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How to overcome pre-interview nerves

What really scares you?  Going to the dentist? Big spiders and creepy crawlies? or perhaps what really puts the frighteners on you is attending an interview.  Do you recognise those tell tale signs, of dry mouth, sweating palms, blank mind and the desperate urge to exit the room as soon as possible?  It’s a familiar tale for many people who dread interviews and suffer terribly from interview nerves.

In this article I hope to offer a few nuggets of advice that may just help get the whole thing under control.  The good news is that a little bit of nervous energy is a good thing, the bad news is that let it get out of control, and it can ruin your chances of securing your next job.

Wrestling your woolly mammoth

Let’s start at the beginning and think about this for a moment.  When we were cavemen and cavewomen, happily wandering around, hunting and fishing and building fires, the one thing that might have really freaked you out, was an uninvited huge woolly mammoth dropping by, threatening to eat your supper and quite possibly your small children too.  Your natural instinct would take over immediately and produce the innate response of “fight or flight.”  This would elicit one of two reactions, you would either stand and attempt to wrestle the beast to the ground using all the clubs and stone axes you could lay your hands on, or perhaps you would take the cowardly but nevertheless eminently more sensible option of beating a hasty retreat into your cave, lighting a very large fire and hiding there until the danger had passed.

The autonomic reaction that your brain would produce to enable these two life saving reactions would also provide you with some interesting physical reactions, your body would prepare for the fight or the flight and respond to the stress of the situation.  You would feel the effect of a sudden rush of adrenalin, and experience the familiar sweating palms, dry mouth, pounding heart and overwhelming urge to go to the toilet in a big way!  Of course this reaction is designed to prepare you to either run or fight the impending danger, however, in a modern day stress situation such as an interview this reaction is less than helpful.

So how do you overcome the fear?

  • Prepare fully for the interview, there’s nothing like lack of preparation to give you a feeling of panic.
  • Make sure you know where you are going prior to the interview and ensure you have enough time to get there.  Being late for interview will give you a good reason to build up your stress levels.
  • Chill out! Prior to the interview breath deeply from the diaphragm, focus on your breath, breath in slowly and hold your breath for a couple of seconds before concentrating on breathing out slowly and relaxing your shoulders and neck as you do.  Repeat this a couple of times while you are waiting.
  • Think rationally about the situation that is causing this stress.  Consider whether this fear and anxiety is justified.
  • Are you really going to be eaten by a woolly mammoth, or are you simply meeting another human being who would be delighted if you were a match for their vacancy?
  • Will getting yourself into this state help you?  I doubt it, in fact it will surely have the opposite effect.
  • What are you afraid of?  Think about this logically.

Finally, I think it is helpful to put yourself in the shoes of the person interviewing you.  Surely the pressure is on them to come up with the right questions, to maintain the flow of the interview.  They may not be very experienced at interviewing and may be nervous about it themselves.  Your interviewer is under a good deal of pressure to find the right person to join their company, they have probably gone to a great deal of time and expense to reach this point and will be really hoping that you are right for them.  Consider that your interviewer will also probably be keen to impress you with details of the company and their culture.  Try to think of yourself as helping the interviewer to make the conversation run smoothly, bear in mind that your interviewer is there to ask questions which will give you the best opportunity to demonstrate your relevant match for them.

Turning the situation around in this way in your mind, understanding what’s going inside and some careful preparation can help to refocus your attention and perform to the best of your ability without the need to be held back by your interview nerves.

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  • Johnny Martin


    This is great advice and has a one time interviewer let me add that for that time in the interview it’s about forming a relationship and the quicker each can get to that point the easier it is for all. Especially the inexperienced interviewer…so yes you can help that process.
    Secondly, I used to do lots of public speaking, which gave me lots of fight or flight moments. While at one early conference in my career I was trying to relax by breathing as you mention. An older person at the same event said to me ‘you should try to do the opposite in your breathing ie push your tummy out as you breathe in and relax the tummy on breathing out. Do it 5 -10times’
    So I tried it, found the rhythm awkward at first but once I got going it felt really good. I use it all the time to this day as quick method of getting in the zone. Well it worked for me.

    Best wishes, Johnny

  • Katherine Wiid

    This is a useful reframe of the interview situation. My colleague and I often suggest to clients we coach in our Interview Master Classes to think of the “butterflies” in the stomach as excited anticipation rather than nerves.

  • Rowena Simpson

    Hi Johnny and Karen, thanks for taking the time to add to the advice.

    Johnny you’re right, breathing in while pushing your stomach out and holding this for 5 seconds before exhaling and relaxing has a marvelous way of releasing tension from the shoulders down.

    I’ve just posted another blog about telephone interview techniques which might also be of interest.
    Any additional advice or comments on that blog would be useful for our readers.


Disclaimer: Any views here do not necessarily reflect the views of OilCareers Ltd. As such we cannot be held responsible for the views expressed here or any actions taken as a consequence.

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