I’ve been through countless interviews and have walked out of every interview room thinking I could have done better.
I am a non-native English speaker and have performance anxiety. By default, I sound like an idiot during interviews. I get thought block, can’t find the right words and often speak in broken English when I am usually pretty fluent.
This led me to explore what I can do to improve my interview skills and make a better impression. These are my top interview tips for non-native English speakers (Hint: The last tip is the most important).
1. Research the company culture
One of the top reasons interviewers reject candidates is because they were not the right ‘cultural fit’. Research what values are important to the company, how their employees interact and how decisions are made. Learning as much as you can about the company culture will not only help you plan for common interview questions but prepares you to present yourself in a way that shows you can fit well into the company.
As a non-native English speaker, this is especially important as the company (and country) culture is likely very different from your native culture. Communication styles that might come naturally to you could be frowned upon in your new country or workplace.
2. Practice, practice, practice
I can’t emphasize this enough. Everyone should practice before their interview. Prepping for your interview is even more important when English isn’t your first language as you will get flustered and start fumbling if a question catches you by surprise.
Most interviews include at least a few standard questions. Some of the most common interview questions include:
- Tell me about yourself
- Why did you leave your last job?
- Why do you think you are suited for this position?
Here are more common interview questions and examples of answers.
Plan your answers and practice in front of a mirror or with someone. Don’t memorize the answers. You’ll sound too robotic. Just make sure you have a general idea of how you want to answer to showcase your strengths and suitability for the job.
3. Focus on interview-related vocabulary
It’s too late to level up on your English speaking skills if your interview is tomorrow. You’re stuck with your command of English as it is.
Fortunately, in most interviews there is a limited scope of conversation. You’ll usually need to talk about yourself, your education and work experience, work-related abilities and industry-specific terms. This means you can focus your energy on brushing up on these interview-related vocabulary.
This video talks about the common words you need to know for a job interview.
4. Work on clarity of speech
Some of us have thick accents which are hard for native speakers to understand. There’s nothing wrong with having an accent. It’s part of our heritage. But it’s important to be understood, especially in an interview.
The trick is to use clear simple language, enunciate and speak slowly. If it looks like the interviewer didn’t understand your answer, repeat it and try to enunciate more clearly or say it in a different way.
5. Have a few go-to phrases
Take note of local slang and imitate the communication style. Have a few common phrases that you can use in your conversation to sound more ‘loco’.
These phrases that you can use to correct yourself also come in handy:
- Just to be clear…
- What I meant to say was…
- Just to clarify…
6. Remember it’s not all about what you say
Famous statistics quote that 55% of first impressions are made based on what we see (how you look and act), 38% is based on what we hear (how you speak) and only 7% is based on your speech (what you say).
This is great news for us non-native speakers! It’s a lot easier to behave well than it is to have perfect English.
Confident body language plays a big part in making a great first impression. Walk into the interview room confidently with a smile on your face and shake hands professionally. Introduce yourself while making good eye contact. These first precious seconds are when most interviewers decide if you are worth more of their time and attention.
Men, check out this guide on what to wear for your job interview.
Women, read how to dress for a job interview.
How you speak refers to a whole lot of nuances in your speech; for example, your tone of voice, how quickly you speak or how loud you are. I won’t go into more details. Julian Treasure, sound expert, explains it much better in this entertaining TED talk.
Last but not least, practice active listening. In other words, listen carefully and don’t assume you know the question.
7. Showcase your strengths
In some cultures, talking about yourself can be construed as being a show-off. However, an interview is not where you want to practice false humility. If you don’t tell the interviewers what you are capable of, they will not know. If you downplay your skills, they will believe you.
Know your weaknesses and strengths. Showcase your positive qualities, especially your interpersonal communication skills.
Many companies strive for workplace diversity so put a positive spin on your international experience and if useful for the position you are interviewing for, your ability to speak more than one language.
8. Stick to safe topics
Most interviews are formal and structured with little time for small talk. However, some interviewers make time for casual conversation as part of the interview to see how you interact. In this case, make sure you are up-to-date with current news and industry developments. Also be careful to stick to safe topics and avoid discussing politics, religion and personal or family issues.
9. Look for similarities
According to the ‘similarity-attraction hypothesis’ we tend to like people who share similarities with us. You might know little details about your interviewer’s history or interests that you have in common. Try to work it into your conversation.
A shared love of cricket has united many a man.
10. Be authentic and truly present
We’re so busy being nervous about making a good impression and speaking English correctly that we get lost in our own worries.
Ironically, the harder you try to make a good impression, the more likely interviewers will see you as ‘trying too hard’ and being ‘fake’. Authenticity and honesty win hands-down every time.
Be proud of your heritage, stop worrying about what your interviewers are thinking and let your amazing personality shine through.
Over to you
At the end of the day, if you’ve been called for an interview, you already have the right qualifications. Interviewers now want to know if you are easy to work with and will fit the company culture.
So don’t worry about how perfect your grammar is. Just be authentic and truly present.
Further reading: How to ace your job interview: the complete guide.
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