If you're stumped by a question in an interview, fake it. That's the advice coming out of a new study from Harvard.
You'll have a better chance of making a good impression if you respond eloquently and slightly irrelevantly than if you answer truthfully but with a dozen "uhs" and "ums" thrown in, according to the study.
Two Harvard researchers found that a person's likeability increases the more articulate they are. In the study, they showed subjects videos from a political debate. In the first video, a candidate answers the posed question directly and well. In the second, he answers a similar question, and in the third, he answers it directly but inarticulately.
Subjects didn't notice when the candidate answered a similar question -- his likeability only went down a tenth of a point. But when he answered directly and inarticulately, subjects liked him less. The audience also didn't remember if the candidate fudged a similar question.
The take-home message for job candidates is that interviewers may not remember if you avoid a question, as long as you do it eloquently. As many high-school debate champions know well, people treasure style over substance, and will be inclined to trust you more if you come off looking like you know what you're talking about, even if you don't.
As long as you keep your cool, the client won't notice and you can always make them feel as if you've addressed their concerns (while promising to follow-up with written materials of course).
HR people are looking for that sense of collectedness, and being able to gracefully answer any question that's put to you, even if you are not completely sure of the answer, will help convince them of your poise.
To help you improve your sense of calm when speaking, count to 3 before answering any question, and practice your interviews while looking in the mirror. Even better, tape yourself and review how fast you talk and how you respond to unexpected questions. You never know when you'll get thrown a random policy or behavioral question you weren't expecting.
Write to Julie Steinberg