and reminding myself that silence was okay, helps a lot.
        Planning conversations that can be planned in advance helps, too – I do a lot of talking to myself in my car.
        I also realized that I’m more likely to ramble when I’m speculating than when I’m talking about something I know, so I try to watch that, and when appropriate, I’ll ask for more time to find something out rather than trying to speculate on the spot – I needed to get comfortable with admitting I didn’t know something and asking for more time.

        1. JM in England

          I tend to have the opposite problem and make my answers TOO concise. Have gotten the look after I answered that seemed to imply “and?”……………..

        2. JB (not in Houston)

          I have this problem, but it’s not to fill silence. I speak the way I write, and I have the same problem David Foster Wallace said he had: I want to make sure you really understand what I’m trying to say, but I’m not good at being clear and also concise. So I say it one way, and then I think I should explain it in a different way in case I didn’t make myself clear the first time, and then maybe I should give an example, and so on. You get the picture. I’m better than I used to be. And this is actually an asset when I’m trying to explain a legal concept to someone who doesn’t have a legal background, and I can see from their face that they aren’t following. But it’s not a communication style you want to use all the time. I am better than I used to be, but I still need to work on it. I am actually relieved when the person I’m speaking to can tactfully move the conversation along because sometimes I want to but I’m stuck in a loop and don’t know how.

    2. AE

      I have experienced an interviewer who said this but then asked questions that seemed to demand a story or a thoughtful response. That was one of the worst interviews I’ve had. I felt terrible about taking too long but I still can’t think of a concise response to the specific questions I fielded.

  3. Ann Furthermore

    This is something I do struggle with, although in email more than conversations. I’ve gotten into the habit of composing an email response, and then editing out what might be superfluous information. I think the issue is that I like to write, enjoy words in general, and I type pretty quickly. So it turns into a stream of consciousness thing.

    1. AdminAnon

      I do that all the time. For me, it ends up being a good way to organize my thoughts and make sure that I don’t miss anything. I type every piece of information that pops into my head and then cut out 80% of it and edit the rest.

    2. AE

      Long-winded e-mails bother me more than in-person chattiness, because I wonder how much work time was wasted on it. At least in person you can cut it off and you haven’t been a party to someone wasting time.

      1. Jenna Maroney

        Interesting – for me, a short email can take longer to compose than a longer one, because (like Ann Furthermore), I like words and am naturally a little verbose. Me putting the minimum time + effort into an email will result in a longer email, because a shorter email might take less typing but requires (for me) more thought. I’m much better at this than I used to be after some very useful feedback from a great manager, but those are the tendencies I am dealing with.

        1. JB (not in Houston)

          Yes, for me too. Fortunately I have become much much better at making certain kinds of writings short, and email is one of them. But some areas I still struggle with.

      2. Liza

        I think it was Pascal who said something like “I’m sorry to have written you such a long letter, I did not have time to write a short one.” Writing concisely does take more time!

        1. JB (not in Houston)

          Writing concisely and *well* certainly does. And I’ve long loved that quote for that very reason, but I’d forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder!

    3. Oryx

      Yes, I struggle with this in writing all the time. My new manager politely called me out on it and I try to do better now.

      I was actually just reflecting on how Twitter helps with this — 140 characters, you need to be concise to get your point across effectively.

      1. Ann Furthermore

        Interesting observation about Twitter. I’ve never used it, but yeah, only having 140 characters would make you choose your words carefully!

    4. EvaR

      I have the opposite problem in email. I totally want to fire off a one word email or a single phrase, but it seems to put others off. Which is weird because sometimes I definately go off on tangents when talking or writing online other places. It’s just email.

  4. LBK

    As someone who has a tendency to be long-winded and has specifically been told I talk too much in interviews, I’d go with #2 out of the phrasing options. That’s what I’ve gotten and it feels the least judgmental/annoyed while still being clear that you need to wrap up the question.

  5. brightstar

    Just wondering if anyone else has had a problem accessing the site today? Judging by the few comments I’m thinking it isn’t just in my end?

    I kept getting a screen to check my browser and then timing out.

    1. Natalie

      PSA, there’s a great site called Down For Everyone or Just Me that I find super helpful. (Google will bring it up.)

    2. Anx

      It’s been down.

      I almost always have a problem with this website, though. I have a difficulty scrolling , can’t type ‘in real time’ (so there are a lot of errors), and sometimes have to restart my browser. It’s even slow on the computers at school which are usually faster than my personal laptop.

        1. Anx

          I thought it was just my computer, because I use a very old browser (I can’t upgrade because my OS is too old).

          But it also happens at school (which I won’t be at for a few days so I can’t check the browser). I am not sure why this website runs at such a bigger lag than the others I use at school since the browsers seem up to date and everything. I wish I had some information.

  6. edj3

    Yes, I got the screen to check my browser (why??) and did eventually connect but it was very slow.

    1. SerfinUSA

      Totally off-topic, but it took me a long long time to finally access AAM this morning. Kept getting some interference and a 503 message after something called CloudFlare said it was checking my browser.

  7. MM

    While some people are naturally long-winded, I think it’s also worth considering that the candidate may be just nervous. Some people tend to natter on and on when they’re in a nerve-racking situation.

    1. Blurgle

      This.

      Interviews are terrifying. Some people simply run at the mouth when they’re on one.

      1. jag

        They can be terrifying if you badly need or want the job. If you go into one with power or flexibility, they needn’t be.

        I’m reading all the nerves/fear (not just you) and problems rambling here and can’t help but wish more people would work on this. Work on controlling you nerves. Work on speaking clearly and concisely. These are skills. They can be improved. There are books and info online about them.

        The commenters here seem rather mindful of their own foibles. I hope they’re working on them if they want to do better.

        1. JB (not in Houston)

          “can’t help but wish more people would work on this”

          Well, a lot of people do work on this, but it isn’t an easy problem to overcome. Sure it can be done (usually), but let’s not downplay how much work it can take.

    2. Job-Hunt Newbie

      Very true. I am the WORST at phone interviews. Always have to catch myself from rambling, talking too fast, or getting flustered because I don’t remember all the question details. In person, I’m much more concise and comfortable, because I can actually see who I’m talking to. Nerves definitely can play a huge part, especially when you don’t know if your answer is the “right” answer that the company is looking for!

      1. The Other Dawn

        UGH the speed talking is something I do, also. I have 4 other siblings who like to interrogate me when I tell them something and they always cut me off before I can get my answer out. My in-laws do this to me, too. I think because of that, I always have a fear that I won’t be able to get it all out before I’m cut off so I try to talk fast.

        1. Cath in Canada

          Same here, especially on the phone. My brain and my mouth start trying to race each other! I run “slow down, slow down” on a loop in my head before any interview, and it helps a bit. Taking a breath before even starting to answer a question also helps.

      2. Meg Murry

        I hate phone interviews too, because you can’t read the facial expressions of the interviewer, so you don’t know whether you are getting head nodding approval, or if the person is rolling their eyes at their desk, so its really easy to just keep talking and talking.

        1. Job-Hunt Newbie

          Very true! I actually had one of these recently where I silently cringed at one of my answers (since it was clunky and I was nervous, since this is a place I’d really like to work), and not being able to see if the people were doing the same was really nerve-wracking.

          Apparently my clunky yet detailed answers resonated with them though, since they want me to come in! Always good to remember that even if you think you did horrible, were nervous, or talked too fast, that there’s still a chance you can advance on. :)

        2. Anx

          Ugh.

          I was giving an in-person interview once and the interviewer asked me what I would do if a person came up to me and said “x.” I mentioned that my response would depend in part on facial cues, vocal cues and body language. Apparently that was super wrong because he told me that it absolutely wouldn’t’ matter and chided me for being so naive.

          This is a little vindicating to here. It DOES matter!

            1. Anx

              It’s probably worth noting that I couldn’t tell if this man was a total jerk or was stress interviewing me. I think it was a combination of both. He also told me that I’d be disappointed by the salary because they don’t pay what NYC pays. Despite considerable difference in the cost of living between the NYC metro area and my current locale, minimum wage is about the same and I doubt people in NYC who do this job are making nearly as close to a living wage as I could do here with the low range of their hourly salary.

              Somehow I got a second interview, but not the job. So maybe it was a stress interview.

      3. AE

        Me too! I wish they’d just interrupt if they think I’m taking too long, because afterward I wonder about that.

      4. JB (not in Houston)

        Yes, I hate not being able to see the person I’m talking to! As awkward as face to face can be sometimes, it’s must easier to get a read on how the conversation is going if you can see the other person’s face.

    3. The Other Dawn

      Exactly. And I think it’s usually easy to tell the difference between someone who is nervous and someone who is long-winded.

      This is definitely me when I’m nervous. I try not to do it, but I just can’t help myself sometimes.

    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s totally possible. But the thing is, I don’t have any way of knowing, and if it’s just how they normally talk, it will drive me crazy if I work closely with them. If I’m not going to be the person who works closely with them (or if I’m hiring for a client, like what I do now), I’ll just flag it as a potential issue for the person who will, and let them decide.

      1. BRR

        We have someone who doesn’t know when a conversation should end. The format usually goes:
        -explains situation and asks questions
        -receives answer needed
        -says thank you
        – repeats original brief story with addition useless details 4 times.

        1. JB (not in Houston)

          I used to have a coworker who was very nice, and I liked him as a person, but I never wanted to talk to him. We would have our conversation, I would say something that seemed like a wrap up to the conversation, and he would just sit there and look at me. I was like, “what do you want from me, permission to leave? I don’t know what I’m supposed to say now!”

      2. Michele

        It is interesting that you flag that. I do all initial candidate screens myself because I don’t trust HR to note if someone seems evasive, rude, or has poor communication skills.

    5. jag

      Lot of people are nervous.

      It’s appropriate to judge people a bit in how they deal with nervousness if that might be part of the job (talking to clients, high-level staffers, difficult customers, etc).

      1. Jackie

        I would say that interview nerves are totally different from when confronted with other stressful situations.

        I’m a nervous talker when I’m on an interview. But, when something comes up that is stressful in my line of work (I’m a teacher), I am totally calm and collected. I can deal with students flipping their lids, coworkers who are irritating beyond belief and parents on the war path. However, I end up doing the frantic babbling once the situation is over and I’m debriefing with someone.

        What I would say to the OP is to make sure that you give the interviewee visual cues that you have heard enough. I go on and on when the facial expressions of the people I’m talking to don’t change. But, if I get some kind of feed back, like a small nod or a smile, then I know they think I’ve answered the question and I stop.

        1. JM in England

          Totally agree…………..interview stress and stress from job-related situations are completely different animals. As such, you react differently to each.

          1. A Definite Beta Guy

            I don’t have interview stress. In most of my interviews, my interviewers are not engaging in conversation. They’re asking behavioral questions off a list and just jotting down notes. Whenever someone does not respond to something I say, I assume it’s because they don’t understand what I just said.
            Instinct?
            Clarify, expand, etc.
            My favorite interview was with a Formulary Manager at Catamaran who asked precisely zero behavioral questions. He described what the job WAS: Catamaran has Medicaid clients and someone needs to update the goddam formulary and verify pricing. He described the downside: It’s boring as shit. He described precisely why he worried about me: I was obviously smart and would get bored with his job.
            My 2nd favorite interview was with an Industrial Cost Accountant, who explained his job, the history of cost accounting, and the new philosophy. Again, zero behavioral questions. He explained why he worried about me: I was way too nerdy to work with blue-collar workers.

            Straight-shooters, love ’em.

        2. JB (not in Houston)

          I can’t stand it when I get absolutely no change in a facial expression. You don’t have to be falling all over me, but just some acknowledgement that the words I’m saying have penetrated your brain.

    6. Mints

      As someone who’s usually really concise, the only times I feel like I blabber on are when I feel like I’m not explaining myself well.
      I’m feeling panicky and I want to make sure they understood so I’m like:
      The ball is red. (???) Red is the color of the ball. (….) The round object is red. (?????) The ball is the color of cherries. (……..) The round sports object is the color of Mars and strawberries and blood and rust (????!!!!) …does that make sense?

      In that case, a little active listening goes a long way. If I see a nod or a written note, I’m done.

      1. JB (not in Houston)

        Yes, I was just saying this above! The ball is red. Um, you probably know what red looks like, but it’s this color. The ball is this color all the way around, completely covered in this color. Am I making sense? is a conversation type I have a lot of.

  8. Rat Racer

    Huh! I didn’t even know this was a thing! I actually like getting detailed answers to interview questions as long as the candidate is supplying useful information. Sometimes they answer questions 2-4 with a long answer to question 1. Sometimes they reveal a red flag that I wouldn’t have thought to probe for.

    I would say to interviewers that – beyond asking candidates to be concise – if you want brief answers, try to avoid broad open-ended questions.

    1. anony mouse

      +1! I hate it when interviewees are too concise, because it feels like pulling teeth trying to get good responses from them with concrete examples, instead of lofty general, “I’m a good employee and follow-through!” type of answers.

      1. BRR

        Last interview I did the candidate was early and speedy. She was thorough but we ran through all of our questions 15 min in out of a 30 min interview. I didn’t think she needed to elongate her answers. I was satisfied. There was another interviewer so we took turns asking and drawing her out while the other though of more.

    2. LizB

      I think the “answering questions 2-4 with answer 1” phenomenon is another reason to ditch the script — if you ask about a challenge they’ve overcome, and their answer includes a great example of a time they solved a disagreement with a co-worker, you should be able to either leave out the question about solving a disagreement, or rephrase it to ask about some specific part of their answer.

    3. The OP

      This is so true, but interviewers have to assess the person and words presented in the interview. Even when it is obvious that someone is a nervous chatterbox, we still have to do our best to assess what we’re seeing in the interview. I try to see past nervousness, nervous chatter, etc. But then the answer should have some substantial meat in it (and actually answer the question that’s being asked)!

      1. The OP

        Ok, that last reply was dragged to an irrelevant area and should go up with the chatterbox comments.

        LizB, I see what you’re saying. Most of my experiences with long winded candidates have also been compounded by either repetitive information and/or irrelevant information. I love thorough focused answers to questions, but when they answers lack focus or don’t answer the question, they do nothing for the candidate! I actually struggle with this problem myself, and have had to practice and incorporate strategies to help me stay focused on answering the question but also remembering to thoroughly answer it.

    4. land of oaks

      Yeah, if you ask “Describe your experience working with teapot retailers” and that describes literally every job I’ve had in my 15-year resume.. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to keep that short.

      Also, don’t say “keep your answer thorough but brief.” I have no idea what that means.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        But that question isn’t saying “walk me through every detail of your teapot retail experience.” You’d still be able to give a relatively briefly overview, like “I’ve spent my whole 15-year career working with teapot retailers, doing everything from X and Y, and most recently focusing on Z. I’m taken a particular interest in A and B and recently did a project where I __.”

        1. land of oaks

          Well maybe I got the wording wrong, but I recently was asked a question that basically encompassed my entire resume, and they had told me I only had a minute for each question, and yet made it clear by the way they worded it, that they wanted a description of every job I had had that met their criteria. It was a very confusing interview.

      2. Windchime

        I don’t think that “Describe your experience working with teapot retailers” means the same thing as “Describe every single experience you have ever had with working with all retailers over every job in your 15-year career.” For something like that, I would probably start with my most current job and just talk about my current experiences. If there was something amazing at a previous employer (“I also sold teapots to the Queen!”), then I would touch on that as well.

        We recently interviewed a candidate who would not. stop. talking. She also had a bit of an agressive edge to her, so the whole interview was painful. I shuddered to imagine her being in a cube next to me 40 hours a week and listening to her blabber on. Ugh.

        1. phillist

          You know, I wince a little when I read responses like this. I spent most of my career working in hospitality, where being an aggressive, talkative extrovert is basically a job requirement. I recently switched into non-profit work and I am still struggling to adjust my personality for office culture.

          I don’t really know where I am going with this, except to say that it might be a kindness (if you think the candidate is otherwise strong, or if they are already your employee/coworker) to give them a gentle push in the right direction. Coming from the other side of this, I find office culture very…muted and inelastic, and sometimes I think there is value in having an “aggressive” type in the mix to light a (positive! figurative!) fire.

  9. ZSD

    I think I have a bad habit of rambling in job interviews. It seems to be how my nervousness manifests. Because of that, actually, I don’t know that giving too-long answers in an interview is an indication that a candidate will be too chatty/wordy in normal workplace communications. They might be nervous babblers who can communicate concisely outside of an interview situation. I think I’d be in that category.

    1. The OP

      True, but if a candidate came in smelling bad, there’d also be no indication that they would always come to work smelling bad! Poor analogy, I know… But with limited time with candidates every red flag and green light can be important!

      1. fposte

        Agreed. I’m not going hire assuming a person is doing to be different than what I’ve seen. We understand that people get nervous in interviews, but pretty much everybody does, and there’s something to be said for the applicants who can stay concise nonetheless.

        1. JB (not in Houston)

          And sometimes you get clues that maybe this is interview nervousness and not how they would be in all circumstances. I can’t think of an example of what I mean, and you’d still be taking a chance, but it does happen sometimes.

    2. BRR

      Unfortunately a lot of the decision needs to be made from the interview. It sucks. I have a check list of things I need a reminder for. Talk slowly, avoid resting bitch face, etc.

  10. Anonymouse

    I had a phone interview the other day and the HR Director asked me to walk him through my resume. My answer became long-winded and he interrupted me and said “I’m going to stop you there because we’ll need something to talk about when you come in!”

    I really appreciated his honesty in stopping me and he did so in a polite manner. Being the interviewee and not having a clock, it can be hard to keep track of time. Sometimes my one-minute answer can feel like five-minutes.

    1. KathyGeiss

      For what it’s worth, that’s a pretty lame question to ask. How are you supposed to answer that one quickly without more information. The way they cut it short was well executed.

      1. MsM

        “Walk me through your resume” is just another way of saying “tell me about yourself.” If you’re worried about leaving out some crucial detail, you can always wrap up the overview with, “Have I overlooked anything that caught your eye while you were reviewing my application?”

        I like the way the interviewer above handled it, though.

      2. phillist

        I think this question is fine in person, but difficult in a phone screen for the reasons people mentioned above: namely, no visual cues to guide your answer.

        I had this one leveled at me (in the “tell me about your background” format) on a phone screen for a huge promotion the other day, and in hindsight I know I both gave too exhaustive an answer AND skipped over a crucial point. The VP of HR seemed pleased with the answer, but I think that question is better saved for a face-to-face.

  11. Anonymous Educator

    I think it depends on how the long-windedness manifests itself. As Alison mentioned, depending on the role you’re hiring for, you’re likely looking to see if they can pick up on social cues. So if the candidate is going well beyond two or three minutes on a single response, try to interrupt her politely.

    I would say if she lets you interrupt her and looks a little apologetic for being long-winded, that’s a good sign. If she keeps talking over you when you look as if you’re going to interrupt her, just let the interview stop whenever it’s done, and then cross her off your list.

    1. J.B.

      Also, please cut a little slack on the first question! It can take a little bit to settle the nerves, and later questions are probably a better gauge for ongoing communication style.

      1. The OP

        Agreed J.B. I like a tell me about yourself type of opener because I think it can put candidates at ease and allow them to focus on the things they want to mention. Also that type of question can invite long answers, which is why I wanted to know if setting a time limit on it seemed rude and because setting the time limit on the first question could potentially help to set the tone for future answers.

        I think I’ve found some better strategies here!

        1. Meg Murry

          What about “tell me about yourself in a couple of sentences” instead of just “tell me about yourself”? Or try to come up with something more specific to ask first like “what lead you to apply at Chocolate Teapots Inc?” or ask a specific question that you noticed from their resume (for instance, I get asked about my alum mater a lot and how I wound up in the area I live in now from there)?

          Starting with “tell me about yourself” is opening the door for rambling, especially as an opening for an interview. Could you at least start with introducing yourself and giving a few sentence summary, so they can maybe get a hint that that is the level of detail you are looking for? But in general – “tell me about yourself” sounds like a softball interview question, but I think it’s actually one of the hardest for me to answer.

          1. land of oaks

            ooo! “Tell me about yourself in a couple of sentences” is great! Gives me a better indication of what the interviewer is looking for, as well. Although for that question, and other standard ones, I have worked ahead of time on crafting my 2-3 sentence answer so that I don’t ramble. Which I highly recommend.

            1. Anonymouse

              Land of Oaks, I’m going to start preparing my two to three sentences ahead of time from now on for the “tell me about yourself question” because for me, it can open a wide door of rambling, especially when I’m super excited about a place. Great advice!

          2. JB (not in Houston)

            I like your what lead you question. I hate ‘tell me about yourself’ questions because sometimes they want to know about you personally, and sometimes they want to know about you professionally, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to say there.

  12. Artemesia

    I sort of chuckled at Alison’s response because it reminded me of a candidate we hired who was very well qualified (it was a difficult position to fill because we wanted someone who could juggle, walk on water, had a PhD and was willing to work for far less than someone with those attributes was worth) but crazy long winded during the interview process. Yes. The candidate shows you who s/he is during the interview and if you think they drive you crazy now, imagine once you are working with their long winded selves.

    On the other hand, I find the ‘must march through a long list of set question interviews and be quick about it’ sort of offensive. This is such a stupid way to interview people. I’d much rather see a more interactive discussion with the candidate where the norm was not a fill in the blank test but a chance to see them work through problems, discuss complicated challenges etc etc. If it is a timed test, maybe it just ought to be a questionnaire and be done with it.

    1. LBK

      I don’t think it’s about marching through the questions, I think it’s trying to get clear, concise answers so you can glean the most useful information out of them. If you answer a question with a 20 minute story, by the end I probably won’t even know what point you’re trying to make. I think it’s arguable that there’s diminishing returns as response length increases – most questions asked in an interview aren’t the type where the lengthier the answer, the better it is.

      1. Artemesia

        Questions that have concise answers rarely need to be answered in an interview in my experience. I want to see how they think and how they address problems. If I want quick information I can look at the resume or have them complete a screening questionnaire.

        1. LBK

          I think there’s still a level of being concise that’s still applicable to more in depth questions – such as sticking only to pertinent details of an example. Speaking personally, I know I tend to give WAY too much background and detail for each example, talking about technical aspects of the work or specific things about the client in question that aren’t really relevant to the interviewer’s understanding of the story (and that sometimes won’t make sense to them anyone since I’ve done a lot of work in highly technical niche roles).

          You can be concise and to the point while still saying more than one sentence.

    2. The OP

      I do wish that we were able to have conversations vs. a script of questions. It’s an inferior method!

      1. Gene

        Yep. I work for a local government and the rules are that we ask the questions on the list, in the order they are on the list, and nothing more. The more in depth, more free-form conversations happen in follow-up interviews for the top five or so.

    1. Jennifer

      Hah, I have gotten yelled at at my job that I can never interrupt someone from telling their long story. Even if they are utterly wasting their time and calling the wrong office, it’s impolite to interrupt and say “You need to call X office.”
      *sigh*

  13. Dawn88

    Every job interviewing advice article I’ve read clearly states to keep your answers short and to the point, and not ramble….For example, TV commercials are generally 30 seconds, with significant information given in that 30 seconds.

    I would be horrified if given a “cut it short” hint in an interview….what are these candidates thinking? That would disrupt my train of thought and tell me I just bombed the interview. Saying the word “Briefly” before each question would be a huge help, but as Alison says, you shouldn’t have to….find out now, before you regret it.

    1. Holly Olly Oxen Free

      A lot of people don’t do much prep for interviews and think just showing up in a suit is enough.

  14. Jillociraptor

    I try to start interviews by just acknowledging that time is limited. I usually say something like, “I might cut you off, and if so, it’s just because I’ve gotten all the information I need. That can be a little awkward so I apologize in advance! But I just want to make sure I’m able to fully understand your experience.”

    I’ve also found that it helps to give candidates a framework for answering more open ended questions. So if you’re asking about a time when they had to deal with an employee who wasn’t being responsive to instructions, I usually add “Tell me about how you realized this was going to be a problem, and the steps you took to respond to it.” That doesn’t help so much if you’re assessing how they deal with ambiguity or their ability to be concise, but it is helpful in other cases!

  15. Jeanne

    The 90 seconds or less would totally freak me out. I get really nervous in interviews. I try to take a breath and sometimes gain a few seconds to think. “My most difficult coworker? Well, actually that would be…” I would wonder if I even had time to put together a coherent answer.

  16. Holly Olly Oxen Free

    Totally agree with Alison to drop the script if you can. I’ve been to a few interviews like this and I find it a major turn off in an employer. It makes me feel like they are not truly interested in learning anything about me that could be different from other candidates or that they are just listening to my response to see if certain words or phrases tick their boxes. It limits my ability to elaborate on things that I feel could be valuable for them to know and devoids them of an opportunity to hear anything of substance. Especially if I am also being asked to keep it brief. It also tells me that they have bad interviewing practices and that makes me unsure I want to work there, because what else is bad? I worry that other processes might be just as rigid and and not designed to yeild the best results.

    I once interviewed at a place that was so rigidly stuck on the STAR format that I *had* to answer every question that way and if I was off, even by a little bit, I failed that question. They just wanted to know that I could tell a story in a certain structure and didn’t care at all about the content. Not a good way to hire good people.

    1. steve g

      The starr interview sounds like bs, but I’d love an interviewer with a script. As I’ve kvetched recently, I’m finding a lot of interviewers woefully underprepared during this job hunt. In my last hunt, I prepped by coming up with answers to common interview questions. Now, I’m basically prepping a flow chart/preso about myself, (usually correctly) thinking that the interviewer is just kind of gonna show up and make small talk.

      I’m interviewing for senior operations analyst roles in ny. I think the interviewer should be able to come up with at least some “have you ever….” type questions

      1. Holly Olly Oxen Free

        I am an operations analyst (not senior) as well. We sound like we have similar interview prep styles. I created a chart that visualized my core competencies for this job, lol.

        I agree with you that a script would be better than not being prepared at all, though I have never actually encountered that. I definitely want an interviewer to have planned questions. I don’t want them to be so rigid about it that they can’t stray from those questions.

        1. Holly Olly Oxen Free

          Now that I think about it, I did have one interview during my last job hunt where I was barely asked any questions at all and the interviewer spent the whole time telling me about my resume. Now that was strange.

    2. The OP

      Unfortunately, I work in government. I go out of my way to explain the process (and apologize for it) beforehand. I also try to make a joke or two about the awkward silence that happens after every question as the interview panel is still scratching down the candidates answer. It’s a silly, silly way to do it!

      1. JMegan

        Yeah, I think the process is just setting you up for those long rambly answers. As fposte says below, lots of people do manage not to ramble, but certainly this format seems to encourage it!

  17. Demanding Excellence

    At a past job, I used to interview people a lot. One guy I interviewed was incredibly long-winded. I was the last person (out of four others) that he was interviewing with that day. Our meeting was scheduled for 30 minutes…and he was there with me for almost two hours. I did everything I could to cut him off (trying to politely interject, stand up by my desk to signal the end of the interview, letting him know about time constraints, etc.) but he just didn’t pick up on my subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues. I eventually had to stand up, walk over to him (while he was in mid-sentence) and say, “I hate to cut you off but I have another meeting that I cannot miss. I’m going to walk you out now.” I stood by his chair until he stood up and followed me out of my office.

    Right after he left the building, several employees who had met him came up to me and said, “Please please please don’t hire that guy – he will drive us all nuts.” It’s a shame, because he was a relatively nice guy and had good, solid skills that he could have brought to the position, but seriously…

  18. JMegan

    Part of the problem with the “we can’t deviate from the script” requirement for interviews (which I realize you may not be able to control), is that it forces candidates to be long-winded. If a candidate knows that you’re not going to ask follow-up questions or dig deeper into something they have said, they will often feel like they have to say ALL THE WORDS in order to make sure they get their point across.

    And in fact, the candidate instructions for this type of interview often explicitly say that. “We have to follow the script, and we’re not allowed to ask followup questions. We can’t evaluate you on anything you haven’t said in the interview, so make sure your answers are as detailed as possible.”

    So if you have any control over that “stick to the script” requirement, I would agree with Alison that you should try to get rid of it. It won’t stop people who are determined to be long-winded, of course, but most people will be less inclined to verbal diarrhea if they feel like you’re listening to them and having a conversation, rather than just robotically following a script.

    If you’re stuck with it, then there are a couple of things you can do. First, tell the candidate very clearly that you have to get through X questions in Y amount of time, and that it could hurt their chances if you can’t get an answer to every question. Also, give them time to organize their thoughts, so they can make sure they say the most important part of their answer first. I have had interviews where they have asked me to come in 15 minutes early to review the questions, then they actually give me the questions and a pen and paper to make some notes before I go in. If you can’t do that, then at least encourage them to make notes as you ask each question, to help them prioritize their answers.

    Finally, ask fewer questions! You might get better results with 5 questions that require detailed answers, than you would if you were asking 10 questions and expecting short answers.

    1. Jillociraptor

      Ah yes–ask fewer questions! I just designed an interview script meant to evaluate…yikes, maybe 10 different performance domains in 3 questions. It can be done!

    2. AE

      Seeing the questions in advance would have helped me immensely in one awkward interview. The questions were interesting and unusual and I had to think on my feet, which meant thinking out loud, which meant being long-winded. I would have needed only about 5-10 minutes to select examples of situations or frame an answer in the way the question demanded.

  19. Seal

    When interviewing candidates I generally start with the question “tell be about yourself and your work experience”. Most candidates give a brief summary of their work history and their educational background (especially if they’re fresh out of college) that goes on for no more than a minute or two, if that. However, one guy I interview a couple of years ago went on for 20 MINUTES and he was NOT a good storyteller. I made the mistake of thinking that he would give me a natural opening to cut him off, but that didn’t happen. Needless to say, by the time he finished his soliloquy, I had decided not to hire him. If I find myself interviewing another long-winded candidate, I will make a point of politely cutting them off. I’ve already changed my question to “please give me a brief overview of your work experience”.

  20. hayling

    I recently interviewed someone (for a marketing position, no less) who gave suuuper long, distracted answers, and couldn’t keep on topic. At first I was frustrated at myself for basically letting her hijack the conversation, but I realize now that she was giving me valuable insight into what she’d be like to work with.

    1. The OP

      Seal and hayling’s scenarios are what I’m trying to avoid…for selfish reasons, too. These situations make me feel trapped…and tend to cause me severe anxiety (Normally, I’m not an anxious person). I have had to surpress nervous urges to bolt out the door, to laugh, to fidget, etc. It’s torturous. Clearly, I have a problem.

  21. It's tired, and I'm late

    “Candidates who go on and on and on are giving me valuable information about themselves: They’re telling me that they’re not well-matched with roles that require them to be concise”

    I wish I’d read this about 18 months ago…

    As a non-manager I don’t take part in many interviews and I never have the final say, but I’ve taken part in a few interviews. One of them was with a candidate whose resume was really interesting, but looooooong. Their answers to questions were in similar vein. We knew it was a risky hire, but we liked the candidate and they had unique experience that looked like it could take the role in a whole new direction. Now, 18 months later, they’re on a PIP because part of their role is writing-related and you should see these rambly brain-dumps. Hindsight is 20-20…

      1. It's tired, and I'm late

        No… the role as posted wasn’t going to contain nearly as much writing as it does now, but this candidate’s experience (and awesome references) pointed to letting them take the role in that direction. As such, writing tasks were delegated to them after they were hired. Lessons well and truly learned here!

  22. TheLazyB

    Ah dear. I recently had training for competency based interviews (in the UK) and that said your answers should be about 5 mins. This does cover describing the situation, what you did in detail and the outcome/whether you would do the same thing again, but still. It filled me with horror.

    Funnily enough, the job I’ve been offered was supposedly a competency based interview, but it really wasn’t. I was concerned my answers were too short but apparently I did great!

  23. LQ

    Part of the problem with questions from a script is that the interviewee can feel like they have to answer everything possible with their answer and be more long winded because they know you aren’t going to ask follow up questions or probe at something you find interesting or that fits your job specifically. When I know my interviewer has a script to follow I answer much more long winded than when they don’t.

    “How much experience do you have with Excel?” Turns into an answer where I make sure to talk about a time where I used it to save money and people and stream line a process. Because I chances are good if I don’t say that I’m not going to get a chance to later.

    Holding to an exact script begs for long winded answers. Ditch the script and some people will ditch the long winded answers.

    1. fposte

      Maybe, but as somebody who’s legally required to use a script, I can say that plenty of people manage not to ramble even in that situation.

      1. Meg Murry

        Question for fposte, the OP and others who have to use a script (and not ask follow up questions):
        Would a short answer followed by: “is that what you are looking for, or do you want a more detailed answer?” be ok? Is the interviewer allowed to say “give me more detail” if I were to ask it like that? Or do they have to just move on to the next question.

        I agree that the advice given here on how to interview when there is a script is to give tons of info and assume there won’t be any follow-up questions, so that would definitely encourage rambling and/or total brain dump from me.

        1. fposte

          I think it varies from institution to institution, but at mine we’re absolutely allowed to ask for more detail, and it’s absolutely fine for a candidate to say “Is that what you’re looking for?”

          In my experience, the rigidity doesn’t end up being a huge problem, and you can still have a fairly good conversation with most candidates; the real problem is when whoever crafted the questions did it badly and then you’re stuck with stinkers taking over valuable interview real estate.

        2. LQ

          One place I worked at it was absolutely not allowed to say if you got enough information, or enough detail they just moved onto the next question. You got the questions ahead of time and were told to make sure each part was answered in detail.
          One allowed some flexibility in questions.
          And the one I’m at now my boss basically set the questions aside because he didn’t think they made sense for my role. (I like where I’m at now best.)

        3. The OP

          I would have to say, “I’m sorry I can’t answer that, but I can repeat the question.” Sometimes I will give an nod of affirmation while I say this.” My willingness to deviate depends on who else is on the panel and how many candidates we have.

  24. LizB

    Uh oh — I just hired my replacement, and she was incredibly long-winded in the interview. It was painful. Her answers were all relevant and contained good information, and my boss (who is also obnoxiously long-winded) loved her, so I think she’ll do a good job… but I’m glad I won’t have to work with her, if her interview chattiness is indicative of how she’ll talk normally!

  25. super anon

    i feel like i started really struggling with long winded answers after i started learning and speaking a second language. i find that sometimes i just forget words entirely english, and i end up fumbling around trying to explain what i mean without using the word. the worst part is i know that i’m not being concise when speaking and i can see it all going down hill – but i can’t make my brain remember words! it’s so frustrating. it’s even more embarrassing because i’m not fluent in my other language, so if i do mention it as a way to explain why i’m being so awkward in that moment, they ask if i’m fluent and then seem confused when i say no. i guess they can’t imagine someone not being able to speak their first language properly.

    the worst part is i can see myself crashing and burning, and i feel like larry/gary/jerry/terry from parks and rec in the episode where someone finally lets him talk for a long period and then he just goes completely off the rails and away from the point. i’m joining toastmasters to improve my public speaking, but this post reminded me of how bad i’ve gotten at english recently;;

  26. nodumbunny

    I worry sometimes that I’m long-winded in interviews, but it really helps if the interviewer who has given me a big juicy behavioral question (tell me about a time you…) will give me some sort of signal that I am answering the question in the way they wanted me to. I gave you an example…is that what you were looking for or should I give you another? A head nod, a smile, a look down at your paper for the next question – throw me a rope here and let me know I’ve covered it. (Because I’ve been accused – not in an interview – of answering the question I think you should have asked, rather than the one you did ask. First time this happened was in my oral exams for my graduate degree. Oops.)

  27. Chayele

    I once interviewed someone and only got through one question in 30 minutes. Nothing would stop her. She was not hired.

  28. oranges & lemons

    I wonder if, paradoxically, reminding interviewees that it’s okay to take a minute to organize their thoughts before answering would help move things along. In my (admittedly limited) experience sitting in on interviews, it seems like a lot of people are so afraid of the dead air that they start right into the question as soon as possible and try to compose their answer while they’re already in the process of answering–leading to a kind of stream-of-consciousness answer.

    1. RG

      This absolutely helps! I don’t think I’m too much of a rambler, but I also take about 20 seconds to think before I start talking, because a serious question requires serious thought and a serious answer. So please, do what you can to let the interviewee know that it’s OK to gather their thoughts. Please don’t be like one interviewer I had who basically stared at me the whole 20 seconds.

    2. The OP

      It’s not a bad suggestion. I’ve never minded the note takers and thought organizers, though some other panelists with me have thought it was exhibiting odd behavior.

  29. I live to serve

    And that is why people need to practice for these interviews.
    Study the job description and pull questions from that –
    What experience have you had in teapot design?
    What supervisory experience was a disastrous and how did you turn that around?
    Practice your answer until it is three to five sentences. Take a breath.
    Ask “does this answer your question?”
    If it is a phone interview have the “expected questions” laid out in front of you with bullet pointed answers…so you aren’t tempted to read.

    1. NickelandDime

      This is such good advice. And practicing with someone will help you identify issues such as being long-winded, or helping you craft a better response.

  30. anon for this one

    Ugh I am still sweating this — I have this problem! I try really hard to rein it in but sometimes I’m not that successful. Luckily last time I was afraid I overdid it, the interviewer was still interested in pursuing an in-person interview, so maybe I wasn’t as bad as I feared? Objectively I didn’t talk about anything for 20 minutes, which is a good sign, right? Right?

    I’ve already got that down in my head as the #1 thing to keep locked down for the in-person interview too. Just because I still got an interview doesn’t mean it wasn’t a problem.

    I agree that sometimes it’s nerves and those are compounded for me by the lack of body language.

    1. The OP

      I’ve caught myself doing it and I usually say something like, “I realize that I’m being long-winded. Your hands must be tired. Please let me know if I need to speak slower or be more concise.” Again, I work in government, so people usually can’t comment, but their body language and facial expressions will tell me a thing or two.

  31. AE

    Some extroverts need to “think out loud,” which could lead to that. If the person is applying for an extroverted job where it’s good to explain their thinking to someone else as they’re working out a problem, then it could be a plus. If the workplace is full of introverts then it’s not a good fit.

    1. The OP

      I have done this, or as I’m thinking of an answer I’ve stated that, “Instead of silence, I’m going to walk you through what I’m thinking before I answer.” ESPECIALLY if the interview question is poorly worded. I’ll explain how I’m interpreting it before I answer. I still manage to answer the question in under 5 minutes though (probably less than that).

  32. Olvig

    In interviews where I work (in government), they essentially force you to give long-winded answers.

    You’re interviewed by a panel of 3 who have a scoring key that consists of a model answer for each question and list of skills and/or competencies that should ideally be mentioned by the candidate in their response. Each time you match a “buzzword” in the model answer and/or competency list, you get a point. The worst part is, the interviewers aren’t allowed to consider your answers to other questions when they assign a score. So, if you’ve demonstrated that you have a skill in your response to Question#1 and the scoring key for Question#2 also contains that skill, you don’t get any points unless you once again illustrate that your have that particular skill (fyi, repeating the same example you provided in response to another question is considered perfectly acceptable – not an inefficient use of time – so there’s potential for a great deal of overlap in candidates’ responses). Furthermore, the interview panel isn’t allowed to consider any information in the candidates’ resumes and cover letters when they rank candidates following the interviews, so if you’ve clearly demonstrated some key skills in that documentation but had neglected to mention them during the interview, you’re out of luck.

    The candidate with the highest score gets the job. It’s a bit too much like a game show, if you ask me! But, after being conditioned to this regime for so long, I’d be hard-pressed to give a concise answer in an interview even if my life depended upon it.

      1. JMegan

        It is! You also can’t take into account things like, did the person show up on time, were they dressed appropriately, were they polite. Were they able to expand on an answer in a brilliant way that the interviewers hadn’t thought of? Too bad…because if the interviewers hadn’t thought of it, it isn’t on their answer key, and they can’t score it.

        My job in particular is all about soft skills. I can give you textbook answers all day, but so can dozens of other people. What makes me good at what I do is my ability to explain my job to other people, and get them to give up some of their busy days to work with me. If I were hiring for my position, I would prefer the person who was interested and engaged, and maybe got 8/10 on the bullet points; over the person who was miserable and rude but got 9/10 on the bullets. In government, you have to hire the 9, regardless of how good the 8 is otherwise.

    1. Anx

      I didn’t know this for the longest time!

      I think I bombed a good amount of my interviews because I thought I had provided the right information already. and I tried to avoid rehashing stuff on my resume! Oh boy…

  33. Michele

    I hate it when people that I interview are long winded, but it is worse if they interrupt me. A couple weeks ago, I did a phone interview with a woman, and she completely tried to take over. She kept interrupting me and wouldn’t let me ask my questions. Normally, I spend half an hour on phone interviews, but within 10 minutes, I thanked her for her time and ended the conversation.

  34. Stitch

    I have this problem… much worse when I don’t “click” with the interviewer. My conversation style seems to be perfect for some interviewers, and really off base for others, and I’m not quite sure how to change it to make the best impression on everyone.

    I have very interesting, unique experience that is a great talking point because even though it’s very uncommon, it contains a lot of relevant project management and leadership experience relevant to most jobs. I usually end up rambling on about it, but mostly prompted by the interviewer. Last interview I had one person say “Everything you say makes me want to ask more questions; we’re going to run out of time!” and I wasn’t really sure if he wanted me to shut up or if he was just expressing his interest.

    But, I tend to ramble when I don’t have a solid answer to a question, or when they ask a question that I’ve just never had to think about before. “So how do you handle when plans and deadlines change?” Ummm… I change with them? Never been a problem, and my life is full of changes. “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult coworker” Well, I’ve honestly never problems with my coworkers – at worst I’ve had misunderstandings that were resolved after a conversation. I don’t know how to answer questions like this without sounding 1. inexperienced 2. generic or 3. full of myself.

    Is “I don’t really know how to answer that, it’s not something I’ve ever experienced” ever an acceptable interview response, or is that worse than rambling trying to find a little situation to use as an answer?

    1. Michele

      I think the answers of changing with plans and deadlines or having conversations with coworkers are good. If I ask you to tell me about a time that you dealt with a difficult coworker, and you tell me about a huge blow-up that you had in front of everyone, that is bad. But, we talked it out, and now we get along, is a mature answer.

  35. AnnieNonymous

    I think this is a two-way street. Sure, a lot of people are just talkers, plain and simple. But sometimes the interviewer has body language that implies that she is not yet satisfied with the response, or she doesn’t jump into her next question soon enough when the interviewee is done talking, leading the interviewee to think that more information is needed.

    I’m not turning this around on the OP, but my experience is that, as someone who is fairly comfortable in interviews, I’ve only felt compelled to ramble when the interviewer gave me a lot of dead air to fill and didn’t seem happy with the answers I’d already given.

    1. The OP

      I think I try to over compensate for the fact that I can’t have a conversation. I smile more than I normally would. I also nod my head more than I would. I also apologize in advance for the fact that I can’t provide much eye contact because I have to write down their answer. When it’s clear that there has been an adequate pause, I usually say, “Thank you.” And tend to have a variety of ways to say, “I’m sorry. Our hands have to catch up with what you said” while we all continue to write the candidate’s answer. The process is explained at the beginning of the interview, they are always told about the timeframe and number of questions. I let candidates know I cannot clarify questions but that I can repeat them. I do what I can to minimize this.

  36. Jennifer

    I had to take a communication class last week for work and these people are called the “whole story” ones. They feel like they can’t answer you without telling you EVERYTHING even tangentially related to the problem….

  37. Gene

    I have exactly the opposite style. If you ask me a question that can be completely answered with 15 words, you’ll get 15 words and then I’ll sit there silently waiting for the next question. I don’t fidget, I don’t fiddle, I may note something about the question and answer on my notepad. And I also don’t feel the need to break what some consider awkward silence.

    I have no doubt that has kept me from being hired for a job or two, but that’s how I communicate. Sadly, I married an Explainer.

  38. Grey

    This is another argument in favor of giving candidates the interview questions in advance. If they know everything that needs to be covered, they might not spend so much time on a single answer.

Comments are closed.