Show-and-Tell Interviewing

A consulting firm client asked me to assist with interviewing a final candidate for a project manager position. After studying the candidate’s resume, I interviewed him over lunch and asked many questions about topics such as positions he had held, the types of projects he had worked on, and software he had used. To me, he looked great on paper and in person! He was hired.

To my dismay, and my client’s, the new project manager quickly and clearly demonstrated his inability to write letters, memoranda, and reports that could be understood by anyone other than perhaps himself. In retrospect, I should have asked to see examples of the candidate’s writing.

More broadly, when interviewing potential employees, ask them to demonstrate, in concrete ways, compatibility with the position’s functions and your organization’s culture. Consider these examples (Walesh 2004):

  • If writing ability is one criterion for a position, in addition to requesting writing samples, ask the candidate to write during the interview. For example, near the end of the interview visit, invite him or her to write about ways in which his or her education, experiences, and goals are aligned with your organization and the position description. Provide a quiet location and a computer or writing materials. An accomplished writer will shine on this essay “test.”
  • What if speaking skills are essential? Then, prior to the interview, ask the candidate to prepare a presentation to be given to you and your personnel during the interview. Indicate the allotted time and arrange for the necessary audio-video support. Your job candidate could speak about a design or construction project he or she managed; describe software he or she created or used; or teach participants, workshop style, how to analyze data. Consider this actual example: I worked in an engineering college that asked candidates for faculty positions to deliver abbreviated student-oriented lectures to students and faculty.
  • Assume the open position requires marketing knowledge and skill. Then, as part of the interview, give the candidate an actual request for proposal and perhaps an hour of private time. Ask the candidate to provide a list of questions that should be asked of the potential client or customer. Or invite the candidate to suggest a theme for the proposal and provide an outline. Possibly ask the candidate to share his or her approach to marketing, that is, his or her marketing model.
  • Ask mostly behavioral, as opposed to, hypothetical questions. For example, instead of asking “What would you do to encourage out-of-the-box thinking on your team?” say “Give me an example of how you encouraged out-of-the-box thinking on your team.” Concrete, historic examples reveal much more than hypothetical projections. Knowing what someone did, that is, his or her behavior is much more valuable than hearing what someone says they would do, which is, hypothetical. I realize that a candidate, in responding to your behavioral question, could fabricate a response. However, on sensing this, you could ask penetrating follow-up questions.
  • Request, for review by you and others, examples of a candidate’s work products. (This request may be subject to restrictions based on the candidate’s employer-employee-client confidentiality situation.) Assume that the ability to design aesthetically-pleasing public works facilities is a position requirement.  Then ask the candidate to provide photographs of projects he or she worked on and to describe his or her role in the planning, design, or other aspects of the effort.

Although the show-and-tell mode of interviewing may be atypical, experience suggests that it is likely to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your interviewing and, therefore, benefit both your organization and each candidate. You will be able to observe the candidates performing functions consistent with the available position. And each candidate will gain a deeper appreciation of your expectations.

In the spirit of exploring interviewing further, be aware of two potentially destructive interviewer biases (Grant 2013). The first is confirmation bias, that is, you see and hear what you expect rather than what the candidate actually offers. The second is similarity bias, that is, you really want to clone you.

According to business executive J. Paul Getty, “The employer generally gets the employees he deserves.” Show-and-tell interviewing will help you get the kind of personnel you want and deserve. My client and I learned the hard way. You don’t have to.


Grant, A. M. 2013. Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Penguin Group, New York, NY.

Walesh, S. G. 2004. Managing and Leading: 52 Lessons Learned for Engineers, ASCE Press, Reston, VA.

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