How am I so prescient? Psychology. More specifically, the work of Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Markman recently told Harvard Business Review that his work shows there are three fundamental things that all interviewers want to know about the person sitting on the other side of the table. The specific questions that seek to unearth these things might vary, but the quest is the same.
I'll share the three questions and advice on how to answer them, in whatever iteration they take.
1. What's it going to be like working with you?
This is the "just do you, boo" part of the advice. People really don't want to know if you can answer questions well. They're asking those questions to find out what kind of person you are, to get a feel for whether or not they'll like working with you.
So, change your approach to help them more easily picture this. I'm not saying don't answer questions as insightfully, thoroughly, and crisply as you can--it's about reframing the interviewer as if he/she were already a colleague you liked. In a discussion with that person you'd smile, laugh, lean-in, maintain eye contact out of interest, not obligation. It would feel natural.
This approach changes the energy and very nature of the exchange. It puts you in a natural state where you can't help but show them what you'll be like to work with, because you're projecting as if you were already on their team. That's exactly what the interviewer is trying to discern under the layers of questions.
And Cambridge research shows that projecting yourself in a "highly-receivable" manner will cause the interviewer to project their preferred mannerisms right back at you, simulating as if you were already on their team.
Having been a campus recruiting team leader at Procter & Gamble I can tell you that the best candidates were the ones that gave me a good feeling, not just good knowledge--a feeling born from easily being able to imagine them on my team. They acted the part, without even knowing it.
2. Can you learn/are you willing to learn?
No one hired for anything will ever know everything they need to up front, no matter what their experience is. Interviewers want to know if you have the capacity and desire to close knowledge gaps.
Markman says the best way to show this is to think differently about any stumper questions. Don't bluff your way through them, but instead ask for clarification, give answers based on a few interpretations, admit what you don't know and state your willingness to learn about it. Ask for permission to think out loud as you break the question down. Give the interviewer a snapshot of you problem solving/learning live and in action.
You can also ask about opportunities to learn at the organization. Ask if learning and growth is part of the culture and what kinds of resources are made available for employees to grow on their own.
Remember, you'd want to hire someone who quickly became an even better version of what you saw on paper or in an interview--that takes the ability for he/she to learn.
3. Will you take initiative?
This one is always in the back of my mind when I'm interviewing. A lot of what you'd be looking for if you were hiring boils down to this, no? Self-starters often end up starting a new job on my team.
The best way to show you're brimming with initiative is to be super prepared for your interview. In fact, management guru Suzy Welch says her favorite, most powerful interview question to ask is "What did you do to prepare for this interview?"
Whenever I left an interview thinking, "They were prepared" I found myself also thinking "They really want this." That counts for something.
There's no way around it, showing initiative/preparedness will also take you practicing for your interview. Don't worry about looking over-rehearsed, remember, you'll be reframing your approach to show them a more natural you. And Markham reminds us that you'll get plenty of other unexpected questions to show off your improvisational skills.
So before your next interview, know the core of what everyone wants to know--and be ready to go.