How to Answer Interview Questions Like Donald Trump and Barack Obama
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Sometimes, the interview process can feel like a series of 20 questions, where strangers keep digging at uncomfortable experiences or try to trip you up. Even if your interviewers seem impressed with your answers, there’s sometimes no way to tell whether they are just being nice or whether you’re actually separating yourself from the other candidates.
The only thing you can really do is prepare and hope for the best. Some people choose to prepare by practicing common interview questions. Your answer might be subpar the first time you hear a question, but if you try it five or 10 or 20 times, you can have a direct, robust answer.
Presidential candidates do this when preparing for their version of a job interview -- the debates. For example, George W. Bush started preparing for his first debate against Al Gore in April of 2000. The debate was on Oct. 3.
You might not have the resources to start preparing for an interview six months in advance. You might not even have enough time to memorize answers for some common questions. But, at the very least, you can emulate presidential candidates’ successful interview strategies. Here are four tips you can use -- one from each of the past four presidents -- to help you ace any interview question you might get so you can separate yourself from the pack.
1. Show a genuine interest.
In a 1992 debate between then-president George H. Bush and Bill Clinton, President Bush famously checked his watch during a question about the national debt. It’s only a small action over the course of a long debate, but he did it while one of his constituents asked a question that was important to her.
Then, he seemed to misunderstand the question. The question was fairly confusing, but Bush repeatedly asking for clarification only fed into the belief that he had not been paying attention to start.
By contrast, Clinton reached out to the questioner. He asked her not to clarify her question, but to expound on it -- to tell him more about the problem that is affecting her. This is an important distinction. It implies that Clinton wanted to address what was actually bothering her, not just the problem of the national debt generally. Then, when she said it has affected people she knows, Clinton said that, as governor of a small state, he knew by name the people who have been affected in Arkansas.
It’s a more satisfying answer, even if it doesn’t change his overall policy ideas.
You should do the same. Just like you would modify your cover letter to reflect relevant experiences for each specific job, you should take care to craft your answers in a way that interests your interviewer. You might have memorized the answers to dozens of interview questions, but there’s always space to customize your answer for a particular employer. You shouldn’t give the same answers in every room or at every company. Otherwise, there’s a good chance another candidate is saying the exact same thing.
2. Maintain good body language.
In October 2000, everyone expected that Al Gore would be the better debater. Gore had been vice president for eight years, while Bush, as a governor, was simply not as familiar with federal governance. The Bush camp practiced for six straight months, but just a few days before the first debate, even Condoleezza Rice said, “Oh, we’re gonna lose. We’re gonna get killed.”
The Gore campaign certainly thought Bush would lose. And that, really, was the problem. Gore made headlines for acting as though Bush had no business being on stage with him. He sighed over and over again, showing his annoyance at Bush’s answers.
Gore thought this would help him illustrate that Bush was not presidential material. Instead, it backfired and made audience members find Gore unlikeable and unrelatable. It didn’t matter that Gore, at that time, knew more about federal policies than Bush -- people were too busy watching his antics to listen to his words.
When you go into an interview, you want people to listen to your answers. Don’t give them any reason to think you’re distracted, or that you think you’re better than the job. Even if you’re overqualified for the position, it costs you nothing to lean forward and listen to others.
If you take it a step further, you can actually sell your answers and impress your interviewers by maintaining your calm and staying focused. For example, many people credit John F. Kennedy’s unflappable appearance for his debate wins over Richard Nixon, who was himself a well-known debater.
3. Provide a clear vision.
According to a piece by Jon Favreau, President Barack Obama’s former speechwriter, the 44th president hated debates because he felt they favored style over substance. He gradually got used to the debate stage in 2008, when he went through the Democratic Primary and then went head-to-head with Sen. John McCain for the presidency.
Four years later, Obama won the Democratic nomination without debating. So, when he went up against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Favreau says Obama fell into bad habits. He explained and defended too much without showing a vision for the future, breaking down niche aspects of his healthcare plan while skipping over the plan as a whole.
Romney flattened him in the debate.
In the second debate, however, Obama’s team gave him a simpler prep, putting everything Obama had to say on a single page. Then, he practiced that page over and over again. He rebounded in the second debate, outperforming Romney.
When you interview, you should know who you are speaking to and adjust your answers so they can see your vision clearly. Do your homework, prove you have expertise, but don’t bog an HR rep down with large-scale, technical jargon they won’t understand. Don’t bore a CEO with details that don’t matter to them. Speak to people at their level, and make sure they don’t miss the forest for the trees.
4. Use humor.
President Donald Trump’s success through the Republican Primary is perhaps the easiest parallel to what you might face in a job interview, because he was competing for the time and attention of his audience with a host of other candidates. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz were considered the early favorites, but Trump became must-watch television during the debates for his jabs at other candidates, including Bush and Sen. Rand Paul.
When so many of the other candidates had similar policies, agendas or personalities, Trump was different. In some cases, it seemed as though everyone else was debating and Trump had been invited to a comedy roast. That made his answers different and helped him stand out from the dozen or so other candidates on the stage.
What are you doing to stand out from others? Your interview answers can be technically perfect, but at the end of the day, people are going to decide whether to hire you or not. You need to figure out a way to connect with the people in the room.
Make a joke. Tell an interesting story. Ask questions about the people who are interviewing you and actually listen. Most companies are looking for someone with strong soft skills -- someone who will fit into the company culture -- and there’s no better time to prove you have those skills than during the interview process.
The four tips to answering interview questions like Donald Trump, Barack Obama and other presidents
It’s always important to prepare for an interview. But, it’s more than just what you say, it’s how you say it. It’s how your words stick in someone else’s head and how you can set yourself apart. These four keys can help:
- Show a genuine interest.
- Maintain good body language.
- Provide a clear vision.
- Use humor.
These seem like simple tips, but even presidential candidates forget. So the next time you’re practicing interview questions, make sure you practice these parts, too.