The fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is real. And, most of the advice for overcoming that fear centers on knowing the topic, preparing the speech in advance, and practicing a lot. Most of this advice sounds very similar to the advice for preparing for an interview. You need to know your topic (you), prepare in advance, and practice—a lot.
Talking about yourself in an interview is something every job seeker will have to do at some point. And, as scary as that might sound, at least you don’t have to talk about your accomplishments and achievements in front of a group.
Unless you end up in a panel interview.
While not a common interview format, there is always the possibility that you’ll end up in a panel interview at some point during your career. And, though the idea of talking about yourself to a group of total strangers may be absolutely panic-inducing, take a deep breath. In many ways, a panel interview is no different than a one-on-one interview. If you plan, prepare, and approach a panel interview like any other interview, you’ll be a panel interviewing pro in no time.
What Is a Panel Interview?
A panel interview is when two or more interviewers interview you at the same time. The panel can consist of a mix of people. It may be the supervisor and several team members. Or, it might be an HR representative and several colleagues. The panel might include people from teams you work with, but that you aren’t assigned to. It could even include direct reports if you’re interviewing for a supervisory position.
But don’t confuse a panel interview with a group interview. In a panel interview, multiple interviewers are interviewing you at the same time (meaning you are the only candidate in the room). However, in a group interview, while there may be multiple interviewers, there are also multiple candidates interviewing at the same time.
Why Employers Use Panel Interviews
One of the reasons employers use panel interviews is that they are more cost-effective and efficient for the company. The company can “get it done” at once and interview more candidates in less time.
An additional advantage for the company is that each interviewer is able to form their own opinion about the candidate without it being “filtered” through second-hand information. Everyone can see how you handle the questions and hear your actual answers instead of getting the replay from another interviewer later on.
A panel interview is also more cost-effective and efficient for you. It involves fewer interviews. And, while it’s no guarantee, the hope is that won’t have to answer “tell me about yourself” as many times. An additional advantage is that you’ll get a sneak peek into group dynamics. You’ll see how this group of people interacts and possibly get an idea of how different teams work (or don’t work) together.
However, there are other less economic reasons why employers conduct panel interviews. It can be intimidating—downright scary, even—to be the lone person answering question after question after question from a group. And that’s the point. By conducting a panel interview, the company can see how you perform in a real-world stress test.
And, for some positions, a panel interview is much like the job. For example, in a sales job, you’ll likely spend most of your time trying to convince a group of key decision-makers to buy whatever you’re selling. This is very similar to a panel interview in which you’re spending your time trying to convince a group of key decision-makers to buy what you’re selling: you.
How to Prepare for a Panel Interview
In some respects, a panel interview is no different than a one-on-one interview. An interviewer will ask you a question, and you will answer it. However, the dynamics of a panel interview are different than a one-on-one interview, and mastering these differences can give you an edge over other candidates.
Get an Agenda
Hopefully, when you are invited to an interview, the company will tell you that you are going to have a panel interview. However, if the company does not tell you who you will interview with or what the interview format is, ask for the information. Even if you aren’t able to determine the interview format, at least you will know who you will meet and can research them on LinkedIn or the company website.
And, if you can’t figure out if it’s a panel interview or not, again, no worries. Most of the techniques you use to ace a one-one-interview you can use in a panel interview without any major adjustments.
Bring Enough for Everyone
It’s always wise to bring extra copies of everything you want to share during an interview. This includes not only your resume, but also work samples or your portfolio. Since you never truly know what’s going to happen during an interview, it’s better to over prepare with extras of everything. While it may not be possible to reproduce everything you want to share, try to have enough so that no more than two people would have to share (just in case).
Treat It Like Any Other Interview
When you know you’re facing a panel interview, don’t sweat it. Prepare for a panel interview like you would any other interview. Review your resume, practice your answers, expect the unexpected, and you’ll be a perfectly prepared candidate.
How to Handle a Panel Interview
Whether you knew beforehand and prepped for a panel interview, or you walk into a room and discover that you’re in a panel interview, there are a few tips you can use to help you handle a panel interview like a pro.
Treat Everyone Equally
Start the interview off on the right foot and treat everyone equally. When you walk into the room, take a minute and introduce yourself to everyone, making sure to get their names and titles (if possible).
When the questions begin, engage everyone when you answer. Maintain eye contact with the person asking the question. But, once you get past the beginning of your answer, make eye contact with other panel members. Doing this will help draw the other panel members in, and demonstrates your ability to hold the attention of the whole room, not just one person at a time.
And, if there happens to be a “ranking” member in the room, don’t only address your answers to that person. Treat everyone the same, no matter their title. Just because someone is the CEO doesn’t mean they have any say-so over hiring decisions, so make sure you include everyone in the conversation.
Ready to Receive
Unlike a one-on-one interview, there often isn’t any “break” between questions. In a one-on-one interview, the interviewer might take notes and need to finish writing down your answer. Or, the interviewer may need to read their notes to find the next question. And sometimes, they want to follow up on an interesting point you made. In any of these cases, the odds are pretty good that there’s a back and forth during the interview, and that includes normal pauses in the conversation.
However, this likely isn’t the case in a panel interview. Because there are multiple interviewers, more than one person is probably taking notes, which means that while some people are writing things down, others may not be doing the same. This means that when one person finishes a question, the next person fires a new one.
Just like in a one-on-one interview, don’t rush your answers. Take a moment and pause before answering to help organize your thoughts. A deep breath can clear your mind. Or, a “What a great question,” can help buy you a few moments before diving into your answer. If one of the interviewers cuts you off before you’re finished answering a previous question, figure out if what you were going to say is critical to your answer then decide if you need to drop it. If the information you were going to add is crucial, try asking, “Before I answer that, can I finish my previous thought, please?”
Watch Your Body Language
Of course, body language is important in any interview. However, body language may be even more important in a panel interview. You may not have a table or desk in front of you. It may just be you in a chair in the middle of the room facing the panel.
So, while it may be easy to hide certain ticks under a table, you may not have that “cover” in a panel interview. Make sure you aren’t engaging in any “nervous” activities, like tapping your feet or drumming your fingers. Sit up straight and engage with the panel like you would in any other interview.
While we’re talking about body language, let’s talk about volume, too. In a one-on-one interview, you’ll likely use your “inside” voice. Since it’s just you and one other person, there’s usually no reason for you to speak up—especially if that’s not your natural speaking voice.
However, in a panel interview, you may find that you need to speak louder than normal. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s better to be loud and heard than have to repeat your answers. Or, worse, have interviewers tune out because they can’t hear you.
Also, don’t forget to take notes! While you may find this a little tricky to do if you don’t have a table, balancing your notepad (or clipboard or whatever you use) in your lap will get the job done. You made find it harder to sit up straight, but taking detailed notes will help you during and after the interview.
When you’ve got Jason A. and Jason B. on the panel, how can you keep track of which one asked you about your skills and experience, and which one asked you why you left your last job? While this may seem insignificant, you never know when you might need this tidbit of information during or after your interview.
If you find taking notes during the interview difficult, find a quiet place after the interview and write down what you can. Or, call yourself and leave a message with important information. Any details you want to remember, write (or call) them down as soon as you can.
Be Patient, Polite, and Repeat When Necessary
The odds are pretty good you’re going to have to repeat yourself a few times during a panel interview no matter how loudly you speak. There’s always a chance that the person on the end didn’t quite hear what you had to say. So, even if you have to repeat the same answer three times, do so with a smile.
Also, there is a chance that you’ll be asked the same question three times. On some panels, the interviewers get together in advance and divide up the questions. This way, they know who has the responsibility for what, and they make sure they aren’t asking you the same question repeatedly.
However, not every panel functions this well. There’s the chance that you’ll be asked the same question several times with slightly different phrasing. For example, one interviewer might ask, “What are your strengths?” while a second one asks, “What skills will you bring to the role?” Same question, really. Just different words.
Don’t lose your cool. Instead, think of this as an opportunity to expand on your first answer. “Well, as I said before, my strengths are XYZ, and I think these help out my ABC skills because…” Or, use the second question to introduce new skills and strengths. “In addition to my strengths of XYZ, I can also bring ABC skills…”
Post-Panel Survival Tips
You survived the panel interview. But, that doesn’t mean your work is done. At the end of the interview and even beyond, there are a few more things you should do to make sure you’re a stand-out (and hired!) candidate.
Know Who to Follow Up With
Of course, you’re going to shake hands and thank every interviewer on the panel. And, of course, you know the name and title of every person, too. Or, at least, have their business card. But, which panel members do you follow up with to find out about your status?
Knowing who to follow up with (and how) after any interview is important. But, it’s especially important in a panel interview. Before you leave, make sure you know exactly who you should follow up with, should you need to. The odds are pretty good that only one panel member will be your contact person post-interview. However, there’s also a chance it’s no one from your panel.
In either case, having specific contact information ensures you have a way to follow up on your interview without bothering the entire panel.
Thank-You Notes for All
While you’re only going to follow up with one person, you do need to send a thank-you note to each interviewer. However, you can’t send the same thank-you note to each interviewer. You never know when they will compare your notes. And, a generic thank-you note for every interviewer, while easy, doesn’t make you stand out as a stellar candidate.
Individualizing every thank-you note is no easy task. But, consult your notes and try to pull out something unique and interesting from each question. It’s best to mention something specific to the exchange with each interviewer. But, if you find that’s not possible, try to find something unique and memorable about your interview, even if it’s not specific to that interviewer. While it’s best if that “thing” is work-related, something personal (like a mutual dislike of a specific sports team) is also acceptable.
You’re a Panel Interview Pro
Though many interviewees liken a panel interview to facing a firing squad, once you’ve mastered the basics of panel interview dynamics, you’ll face any and every interview “firing squad” with grace and professionalism. Knowing how to engage the whole panel and how to thank each panel member will go a long way toward helping you stand out as “the” candidate to beat.
Of course, no matter what kind of interview format you encounter, bragging about our accomplishments doesn’t come naturally for everyone. We’ve got tips on how to play up your skills and achievements without sounding, well, like a braggart. But, if you want some additional practice or advice, consider signing up for a session with one of our career coaches. They’ve got plenty of practical advice that can help you handle any interview situation.
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