4 interview lessons to learn from the presidential debates

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By James Walsh, writer for national staffing agency Ashley Ellis

Throughout October, two men are appearing on three different stages on three different nights, amid support and jeers, to defend their merit to a nation of more than 300 million people. Their responses are being broadcasted by every major news network and their every word, every gesture, every sigh, every bead of ill-timed sweat are being scrutinized by pundits and commentators in a stream of media analysis. During each debate, each candidate will fight to prove that he is the best man for the job in one of the most nerve-wracking job interviews of his life. Only one will win on election day.

I bet your job interview doesn’t sound so bad anymore.

Though you may never experience the heavy levels of pressure around President Obama and Governor Romney, you no doubt have some interview preoccupations of your own. No one likes being dissected under a microscope. That level of judgment can be unnerving, but when we turn that same lens upon past presidential contenders and hopefuls, we can learn quite a bit. With so much at stake and the blunders so magnified, we can easily distill their often laughable errors into cautionary tales for interview success.  

Rule No. 1: Look lively
Starting in 1960, Richard M. Nixon kicked off the tradition of televised debate blunders by overlooking the importance of a sharp appearance. It was the first televised presidential debate, and most politicians were still shaky on how to best use this new, more intimate medium. Needless to say, Nixon did not fare well. With heavy stubble, an unsteady gaze and an ashen suit to match his gaunt, ashen face (Nixon had lost 20 lbs while recovering from a serious injury), the then VP looked relatively worse for wear. The situation only worsened as his stage makeup, a cheap drugstore powder, began to run off the side of his face when the studio spot lights heated up. To 70 million Americans watching from home, Nixon was a wreck. Kennedy, on the other hand, was a golden, charismatic figure clad in a dark, reassuring suit. He looked Americans in the eye and gave them confidence.

For your interview: The importance of your appearance can never be over exaggerated. Stay with tried and true guidelines — be neat, groomed and dressed for the job you want. Whether we want them to or not, people make snap judgments about us the second we walk into an interview under-groomed, underdressed, or with body modifications that don’t match the conservative office attire.

Rule No. 2: Fess up to your mistakes
Jump to 1976 during the Ford/Carter debates, and we have our next great blunder. This one rests on the shoulders of President Gerald Ford. His appearance was fine, and most of his responses were confident, but one question ruined his chances. Asked about the increasing threat of European communism, Ford shoved his foot deep into his mouth when he claimed there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” and there never would be under in his administration. But there already was. The world was still in the middle of the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall was still a dividing line between the democratic West and communist East. Instead of saying, “Whoops! Sorry, I misspoke,” he blundered on for an entire week, sticking to the validity of his statement long after the point of no return.    

For your interview: If you misspeak, correct yourself. Nothing will sink your ship faster than reiterating your error. It takes a big person to admit a mistake, and it takes wishful thinking to march on like nothing happened.

Rule No. 3: Know who you are
Though not a presidential candidate, the running mate of Ross Perot, Admiral James Stockdale made a debate mistake all job seekers can learn from. Stockdale was a new face to most Americans, a relatively unknown personage without any political experience. So, when it came to his turn at the podium, the Admiral decided to riff on this reality. With a sly look on his face, he shouted, “Who am I? Why am I here?”  It was an attempt at humor that could have worked in his favor, had it not been followed by one of the most painful two minutes and fifteen seconds of debate history. Stockdale digressed into a speech on his service during Vietnam, touching upon the horrors and struggle he faced, without bring it back into a sound conclusion. Worst of all, he paused halfway through his statement, lost in his thoughts and their relevancy to the debate at hand.

For your interview: The two key takeaways from Stockdale’s opening statement are to be painfully prepared and try not to get lost in a sidebar. If you recklessly follow a tangent, you better be able to lead the conversation back to your main point. If you can’t do it, then don’t joke or tell any anecdotes that stray from the theme of your talking points. Otherwise, you may end up the butt of a joke when you walk out the door.

Rule No. 4: Be prepared to answer tough questions
If you’ve ever watched a presidential debate, you’ve seen how ruthless some of moderators can be. Candidates are asked about everything from their voting records and policy to messy divorces and their personal low points. These candidates will be posed difficult, occasionally inconsiderate questions, and they should react with poise and confidence, not red-faced, beady-eyed outrage.

For your interview: You need to know that your past will be called into question. Any layoffs and employment gaps are free game, as are your performances during any previous jobs. So, if you’re going to succeed, you’ll need tactfully prepared responses, and if you’re going to throw a tantrum, you’re going to follow the course of many politicians whose names never made the ballots.   

So, as the remaining debates occur, keep a close eye on Obama, Romney and their vice presidential picks. You can learn a thing or two from the way both dress, handle mistakes, stay on-point and deal with hard-hitting questions. When your interview finally arrives, you can react with presidential stride and before long, blare “Hail to the Chief,” from your new office as you celebrate the inaugural days of your brand new job.

James Walsh is a writer with Ashley Ellis, a national staffing agency for IT, engineering, and accounting professionals.

5 Comments
  1. Thank you for this article! There is certainly a lot that job seekers and professionals can take away from the political campaigns and debates. The most important lesson for job seekers should be in regard to their personal brand. While preparation and research are the most important, you should also know who you are and what you stand for. This is far more than having an elevator pitch that you believe in.

  2. @KetchumPR Don’t act like a complete dumbass, Relax Have an Open Mind & KNOW YOUR SHIT! eg. FACTS before opening your mouth…?

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