Interviewing Tip #4 – Puff Ball Questions

There is absolutely no excuse for not being ready for the most commonly asked interview questions.  Knock these out of the ballpark by being prepared ahead of time.

I’ve created a list of questions commonly asked during interviews and you can download it here: Interview Questions to be Ready For.  Don’t necessarily memorize your response word-for-word, but definitely know which points you want to make and practice this a few times via role play with a friend or family member so that your answers are easy to recall.

Start with Throw-Away Interviews

The very first couple of interviews you have are not going to be your best.  That’s because even if you did some practice interviews with friends, you haven’t done it for real when the stakes are high.

Because of this, don’t interview first with the #1 or #2 company on your wish list.  Instead, find a company or two that has a desirable open role but aren’t companies you’re dying to work for.  That way, you can get some practice with your answers.  Immediately after the interviews, critique yourself and identify the opportunities for improvement.

Behavioral Interview Questions

There’s a developing trend towards including questions that help assess culture, while also helping the employer learn how you think and react in certain situations.  These aren’t puff-ball questions, but they’re important enough that I want to describe the topic a bit further to help prepare you.

Below are some examples of behavioral interview questions.  Do an Internet search to find more.  These questions often start with “Tell me about a time when . . .”.  What the interviewer wants you to do is describe the situation and then explain how you handled, or reacted to, the situation.

  • . . . you had a really crappy manager.  What made them crappy and how did you handle the situation?
  • . . . you had a teammate that was negatively impacting the performance of your team.
  • . . . you were given an impossible deadline for a task/project.
  • . . . you were given an impossible goal/target to reach.
  • . . . you were the only member of a project team that felt strongly about something related to the project.  (in other words, everyone else disagreed with you)
  • . . . you strongly disagreed with a strategy that your manager or company executive announced to you, your department, or the company.

In many cases, your interviewer isn’t looking for a specific answer as much as wanting to understand how you think and operate.  Your answer should mostly involve storytelling, but without taking 5 minutes to answer the question.  Provide a little background so the interviewer understands how it matches the behavioral interview question they presented.  Then describe how you handled the situation as well as how things worked out in the end.

If the company you’re interviewing with has stated core values, you should know that your answers will be measured against their fit to those core values.  This is actually so important that during your initial phone screen interview or first in-person interview, try to find out what the company’s core values are.

The “Compensation Expectation” Question

There’s one common question I’d like to cover directly in this article because it seems to be stressful for most people.  “How much are you looking to make?” or “What is your salary requirement?”.  Many people try to wiggle out of answering the question with responses like these:

  • I’m just looking to make whatever the market rate is for this type of position
  • Salary isn’t the most important thing to me.  I’m evaluating opportunities based on a broad range of factors.
  • At my last job I made $xxK

There’s nothing terrible about the above responses, but what about something like this: “Salary is only a part of my overall selection criteria, but I’m most strongly considering roles that pay in the $x to $y range”.  There are some advantages to this approach:

  1. You highlight the fact that it’s not just about the salary
  2. You hint that you’ve either gotten other offers or are expecting some
  3. You suggest an acceptable range, which increases the chances the company’s budget for the role will be within the range

After that bold sentence, you could continue by describing other factors that are part of your selection criteria.  Company culture, opportunities for growth, company benefits plan, stock options, daily commute duration, and other things could all be a part of your criteria.

Getting Stumped

Sometimes you’ll get a question that really forces you to think on-the-spot for a good answer.  First, don’t feel pressure to immediately blurt out an answer.  It’s totally OK to initially say something like “That’s a really good question.  Let me think about it for just a second.”  That alone buys you some very valuable time.

You might get asked to describe a time when you performed a particular task or addressed a specific situation but, unfortunately, you’ve never encountered it.  Your best approach to this is probably to admit that you haven’t previously encountered that situation/task and then either  1) tell them about something that’s the most similar to the task/situation they asked about  2) tell them how you believe you would go about addressing the situation.

You might get a question that isn’t looking for a precise answer but rather gives you an opportunity to demonstrate how you think.  Imagine a question like “How many jelly beans do you think could fit in my empty trash can?”  I can think of two ways to answer the question:

  • “I imagine considerably more than 2,000 could fit but I’m fairly certain 10,000 would overflow.  So my estimate is something in the 5,000 range.”
  • “I imagine about 100 jelly beans could fit in one cup.  It looks like your trash can has a volume of about 3 gallons.  With 16 cups per gallon, it means roughly 5,000 jelly beans.”

The second answer shows more analytical thinking than the first, but you get the idea.  The interviewer cares less about your answer and more about how your brain processes analytical challenges.

In the rare event that you get a question that literally leaves you stumped with no response, first ask to come back to it later in the interview.  If, when that happens, you still are drawing a blank, just let them know you’re sorry but you don’t have a really good answer at the moment and would love to follow up via email if that’s OK.  Then, while driving home think about a possible good response.  If you come up with something, include mention of it when you send your thank you email.

I hope this information is helpful to your job search.  See the rest of my series on Interviewing Tips here.   I also have a related series for Resume Writing and one for Job Hunting.

Author: Gordon Daugherty

Gordon Daugherty is a best-selling author, seasoned business executive, entrepreneur, startup advisor and investor. He has made more than 200 investments in early-stage companies and has been involved with raising more than $80 million in growth and venture capital. From his 28-year career in high tech, Gordon has both an IPO and a $200-million acquisition exit under his belt. Now, as co-founder and president of Austin’s Capital Factory and as author of the book “Startup Success”, Gordon spends 100 percent of his time educating, advising, and investing in startups.

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