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The secrets to crushing the Panel Interview

Panel interview

Panel interviews can be a piece of cake.

Panel Interview Tips

Last week we talked about the pros and cons of the Panel Interview. This post is about how to crush this style of interview. As we discussed last week, the two things that are the most feared:

  • Panel interviews can be embarrassing. We are afraid we won’t know the answer to a question in front of a group. Not knowing the answer to a question is one thing with only a single interviewer, but another matter in front of 3-5 interviewers.
  • A Panel Interview is an inquisition or a review board. They are not. Very rarely will you run into this style of interview.  Remember, you can ONLY BE ASKED ONE QUESTION AT A TIME, and if you know the answer ahead of time, it doesn’t matter how fast they ask you the questions. Have your answers to questions rehearsed and practiced.

Below are a number of things I have observed successful candidate do in Panel Interviews. Most of these are subtle, but they make a HUGE difference to the overall presentation. They also address the above two fears.

Prior to the interview:

  • Memorize your questions. It is ok to have prepared questions written down beforehand so they are not forgotten, but as much as you can, this should be a conversation. This is not an “I have a list of questions” dialogue.  It is a different dynamic when you are talking with one person and they need to wait a few seconds while you fish for your notes.  It is an entirely different situation when 5 people are waiting for you to get organized.
  • Research all members of the panel. It is perfectly acceptable to ask your contact who you will be meeting with.

During the interview

  • Smile, shake hands with everyone, make eye contact with everyone, and address the ENTIRE room. Move your head from side to side like a bobble head and make sure you include EVERYONE in the conversation.  If you have to reposition your seat so that it is easier to see everyone, do so.
  • Take control of the interview right out of the gate. Don’t wait for the panel to ask you to “tell us about yourself”, a question we ABSOLUTELY know is going to be asked. After the initial chit-chat, say something to the effect of “thanks for taking the time to meet with me, I have been looking forward to this since I talked with the recruiter because I am really excited about the opportunity. I don’t know everyone had the opportunity to read my resume, but I am happy to give you the quick version on my background and then answer any questions you may have, OR we can jump straight into any questions you may have”. You are answering the question they entire panel has on their minds, “tell me about yourself”, but you are answering it on YOUR grounds. You can set the tempo and you are easing the burden of the panel. Odds are that not everyone read your resume and this move will bridge the gap.  For more info on this tactic, read this post on controlling the interview. These first few minutes are critical!
  • Remember panel member’s names. As introductions are made, write everyone’s name down in the order that they are sitting left to right. If you are handed business cards, just lay them in front of you in the owner’s corresponding position. In any situation, addressing people by name will help develop interpersonal connections much quicker than without.
  • Conduct your interview in a conversational tone with answers that give full explanations. This is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT in a panel interview.  This is a group and groups are “social”.  Short answers with brief explanation will kill your chances.  Do not feel pressured to answer quickly because you may be wasting folks time. Give the full, articulate, Behavioral Interviewing style answer that you have practiced. Panel interviews are usually used in an environment where there is the perception of a “team”, so address the entire team, even if “the team” comes from different departments.
  • Engage everyone in a panel interview!  There will usually be someone who engages you more than the rest of the panel. This isn’t always the most senior person. There will also be someone who doesn’t talk that much.  This could easily be the senior person.  The trap is only making eye contact with the perceived leader. Make eye contact with this quiet person just as much as you do the “leader/decision maker”.  The decision maker is the person that everyone is constantly turning to when you answer anyone’s question.  You will be surprised how often I hear “I didn’t like that they didn’t pay attention to you Suzy” (Suzy being the shy one, even though I am confident the talkative one drove/hogged/monopolized the entire interview).
  • Focus! Do NOT become distracted if someone is working on their laptop or texting on their phone.  Yes, it is rude, it is a distraction, but if you are in company meeting you will probably face the same challenge. Take this as insight gained into the culture of the company.  Not a bad thing, just don’t let one rude person steal your opportunity.
  • Ask questions to the group that EVERYONE can relate to. Avoid questions directed and specific to an individual.  The reason you want a “group” question is because even if only one person is answering, you want everyone thinking about how they would answer your question.   Even if it isn’t vocally, you want the panel talking and connecting with you in their mind.  If you direct a question to a single person on a topic only they know of, you take the chance of losing the group.  Losing the group is losing initiative.

            Questions that everyone can relate to:

What attracted you to Acme Publishing

What do you like about working at Acme Publishing?

What are some of the traits that make people successful at Acme Publishing?

  • Refer back to earlier points and the name of the person that brought this example up.  This person WILL FEEL SPECIAL if you bring them up and their example. Your grade school teacher would use your example in front of the entire class and it made you feel special. It got you mentally engaged in the conversation.

After the panel interview

  • Send an individual thank you letter/email to all of the panelists.  (My thoughts on thank you’s here and here) Do NOT send a single email to everyone listed on the TO line.  Do not forget anyone, even if they were the “shy” one.  Individualized and personalize each thank you letter. There is nothing worse than feeling a connection with a candidate and then discovering that EVEYRONE received the exact same thank you email, or worse, you were the only person that didn’t receive one. “L-O-S-E-R!” 

Remember, a panel interview can work in your favor. It is not something to fear, but something to embrace.

Good Luck,


nasty:  an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something.  “He has a nasty forkball”.

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