Organize, Not Memorize
Sometimes Less is More
One of the most organized students I ever worked with was a graduate student in engineering at MIT. He came to our meeting with about three large (12x18”) papers with spreadsheets filled in with possible questions and answers. Each answer wasn’t too long, but there were enough answers, examples, stories, and STAR-method responses to fill up three large papers with tiny font. He had detailed and prepared for every possible question and answer he could think of. It was very impressive, but when I asked him some practice questions, he spent more time looking for the answer than he did saying the answer.
It’s good to be prepared, but there are many times one answer will apply to multiple questions and times interviewers will ask the same question in multiple ways. We simplified his spreadsheet into larger categories and practiced fewer answers. It turned into more of a flow chart with if-then choices and that helped him feel more mentally prepared than the spreadsheets.
Preparation Doesn't Mean Memorization
Practicing speaking doesn’t mean memorizing because memorizing requires recall and that puts an extra load on your memory. It’s okay to write out your prepared answers, examples, stories, anything that you want to talk about in the interview, but that’s just to express the meaning in a written form with good grammar. Practice reading it with extra emphasis (using extra pitch and vowel duration, not loudness) to help hear the rhythm and feel the pronunciation, but then don’t look at it and say it again and don’t worry if it’s exactly what is written.
I had students that came to our meetings prepared with what they wanted to say that was a half page of typed text (for each answer they wanted to give!). After practicing reading it with extra emphasis, I had them write down three words that would help them remember the most important points, in order. Their answers they said after practicing the reading and not looking at the text were much better than what they had said to me from memorization. They sounded much more natural and easier to understand. The most common reaction from students was relief because they weren’t as stressed about memorizing what they wrote and were more confident about how to emphasize their meaning.
Writing your answers, examples, stories, job descriptions, anything you want to talk about, is helpful for organizing the ideas, finding the right vocabulary, using good grammar. After that, don’t worry about saying it exactly that way ever again.
1. Mark the most important words to emphasize in each sentence.
2. Read it with emphasis on those marked words - use higher pitch and stretch the vowel in the stressed syllable longer than the vowels in the unstressed syllables and unstressed words.
3. Write down just the main points, no more than three, using single words.
4. Say your answer without looking at the whole text, just look at your single words to help you remember the topics and order.
Use good emphasis on the important words - go higher in pitch and stretch vowels longer than you usually would. If you exaggerate in practice, it won’t stay exaggerated in the real situation but there’s a better chance that more of the emphasis will remain than if you never practiced in an exaggerated way. Over do it because you expect the situation to cause you to under do it and you’ll be just right.
If you're not sure how much emphasis is enough, try using program that will give you feedback about your pitch (Hz) range. You're looking for a difference between your high and low pitches of 100Hz. That's enough to make the important words stand out to the listener. A more narrow range, but not less than 50Hz, is okay if you are stretching the vowels longer for emphasis.
Try your range with some of these programs and apps listed on my resource page under Visualization Intonation (Hz changes).
It's Better to Pause Than Read
If you have a phone or online interview and have the opportunity to see the whole written answers you prepared, don’t be tempted to read them. Keep using the single words of your main points to talk about so you’ll sound more natural. Don’t worry about pauses and filler words like “um” because that’s part of sounding natural. What doesn’t sound natural is reading or speaking from memorization without any of those pauses.
Whatever helps you remember the information you want to express in an interview is what you should use to practice. I use a three-ring binder with my notes about my own experiences as well as the notes I took about the company or university I was interviewing with (don’t forget that you are interviewing them as well). I also use color coding for everything I do so I have color tabs on my divider pages and different color highlights in my notes.
Whatever you choose to do, you should make it easy to remember the what to say so you’ll have the brain space to remember how to say it.