How to answer tricky interview questions effectively

04 Dec 09:00 by Adam Pyle


You’ve started the job hunt, and you’ve been fairly successful and managed to secure an interview. So, whether it’s virtual or in-person, what are the tips for helping you answer those tricky interview questions effectively?

First things first, any company that you want to work for will be an effective whole organisation. So, your interview starts as soon as you walk in the door (virtually or otherwise). If you’re doing it in person, then you’ll likely to speak to someone at reception before you meet your interviewers. Receptionists are the hidden screening centre of any organisation and it’s not unknown that their initial impressions influence the boss’s thinking; so, be polite and friendly, it’ll go a long way.

Of course, if you are interviewing virtually, you won’t have to navigate a receptionist, but basic rules of politeness still apply; your interview starts the moment you walk in the door or press that ‘join’ button. There is one hidden tip to put you at ease when you start the interview itself; smile when you enter the interview. Though so few people do it, a smile puts the interviewer at ease as well, making your job so much easier.

So, what about those tricky questions? 

Tell me about yourself

It’s usually sounds like an odd opening, but you need to contextualise it. They are asking about your working or studying history, and how it led you to your interview here. You could mention your sporting triumphs, but it would be wasted energy; focus on your career or learning journey, and why you are sitting there for an interview today. This is designed to ease you into the interview, but it will also show your ability to give concise, articulate answers. Don’t be worried, nobody knows your life’s journey better than you do.

What is your biggest weakness?

I doubt that any question is more polarising than this one, particularly in opinions on how to answer it. Do you reveal a hidden strength – ‘I’m too diligent’ – or do you go full honesty – ‘I am habitually late for work’.

Well, if the answer to that question is the second one, you have to sort that out and quickly; and, no, I wouldn’t answer that way to this particular question. Nor would I answer in terms of a hidden strength; some potential employers may like that answer, but many will see through it; because we all have weaknesses, it’s how we approach them that counts.

A good answer is to say what your weakness is now and how you are rectifying it. Add in a little bit of history of how you have dealt with past weaknesses, and you might well have the perfect answer. This is my actual answer to this question:

I always look for ways to improve. I used to be fairly disorganised, but now I plan my day out in advance. Then it was usually about taking too much work on, so I was put on a course for how to make my time work effectively and pushing back on work that isn’t in your domain, where necessary. Now, I would say that, for this role, I will have to learn a lot about PR, but I am a willing learner. I think it’s important to listen to people, managerial level or otherwise, on where they think that you can make improvements, because they are always there to be made.

It’s not a perfect answer, but it addresses weaknesses, addresses the need to challenge them, and, importantly, is tailored to the job itself.

Tell me about a time when you had to work with a difficult person.

This can apply to senior marketers in the workplace or junior marketers studying; it might be that you have got on well with everyone, but friction in the workplace will emerge at some point, especially in marketing departments working across the business. Your answer must reflect that.

Here it is a good idea to point out what you have learnt from previous experiences, or what you will do if the situation comes up. Good working practice is to promote empathy; accept that people are at work for different reasons, accept that you don’t know the full extent of the workload, and understand that you will have to be wise to their situation. Set barriers for yourself so that your co-workers don’t cross a line and understand their situation; that’ll be a model for working effectively with more people.

The same mindset can apply if they ask about bad managers you’ve had in the past. Be honest if you like – though try not to throw old managers under the bus – but emphasise the lessons you learnt in dealing with people; it’s friction that creates lessons we can all learn from.

Why did you leave your last job? What made you apply here?

They are two different questions, but they create a story between them. If you’re looking to leave a job, explain why without criticising it too much, and, if you’re looking for a new one, be specific about the values of that company and how they appeal to you. Most companies have a set of values visible on their website, research them and apply them to your own reasons for applying at the new company. Point out the opportunity you are looking to make use of, not the bad aspects of past employment.

Do you have any questions for me?

This question at the end is both your opportunity for more information, and your potential employers’ final opportunity to suss you out.

They may have covered everything you want to hear, but take the opportunity, first, to ask them, ‘Is there anything else you want me to cover today’, because that gives them an opportunity to clarify, with you, anything they are unsure about. It also means that they have a chance to ask you about things you haven’t mentioned yet. If you’re going for a PR and Content Executive role, and you’ve focused too much on the PR side of things during the interview, it offers them a chance to ask about your content experience and for you to really hammer home that side of your skillset.

So, ask it; if they say you’ve covered everything that is usually a good sign.

When you ask questions of them, focus on asking about long-term issues (opportunities, training) and medium-term working conditions (projects, business focus) rather than short-term personal gains (money). Let your recruiter deal with salary, then you can focus on all of the things that will make it a positive working environment for you.

As you leave the interview, be polite and remember all of the tips that applied for when you walked in the door apply now. Your interview with the company ends when you leave the premises. If you’ve been sent by a recruiter, ring to update them on how the interview went; they need to know if you want the job and, if so, what your terms will be.

After that, you’ve probably earned the rest of the day off.

Ready to start searching for your dream job? CIM has a range of marketing vacancies for all levels and disciplines. Start your search now.