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How to Answer Interview Questions (When You Don't Know The Answer)

        posted by , May 08, 2013

I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer.
~ Douglas Adams

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Hopefully, nobody will ask you tricky questions on your next job interview. However, you will run into questions that demand a specific answer. If you don't know the answer, you may feel stuck.

It's important to develop a technique to effectively answer interview questions in such situations.

Interviewers ask candidates close-ended questions to test for specific knowledge.

Definition: Close-Ended Question

A close-ended question narrows the range of possible answers. There is often a single correct answer to a close-ended question. For example, "Was Bill Clinton president of the United States in 1990?" has a single correct answer: no.


The following 5 techniques are designed to help you answer close-ended questions when you don't know the answer.


1. Don't BS

It's a common myth that you can answer any question by being vague. This technique is only likely to fail.

Example: BS Answers

Q: Are you familiar with the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt negotiation strategy?

A: Yes, I've used it many times. It's very useful in negotiations to get better agreements by using Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

Q: Can you give me a specific example of how you used this strategy?

A: Yes, I was negotiating a price with a client and I used Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt to get a better price. It was a very effective strategy and we got a high margin on the deal. The deal was with YYY company.

Q: Yes, but what specifically is Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt? .....


BS answers encourage the interviewer to nail down if you really know a fact or not. In other words, BS answers cause the interviewer to focus on an area that you know nothing about.

The example above illustrates another danger of BS. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt is often considered an unethical strategy. The interviewer in the example, was actually probing the ethics of the candidate.


2. Admit That You Don't Know

By admitting that you don't know an answer you set expectations. This usually causes the interviewer to pursuit a new line of questioning (hopefully to an area in which you're more knowledgeable).

Most interviewers find this approach refreshing. It makes you the likable, honest candidate.


3. Explain What You Do Know

Now, that you've set expectations that you don't know the answer you can tell the interviewer what you do know.

Example: Explain What You Do Know

Q: Are you familiar with the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt negotiation strategy?

A: I'm not familiar with that term. In my current position I've negotiated several critical agreements. For example, I lead negotiations to form a sales partnership with YYY company. We sealed an agreement in less than a week that has boosted our revenues by more than 10 million dollars a quarter. I used time-tested sales strategies in that negotiation such as foot-in-the-door.



4. Explain How You'd Learn It

After you admit you don't know, show that you're interested in learning about the topic. Explain how you've learned similar things recently and how you've applied what you've learned to achieve measurable results.

Example: Explaining How You'd Learn It

Q: Are you familiar with the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt negotiation strategy?

A: I'm not familiar with that term. However, I'm interested in the topic of negotiation strategy. A few months ago I read the book Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher. It included some powerful advice that I've applied recently. I lead negotiations to form a sales partnership with YYY company. We sealed a agreement in less than a week that has boosted our revenues by more than 10 million dollars a quarter.



5. Point The Interview In The Right Direction

Occasionally interviewers will ask irrelevant questions.

It's okay to let one or two irrelevant questions slide. However, if the interviewer is asking a long line of irrelevant questions, it's a good idea point it out.

Interviewers often ask what they know, not what's important to the role. When this happens, it can damage your chances for the job. It's important to push the questioning in the right direction.

Example: Irrelevant Questions

Let's say you're a commercial aircraft salesperson who's applying for a sales job at a large aircraft manufacturing company. In your third interview you're interviewed by a Aircraft Engineer.

As a salesperson, you're expected to understand the product. However, you're not an Engineer. The Engineer asks you 5 questions in a row about hydraulic valves. The engineer is an expert in hydraulic valves and asks highly technical questions.

In this situation, it may be a good idea to push the line of questioning in the right direction.

Q: What is the operating pressure of a hydraulic fuse?

A: In my 10 years of experience as a sales representative in the commercial aircraft industry, I've found that customers rarely ask me such specific questions about aircraft subsystems. When they do ask, I need the support of engineering experts such as yourself to explain these details.



This post is a installment in the ongoing series how to win your next job


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