Long-Windedness: A Job Interview Killer

When you fail to be concise, your interviewer perceives deeper performance problems.

By + More

Alison Green
There’s always at least one candidate in any hiring round who might otherwise have been qualified but who kills their chances by being way too long-winded. This is especially common in phone interviews (perhaps because candidates who do this don’t make it to the in-person stage).

I did a phone interview with a candidate last week who gave five-minute answers to quick, basic questions that should have taken 30 seconds or less to answer. For instance, at one point, I asked him if his work on a political campaign was paid or volunteer – an either/or question – and received a response so long I finally cut him off. Later, I told him directly that I only had a few more minutes to talk and wanted to get through some additional questions and it still didn't cut short his long, rambling response.

You might think, “Well, some people are long-winded, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do a good job.” The problem is that, at a minimum, it signals that you're not good at picking up on conversational cues, and it raises doubts about your ability to organize your thoughts and convey needed information quickly.

If there’s any chance that your long-windedness may be hampering your job hunt, here's some advice:

  • If your interviewer tells you at the outset that the phone call will take 15 minutes, and part of that will be for your own questions, don’t spend five minutes answering a single question.
    • If your interviewer starts giving you hints that she'd like brief answers--such as "really briefly, tell me about your role at the job"--that's a cue that your answers have been too long.
      • If your interviewer cuts you off, that's a glaring neon sign that you're talking too much. It takes a lot for me to cut off a candidate--if I resort to it, it's because I'm truly desperate to move on.
      • Instead, your answers should be direct and to-the-point. If there's more to tell and you believe your interviewer would be fascinated, after giving your direct, concise (two minutes at the very most) response, you may ask, "Does that give you what you're looking for, or would you like me to go more in depth about this?" If the interviewer wants more, she'll say so.

        Of course, don't go to the other extreme and turn into your opposite, the candidate who barely talks and makes the interviewer pull information out painfully, sentence by sentence. The middle ground is around one to two minutes per answer, unless you get the signal for something longer.

        Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-sized nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.