People are strange. I’m not just talking about your Uncle Cedric with the hairy feet and stale piece of toast with the image of Tina Turner he swears will grab six-figures on eBay, I mean it more in terms of our mental capabilities. Think about how brilliant we are compared to a tape recorder, but how hopelessly inaccurate our ability is to remember a conversation.
Ask any police officer who’s interviewed six eyewitnesses and he’ll give you six different accounts of the same event.
It’s widely accepted in the world of research that humans remember meaning rather than fact. As an example, if I told you “I went to the mall the other day,” it’s likely that in 10 minutes you would remember the sentence as “I drove to the mall the other day.” In other words, the meaning would stick rather than the details.
Let’s take Fred as an example. Fred is on his way to a job interview for a position as a software developer. His experience meets all the requirements, and based on his resume he’s the top candidate out of the 50 or so that applied.
Fred arrives, dress to impress in his $149 suit from TJ Maxx and $20 black leather shoes from Payless. The interview goes extremely well; he builds rapport with the interviewer, answers most of the technical questions correctly, and manages to craft an artful LEFT OUTER JOIN on the whiteboard.
Fred is on top of the world until, to his surprise, he notices a huge ink stain on his shirt. It turns out Fred likes to keep fountain pens in his shirt pocket (because the ladies dig it). On this fateful day, that pen decided to gush its payload all over Fred’s brand new cotton dress shirt. Fred’s embarrassment is palpable as the interview wraps up and although he makes it out of there alive, he doesn’t get the job. Why?
You could say it’s because I made this story up and can twist it any way I want to prove a point. That’s valid, but how about this: after interviewing four more candidates over the next two weeks the hiring manager doesn’t have point by point recall of every interview. In fact, although he made a few notes here and there, all he can do is go with his gut feeling about who would be the best fit for the position. And you know what? Even though Fred fit the position perfectly, there’s a voice in the back of the hiring manager’s mind that won’t let him hire Fred. He doesn’t know why, but he has an awkward feeling about the whole experience. All because of a lousy fountain pen.
The moral of the story is to buy high-quality fountain pens. *ahem* I mean, the moral of the story is that human beings remember meaning rather than fact. This means that the impression they take away from an experience is much more important than what actually happens.
This is why restaurants like The Melting Pot can charge 50 bucks a person for fondue when you can make it at home using the change in your sofa. It’s also why, two years after you see a crappy movie, you won’t be able to remember the character names, dialogue, scenes, or much of the plot, but you will remember that it was terrible. It’s all because the experience of these events is forever lodged in our brains, while the fact of a $200 dinner have long since departed.
This is easily translated into advice for interview day: do everything within your power to make sure you leave the interviewer feeling like she’s hugged a warm puppy. Be cordial, don’t show negative emotions, have excellent manners (the ones you never use around the house) and never, ever act indignant about answering technical questions.
Some people think it’s unfair to ask candidates to write code on the fly; you may be one of these people. The interview is not the place to voice that opinion, whether verbally or through your body language (like the “leaking tire” noise you make when asked – I actually had a candidate do this once).
I’ve also had candidates act bored or roll their eyes at basic programming questions. If explaining how GET is different than POST is beneath you, suck it up, answer the question, and hope the interviewer moves on to topics worthy of your genius soon. If not how will he ever discover how you built a Ruby on Rails compiler in assembler on your Commodore Pet?
Finally, it’s been shown over and over that attractive people fare better in job interviews, get more promotions, and earn more money. Unless you’re Brad Pitt you should show up showered, shaved, and wearing a suit. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in suits and don’t ever plan to wear one to work – everyone looks better in a suit (even Brad Pitt).
Bring Something Real
People also remember things that are related to other memories; the more connections, the easier something is to remember.
This is why commercials contain catchy jingles that are really just remakes of pop songs with the words slightly modified. It’s because these songs touch on a piece of our brains that will somehow relate the “coolness” of the song to the product.
If the marketers did their jobs, the next time you hear the song you will likely have an urge to run out and buy yourself a new pair of insoles. These insoles may hurt your feet so bad you’ll feel like you’ve been dancing on broken glass, but somehow they’ll still seem cool because Britney Spears sang “Oops, I bought insoles again.”
This is also why every single memory improvement book revolves around relating things to common objects you encounter in everyday life. Be it a list of items or peoples’ names, the more memories you have that link to an object, the stronger the memory of that object becomes.
To capitalize on this, bring something memorable to the interview. You want the interviewer to link you with as many “good feeling” thoughts as possible. Bring glossy, color print-outs of a UI you worked on or prettied-up copies of a data model you designed. You could even bring sample products from your current or former employer. Your company makes soft drinks? Bring a 6-pack of root beer. Your company prints newspapers? Bring a few copies of today’s edition. Bring something real that the interviewer can look at and touch once you’ve left.
This brings me to a concept I’ve been cooking up for quite a while: a HireMeTM book. With cheap, high quality, on-demand publishers like Lulu and Blurb, creating a few copies of a custom tome is economical and requires minimal time investment. For around $10 a pop you can print your own commercial-quality paperback containing your resume, samples of your work, and, if you’re the creative type, a section of “Reasons to Hire Me.” I plan to devote a future essay to the concept and design of a HireMeTM book.
The Self-Reference Effect
Psychologists have discovered a phenomenon they call the self-reference effect, which boils down to the following: people tend to remember information that refers to themselves.
This is why you easily remember someone with the same name as your brother, while forgetting the other 19 people you meet in an evening. This is also why the Jack in the Box commercials during Soccer games have Jack racing after a soccer ball; the marketers are trying to relate to something that a large chunk of the audience will find as a self-reference.
In addition to remembering names and marketing quasi-food, the self-reference effect is amazingly effective at making interviewers relate to you, remember you, and maybe even like you.
Before your interview try to find out as much as possible about your interviewers. If necessary, politely request a list of names to help with your preparation, and head to Google. With common names, try to narrow your search by including terms like the name of the company, or the name of the city where the company is located, or even something as generic as “software developer.” If you find a personal homepage or can pull up a resume you’re golden. This type of information allows you to build a picture in your mind of who they are and what they’re about.
With this information in mind, try to honestly relate to them during the interview. If they publish a lot of articles, be sure to bring up recent articles you’ve written. If they like to water ski, bring up the fact that you go every summer. Do they play the guitar? Mention your Taylor that you play every chance you get. Obviously, this isn’t a license to lie about things you’ve never done to make yourself more familiar; trust me, you’ll get caught. But anything you can do to relate to this person is not only a step towards a connection, but it’s a step towards being burned into their mind forever…or at least until your start date.
The self-reference effect, when used appropriately, is extremely powerful.
These techniques are like a coat of Carnuba wax on a Corvette; they add shine, but the underlying paint has to look nice, too. These techniques won’t salvage a lack of technical knowledge or a disregard for punctuality, but used in conjunction with basic interviewing skills they will improve your chances of landing a job.
Just be sure to leave the fountain pen at home.
Special thanks to Mike Taber and Sherry W. for reading drafts of this article.