How you communicate is simultaneously the most obvious and the most subtle information you convey during an interview. The importance of being a strong communicator is reflected in the intangibles that define a great product manager: what you say has to be understood and believed by the team.
An interview is the hard mode version of this test. Your objective is to come off as:
All the while, you’re facing:
- An unfamiliar audience in your interviewer
- An unknown problem space that you haven’t worked in before
- The added pressure that it’s a “high stakes” conversation
Let’s talk about how you can overcome these obstacles.
Be a Tour Guide
“Think out loud” is the standard advice here, which I agree with fully. However, “thinking out loud” for interviews is not what you would naturally imagine when you picture someone “thinking out loud.” It’s not a free pass to ramble and take whatever tangents catch your eye.
In interviews, you play two roles in the conversation. The first is content creator, generating the substance of the interview. This consists of the user personas, pain points, solutions, and so on. The second is as a tour guide. Here, your job is to make sure the interviewer is following along and understanding what they’re hearing. You can use two simple techniques to do this.
Draw a Map
Know where your answer is going before you start talking. To come across as thoughtful and organized in your communication, you have to be thoughtful and organized in your thinking. An easy way is to use a framework for approaching each types of question. Simply outlining that framework, then reminding the interviewer which step you’re on and which step is next, goes a long way in keeping you both on the same page.
Don’t overthink it. Literally just say what you’re doing before you do it. Some example phrases:
- “I’ll start by thinking about the potential user personas, then brainstorm pain points for each persona before prioritizing them and moving into solutioning.”
- “We have three personas, A, B, and C. Let’s start with A.” …[talk about A]… ” That’s it for persona A, let’s move on to persona B.”
Run the Meeting
While PM interviews can be collaborative, you should come prepared to drive the conversation. Imagine the interview is a meeting with an agenda (it technically is a meeting, and there is an implied agenda). Be proactive about monitoring your time and moving on to the next portion of your answer instead of waiting for a prompt from the interviewer.
If you’re unsure if there’s more the interviewer wants to discuss, simply ask! For example:
“That sums up the user personas for me. Any other questions, or can we move on to pain points?”
Everyone has their own personal style, but shared a characteristic of the best candidates is that they project an aura of “I know what’s going on, and I’ve got this” throughout the interview. They’re fully in control of the narrative, and the interviewer is just along for the ride.
To close out this article, I’d be remiss not to mention some speech tricks you can employ to make your literal speaking more emotive and easier to understand. Again, not everyone needs to adopt these habits, and it’s more important that you speak in a way that you’re comfortable with and showcases who you are, rather than blindly following advice on the internet. Nevertheless, here we go:
Interviews are nervous events, and most people’s response when nervous is to speak faster. It’s hard to consciously manage the actual speed that words come out of your mouth. Instead, one area that can make a perceived difference is at the ends of sentences.
Taking small pauses between sentences, even when the words are coming out fast, gives the listener a chance to catch up, and counteracts the effects of speaking quickly. Taking longer pauses between “paragraphs” conveys that you’re switching topics, re-captures the interviewer’s attention (as unintuitive as it sounds, a break in talking is attention grabbing), and gives an opportunity for any questions.
Conversational Style, Broadcast Expectations
Most interviewers will present the interview as a conversation, but it quickly turns into a one sided monologue. As the primary speaker, you should still adopt a conversational tone and have back-and-forths where appropriate, but adjust your expectations to the reality of the interview. Your questions will likely get shorter responses, you’ll have to settle for “acknowledgement” rather than “enthusiastic agreement”, and your jokes might get a chuckle at best. Set these expectations for yourself beforehand, and don’t let yourself get rattled if it happens during the call.
The best candidates are those who are genuinely excited and enthusiastic about everything: the company, the role, product management, and themselves. There’s no one speech trick you can employ to achieve this — you simply have to have these characteristics, and they will show through in your tone and energy.
That being said, you can try a “mental power pose” to prime your mindset for an interview. Imagine yourself already in this role.
- What’s the most exciting part of your day?
- What stories would you tell when people ask you about work?
- Imagine a highlight reel of you doing your job. What’s in it?
Put these positive images in your mind, and get yourself hyped up and excited for the role that you’re interviewing for. That energy and enthusiasm will shine through in the way you speak.
Control What You Can
Many parts of an interview will be unknown to you going in, but there are two questions you should expect in every interview:
- “Tell me about yourself”
- “Tell me about [resume item]”
Better yet, these questions tend to come at the beginning of the interview. This is your chance to set the stage. Even if you have no idea how to answer the product design question that comes next, establishing a strong, confident first impression will earn you credibility that will help carry you through whatever challenges come next.
Your responses here should be practiced and polished. A good response will:
- Emphasize the key points you want the interviewer to take away
- Preempt common followup questions
- Not ramble
You’ll get feedback every time you answer this question — pay attention to what catches the interviewer’s eye, what they ask more about, and if there are other elements of your resume that seem more interesting to them. Adjust accordingly.