I’m pleased that my recent posts about interviews have spurred some discussion.
This comment and the responses seemed worthy of another post:
— David Biello (@dbiello) March 18, 2015
.@dbiello Will add that to the post (or maybe blog about it). Stupid is OK if you admit ignorance & ask for help. Not if you fake knowledge.
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) March 18, 2015
Others weighed in:
Those are all good points, but I’ll conclude with some thoughts beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit:
- Humility is always good in an interview. When you are interviewing experts, acknowledging that they know more than you and inviting them to educate you is usually effective.
- Arrogance in an interview can be bad for many reasons, but arrogance combined with stupidity may be the worst interview combination possible.
- I oversimplify in tweets, so I’m not faulting anyone’s use of the word “stupid” above, but I want to make clear: Stupidity is not the same as ignorance. If a source truly thinks you’re stupid, she might not have confidence that you’ll be able to understand and explain the complicated issues we sometimes cover. The ideal perception you want a source to have is that you’re smart enough to understand the issue, but you’re not an expert, so you’re going to need her help.
- You need to learn, if you haven’t yet, when to show your knowledge and when to confess your ignorance. Sometimes a display of your knowledge will build confidence in a source. Other times, a confession of ignorance will prompt someone to try to school you on a topic. I covered agriculture back in the 1990s and sometimes got great interviews by asking a farmer or agriculture official to explain something to me like I was a 6-year-old (like Denzel Washington’s “Joe Miller” character in “Philadelphia“). Lots of farmers love to educate people about ag, and confessing my ignorance frequently helped. Other times, if I understood an issue, asking knowledgeable questions showed that I had done my homework and built confidence that people could trust me to understand and explain more complicated matters.
- Fit your approach to your knowledge. Faking stupidity or ignorance is not a good approach, but faking knowledge is worse. The best approach is to do some research so you can ask smart questions. But sometimes you just don’t know, and this interview is part of how you learn so you can ask smart questions later. That’s the time to confess your ignorance and ask someone to educate you.
- One of the tweets above repeats what many of our mothers and teachers told us about the only stupid question being the one you don’t ask. I do agree that it’s better to ask a stupid question than fail to get it answered. But I have annoyed sources with stupid questions, so I want to avoid oversimplifying here just because our moms gave us simple advice. If you know you’re asking a stupid question, keep it as direct as possible, with a confession, such as, “Here’s what I need help figuring out …” Sometimes the premise might be stupid, rather than the question itself, so keep your stupid question simple and direct, rather than loading it up with premises, explanations and conditions.
What are your tips and experiences on handling your stupidity (or ignorance) in interviews?