How to Be an Exceptional Interviewer: The Complete Guide

As a hiring manager, your ability to conduct effective interviews and identify the best candidates is critical to building a high-performing team. But interviewing is challenging. It requires thorough preparation, keen social awareness, and the ability to synthesize large amounts of information to make a sound decision.

When done well, interviews are a powerful tool for evaluating candidates and determining mutual fit. A survey by Jobvite found that 47% of hiring decision makers consider the interview the most important factor in making a hire.

But all too often, interviewers fall short in accurately assessing a candidate‘s capabilities. Research has shown unstructured interviews to be one of the worst predictors of job performance. Without the right approach, it‘s all too easy for bias, first impressions, and a lack of objective data to lead you astray.

Mastering the art and science of interviewing is well worth the effort involved. Conducting great interviews leads to great hires, which are pivotal to your team and company‘s long-term success.

In this guide, I‘ll share how to elevate your interviewing skills to efficiently gather the insights you need to hire the best talent. We‘ll cover:

  • Preparing for the interview
  • Kicking off the conversation
  • Gathering information and assessing the candidate
  • Following up after the interview
  • Continuously improving your interviewing skills

Before the Interview: Set Yourself Up for Success

Interviewing well starts well before the actual interview. As the saying goes, "every minute of preparation saves 10 minutes in execution." Investing time to define what you‘re looking for and build a game plan will help you make the most of the interview itself.

Get crystal clear on the role requirements

Thoroughly understanding the skills, experience, and attributes required for the role is essential for assessing candidates. Work with the hiring manager and other stakeholders to define:

  • The core technical and soft skills necessary to perform the role‘s key functions
  • The experience level and background that would set a candidate up for success
  • The behavioral attributes and values that align with your team and company culture

Distilling these requirements upfront provides the foundation for what you‘ll aim to uncover in the interview. Having a clear picture of your ideal candidate allows you to check for those must-haves in a more objective way.

Review the candidate‘s background

Before the interview, thoroughly review the candidate‘s resume, cover letter, portfolio, or any other materials they‘ve submitted. Make note of the parts of their background that are most relevant to the role, such as:

  • Work experience that maps closely to the job function
  • Impressive accomplishments that point to high performance
  • Progression that demonstrates the ability to take on increasing responsibility
  • Specific technical skills that match your requirements

Also pay attention to any gaps or job hopping that you might want to ask about. Jot down specific points to follow up on or dig into more deeply during the interview.

Analyzing the candidate‘s background in advance allows you to be more targeted and efficient with your questions. It also demonstrates to the candidate that you value their time and have given thought to how they might fit into the role.

Craft your question set

Asking the right questions is key to gathering meaningful insights on the candidate. Your questions should aim to assess their skills and experience, how they think and solve problems, and their potential cultural fit.

Some of the most effective interview questions include:

  • Behavioral questions that ask the candidate to describe how they‘ve approached situations in the past. These provide a window into their skills, thought process, and values in action. Example: "Tell me about a time you had to influence a cross-functional team to drive a project forward."

  • Situational questions that present the candidate with a hypothetical scenario and ask how they would handle it. These are helpful for understanding how a candidate would tackle challenges specific to the role. Example: "Imagine you‘re assigned a new project with a tight timeline but you‘re missing some key information. How would you proceed?"

  • Problem-solving questions that pose a real challenge the team is facing and ask the candidate to talk through how they‘d approach it. These dig into their analytical and creative thinking abilities. Example: "We‘re looking to increase our webinar registrations by 20% this quarter. How would you go about it?"

Aim to have at least 5-6 core questions prepared in advance, with a few follow-ups in mind for each. This ensures you have a consistent set of data points to compare across candidates. That said, be open to going "off-script" if a certain line of questioning seems promising in the moment.

Here‘s a template you can use to build your question set:

Question What it assesses Expected answer
Behavioral question 1 • Relevant skill 1
• Relevant skill 2
• Specific example that demonstrates skills
• Thoughtful response that showcases values
Behavioral question 2 • Relevant experience 1
• Attribute 1
• Story that highlights relevant experience
• Answer conveying attribute in action
Situational question 1 • Problem-solving approach
• Role-specific skill 1
• Logical, step-by-step response
• Mentions using relevant skill
Problem-solving question 1 • Analytical thinking skills
• Creativity
• Structured approach
• Unique or innovative ideas

Block off time and minimize distractions

When scheduling candidate interviews, block off plenty of buffer time before and after. Giving yourself at least 15 minutes prior to review your questions and get in the right headspace sets you up to be present and engaged.

If you‘re doing an onsite interview, reserve a quiet, comfortable space. Make sure the candidate has everything they need, like water, pen and paper, etc.

If you‘re interviewing remotely, test your video platform and Internet connection in advance. Use a professional background (real or virtual) and make sure your audio and video are working properly.

Aim to eliminate distractions and interruptions as much as possible. Silence your devices, close out unnecessary tabs and applications, and avoid checking emails or messages during the interview.

During the Interview: Focus on Connecting and Assessing

Your preparation complete, you‘re ready to meet the candidate and have a productive conversation. These strategies will help you build rapport, gather key information, and represent your company effectively.

Kick things off on the right foot

When the candidate arrives (virtually or in-person), greet them warmly. Introduce yourself and express your appreciation for their time. If you‘re meeting onsite, offer them water or coffee and make a bit of small talk as you walk to the interview room.

Before diving into your questions, provide a quick overview of the agenda so the candidate knows what to expect. Share that you‘ll spend most of the time asking about their background and experience, but that you want to leave plenty of time for them to ask questions as well.

This helps set expectations and kicks off the interview in a friendly, organized way. You want the candidate to feel at ease and ready to put their best foot forward.

Practice active listening

As you move into your questions, focus on being fully present and actively listening. Pay complete attention to the candidate‘s responses, even if you‘re taking notes simultaneously. Make consistent eye contact and show you‘re engaged by nodding, smiling, and asking follow-up questions.

Active listening is about absorbing information, not just passively hearing it. It enables you to pick up on subtleties, remember key details, and demonstrate to the candidate that you value what they have to say.

Some tips for active listening:

  • Minimize distractions and give the candidate your full focus
  • Don‘t interrupt or finish their sentences
  • Paraphrase or summarize key points to confirm your understanding
  • Note any nonverbal cues (facial expressions, body language, tone of voice)
  • Ask clarifying questions to dig deeper into their responses

When you make an effort to truly listen, candidates feel respected and are more likely to open up and share important information.

Give the candidate space to share

While you may be eager to sell the candidate on the role and company, make sure they have ample airtime to talk through their background and experience. Resist the urge to jump in too early or dominate the conversation.

Aim to speak for no more than 30% of the interview, with the candidate talking for the other 70%. When you do ask a question, give them a moment to think before responding. Embrace any silence rather than feeling pressure to fill it.

If the candidate seems to be providing only surface-level answers, don‘t hesitate to probe deeper with follow-ups like:

  • "Can you tell me more about [X part of their response]?"
  • "What was the biggest challenge you faced in that situation?"
  • "How did you measure the impact of [initiative they led]?"

Remember, your goal is to paint a complete picture of the candidate‘s capabilities and potential. Giving them space to elaborate and share specific examples is key to achieving that aim.

Take notes

Documenting the candidate‘s responses helps you capture important details and refer back to them later when making your hiring decision. Grab a pen and notepad or open up a blank document on your computer to jot down notes throughout the interview.

Some best practices for note-taking:

  • Bullet key points rather than trying to transcribe verbatim
  • Note any metrics or outcomes the candidate mentions
  • Capture the specific skills and experience they demonstrate through each answer
  • Record any red flags or areas you want to probe on further

Just be sure your note-taking doesn‘t distract you from actively listening and maintaining eye contact. You might let the candidate know upfront that you‘ll be writing a few things down to remember important details.

After the interview, take a few minutes to review your notes and fill in any gaps while the conversation is still fresh. You‘ll thank yourself later on when comparing multiple candidates and needing to justify your hiring recommendation.

Assess their fit holistically

As you make your way through your questions, consider the candidate‘s potential from all angles. Reflect on how well they demonstrate the core skills required for the role. Note any prior experience or accomplishments that would enable them to hit the ground running.

Also pay attention to the candidate‘s overall demeanor and communication style. Do they seem like someone who would work well with your existing team? Would their personality and values align with your company culture?

While you can train a new hire on the specific tools or processes used in the role, it‘s much harder to teach things like work ethic, intellectual curiosity, or emotional intelligence. Weigh those innate attributes heavily in your evaluation.

Here‘s a checklist you can use to assess the candidate holistically:

  • [ ] Demonstrates required technical skills for role
  • [ ] Has relevant experience and proven track record of success
  • [ ] Provides thoughtful, well-reasoned responses to questions
  • [ ] Communicates clearly and professionally
  • [ ] Showcases problem-solving abilities
  • [ ] Conveys enthusiasm and commitment to their work
  • [ ] Aligns with team and company culture and values
  • [ ] Brings a unique perspective or new way of thinking
  • [ ] Seems coachable and open to feedback

Sell the opportunity

While your primary objective is to vet the candidate, keep in mind that interviews are a two-way street. Top candidates are evaluating you and your company too, deciding if it‘s a place they want to work.

So make an effort to sell the role and get them excited about the possibility of joining your team. Talk about the specific projects they‘d get to work on and the impact they could have. Highlight your company‘s mission, values, and any unique perks or benefits you offer.

At the same time, be honest about the challenges or potential downsides of the role. Providing an accurate preview of the job (both the good and the bad) ensures you and the candidate are on the same page. The last thing you want is a mis-hire because expectations weren‘t properly managed.

Reserve at least 5-10 minutes at the end of the interview for the candidate to ask their own questions. How they respond will give you insight into what they care about and how much research they‘ve done.

Provide thoughtful, thorough answers to their questions. If there‘s anything you‘re not sure about, commit to following up with them promptly. Treating the candidate‘s questions with respect shows you value their time and would be invested in their success if hired.

After the Interview: Close the Loop

Share next steps and timeline

Before the candidate leaves, provide clear next steps on the hiring process and when they can expect to hear back. If there will be another round of interviews, give them a sense of the timeline and what that will entail.

If you plan to make a decision shortly, let them know when you expect to have an update to share. This transparency allows the candidate to walk away feeling good about the experience, even if they aren‘t ultimately selected.

Whatever you commit to, be sure to follow through. A CareerBuilder survey found that 52% of job seekers have "ghosted" an employer at some point in the process. Setting clear expectations and delivering on your promises prevents you from contributing to that negative trend.

Evaluate the candidate objectively

Immediately after the interview, write down your thoughts on how it went. Refer to the assessment checklist shared earlier to rate the candidate on the different attributes you‘re seeking.

Try to remove any emotion or gut feelings and focus on the facts of what they shared. Compare their experience and skills to your core requirements for the role. Note both the positives and the areas where they fell short.

If there were any questions or doubts raised during the interview, think through how you might validate those before making a final decision. That could mean checking references, reviewing work samples, or having the candidate complete an assessment.

Discuss the candidate with anyone else who interacted with them, like a receptionist or your team members. What were their impressions? Did they pick up on anything you missed? Getting multiple perspectives helps you remove bias and paint a complete picture.

Continuously improve your interviewing skills

Interviewing is a skill that you can constantly work to improve. After each hire (or attempted hire), reflect on what went well and what you could do better next time. Make note of the questions that elicited the most insightful responses and those that fell flat.

Consider asking your team or a trusted colleague to sit in on a future interview and provide feedback on your approach. An outside perspective can uncover opportunities for improvement you may not see yourself.

You can also learn a lot by paying attention to other interviewers you respect. What techniques do they use to build rapport or draw out key information? How do they structure the conversation or respond to different types of answers?

Finally, stay current on the latest research and best practices in interviewing. Attend webinars, read articles and books, and talk to other leaders in your industry to get new ideas. Experimenting with fresh strategies prevents you from getting stuck in a rut.

Like any skill, conducting great interviews takes deliberate practice. But your investment in continuously elevating your game will pay dividends in the quality of hires you make.

Great Interviewers Make Great Hires

Interview success comes down to one thing: Drilling deep to uncover the information you need to make the right hiring decision. By following the strategies we‘ve outlined here, you‘ll be well equipped to efficiently and effectively vet candidates and determine if they‘re the best fit for your role and company.

Remember, your ultimate goal is to walk away from each interview with a comprehensive understanding of the candidate‘s:

  1. Skills and experience as they relate to the role requirements
  2. Past performance and key accomplishments
  3. Communication and problem-solving abilities
  4. Alignment with your team and company culture

By putting candidates in the best position to showcase those things—through the questions you ask, the interest you show, and the two-way conversation you facilitate—you become a true partner in their job search.

And that‘s really what great interviewing boils down to: Treating candidates like respected partners and working to uncover the information you both need to decide if it‘s a match.

You won‘t get it right 100% of the time (no one does), but by continuously honing your skills, you‘ll make more winning hires than losing ones. And in today‘s competitive market, that is one of the biggest levers you can pull for your team‘s success.