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How to handle interview questions that you can’t answer

How do you prepare for "tricky" questions?'Tricky questions are simply, "questions I could have predicted if I'd thought about the interview more carefully".The good news is that 80 per cent of interview questions are predictable.

Your mouth goes dry and your mind goes blank. The interviewer peers at you with a quizzical look. You ask them to repeat the question. Their look turns to bemusement and then annoyance. You still don't have an answer – so what do you say? 'Many candidates leave too much to chance, hoping that certain questions will come up, or relying on their ability to improvise on the day,' says John Lees, career coach and author of Job Interviews: Top Answers to Tough Questions.

And if you don't pre-package answers and plan for the actual event, where you will be nervous and under pressure, you're far more likely to find questions tricky. 'Tricky questions are simply, "questions I could have predicted if I'd thought about the interview more carefully,"' asserts John. The good news is that 80 per cent of interview questions are predictable.

How to prepare

So how do you prepare for "tricky" questions? John's advice is to be tough on yourself. 'Start with the employer's shopping list. Work out their top five or six wants for the job, and prepare two good achievement stories against each point on the list.

'Be tough on yourself. What's the worst question you could ask yourself, knowing your own gaps and weaknesses? Where do you think your skills are inadequate? Where do you lack evidence? Write down rough answers, and edit until they're short and punchy. Practise your answers in front of a mirror, checking that your body language tells the same story as your words. Plan the stories you will use, and practice getting each story across in about two minutes.'

If you're prone to nerves, John emphasises the importance of practising your answers out loud and at least three times over. 'The real downside of interview nerves is not being able to think of an answer even though you have dozens of examples on your CV,' says John. 'Evidence is no use to you unless it's pre-rehearsed, fine-tuned, and available to you when you need it. Taking interview nerves seriously means preparing before you go into the room, learning short bursts of information and thoroughly planning answers to the questions which are most demanding.'

Find holes in your CV – before they do

A good interviewer will analyse your CV and base questions on it, so you want to find – and prepare a good response – to any problem areas that may come up. 'Consider the parts of your history that could deter a potential employer from employing you,' advises Rob Williams, author of Brilliant Verbal Reasoning Tests and Brilliant Numeracy Tests.

'It's highly likely that your interviewer will want you to explain any important gaps on your CV or any job requirement that you clearly lack. Be upfront and explain why it didn't work out. Any experienced interviewer will also want to understand your attitude towards work and your commitment, so you'll need to make sure you have some positive things to say about the company too.'

Difficult questions

No matter how much preparation you do, you can still expect to face difficult questions. 'Good interviewers know how to probe the surface and find out exactly what you did, and what you learned from mistakes,' says John. 'The best thing is to be honest. If, under pressure, what you say highlights a weakness, be sure to show your awareness of the issue, what you learnt from your mistakes and the steps you're taking to improve.'

There are also brainteaser and fantasy questions, which are designed to test your character and sense of humour more than your job skills. 'The main strategy with these is to maintain your equilibrium and be entertaining,' says John. 'If you're thrown an off-the-wall brainteaser question, talk through how you arrived at your answer using a logical methodology. Keep your cool and smile – often there's no right or wrong answer. They just want to see how you cope with a curve ball.'

When your mind goes blank

Nerves can get the better of us, despite our best efforts to plan and rehearse answers. Or we may simply not know the answer. 'The worst thing you can do is not answer or say "I don't know" and then stop. Bring it back to something you have experienced or know, a related skill or strength,' suggests David Shindler, performance coach and author of Learning To Leap.

'Often you just need a few moments to regain your composure and an answer will come to you. If you really can't think of a time when 'x' happened then be honest and offer to tell them when 'z' happened instead, making sure to say how this is relevant to the role.' Most of us talk too quickly when nervous, so make an effort to show down.

'Give yourself space to think by pausing, asking for the question to be repeated or seeking clarification – even taking a drink of water can give you a valuable moment to think,' says David. 'Be honest if you haven't experienced something or lack specific knowledge. It's far better to admit you lack knowledge and talk about how you're addressing the issue, than trying to fudge it and look incompetent.'

Book links

Job Interviews: Top Answers to Tough Questions by John Lees

Brilliant Verbal Reasoning Tests – Everything You Need to Know to Pass Verbal Reasoning Tests and Brilliant Numeracy Tests by Rob Williams:

Learning to Leap: A guide to being more employable by David Shindler