“Minding Our Business”: A series on what it takes to work for yourself.
Whether you’re on the job search for the first time or you’ve been at this for a while, mastering the interview remains an elusive art. How, exactly, do you pitch yourself? To what extent does what you wear matter, and are you doing anything that strikes potential employers as red flags? To answer all these anxious questions and more, the Cut spoke with Raeshem Nijhon, the founder and executive producer of Culture House, a Black-, brown-, and women-owned cultural consultancy and production company with projects forthcoming from the likes of Tracee Ellis Ross and Brie Larson.
Reviewing pitches — and interviewing people — is what Nijhon does 24/7. And she’s no stranger to pitching herself: as Nijhon tells it, she got her first job at MTV by sending a follow-up email every six weeks for a solid eight months. Finally getting called in was only the tip of the iceberg: “They asked me to bring a reel, but I didn’t have a great one,” she says. For three days before the interview, she and her husband “went out and shot a bunch of things on our 5D and cut it together. “I was just like, Okay, I don’t have a reel? I’m going to fucking make one. I don’t have this thing, but I know I can do this thing. How do I get creative and make it happen?” Needless to say, she was hired. Below, Nijhon’s top tips for nailing the job interview.
Show off a “real depth of knowledge” with your subject matter. The more niche, the better.
There are “two big things” to show off in each interview setting, Nijhon says. The first is a “real depth of knowledge” in your niche, and the second is a collaborative spirit — think of it as whittling down what you bring to the table and how you can be open and additive to others on the team. “You need someone you can feel like, Okay, we can build on each other’s ideas in a way that feels productive. Is there the potential for that?” Nijhon says. How do you show you’re a team player? Be sure to ask questions about company culture and communicate that you’re excited about the opportunity for growth: “People who ask about ‘What else can I learn, what else can I get into, what exposure can I get across departments?’ I love that,” Nijhon says.
Really think through the inevitable “strengths and weaknesses” question.
While anyone who’s set foot in an interview is well aware of the inevitable “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” question, it can still be an easy bag to fumble. Nijhon advises thinking through your skill set beforehand and getting down to specifics. “Talk about particular challenges you’ve faced in work environments and how you solved them and communicate what you see as challenges,” she says. Don’t gloss over the negatives or vaguely state that perfectionism is your weakness. “I’m looking for someone who feels confident talking about what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. It’s always a red flag when someone says, ‘I’m great at everything,’ because that’s just not possible,” Nijhon says. “Instead, I love when people can honestly say, ‘This is what I’m great at, this is what I can add, and here’s some things where I could use collaborators and support.’ People who can clearly state what they need to work on gives me great confidence.”
Be mindful how you speak about negative work experiences but don’t be afraid to address being let go.
In smaller industries, you might be tempted to form a connection with your interviewer by gossiping about former work experiences or colleagues. Yeah, don’t: “This sounds really obvious, but I’m turned off when people put others down, even indirectly, in the interview,” Nijhon says. Always advocate for yourself but “not at the expense of other folks, skill sets, or experiences.” Even if you did have a verifiably negative experience at your old job, speaking poorly about a potential mutual acquaintance rarely makes a good impression. “Even if you feel that way, starting off a relationship that way is, to me, a really big turnoff. It tells me you don’t have the right collaborative spirit to be on the team we’re trying to build.”
But what if you have to address a bad experience or you were let go — how do you bring it up? “There’s ways to diplomatically present that there were challenges in your previous experience,” Nijhon says. “You can say, ‘We had differences in the ways we approached the work,’ ‘creative differences’ or ‘differences in working styles.’ Depending how bad it was, you may or may not want to say — especially if people are checking references — ‘Hey, this wasn’t necessarily the ideal circumstance, and it didn’t bring out the best in any of the parties involved. With that said, I feel confident I can do this job.’”
Channel your nerves into adrenaline.
Now matter how much you’ve prepared, rogue nerves can throw the whole interview off course. “Nerves can work for you or against you,” Nijhon says. “The answer isn’t to get rid of them because that’s unlikely — it’s more about channeling them into adrenaline or positivity.” How? “Before you actually pop on a call, take ten minutes to get into a positive headspace. Don’t talk down to yourself, which can be hard not to do when you’re nervous,” Nijhon says. “Be intentional and go in with a script of three things you’re good at that you want to get across. Practice those three things at length; they’ll come in handy whether or not you use them. For me personally, that preparation has been the best counter to nerves. Often I throw out the script, but if I never had a script to begin with, I’d feel way more nervous.”
Self-presentation is important.
When the interview is happening on Zoom or IRL, self-presentation is important while making a first impression. “I don’t need or expect anyone to be formal or over the top, but I want to know that you put in the time, that you wanted to look and feel your best,” Nijhon says. “That puts everyone into a mind-set of Hey, this is an important interaction for me. I took time to feel good and confident, to put myself together and make a professional, strong first impression.”
Bombed? Don’t give up. (Yes, really.)
Sometimes, no matter how hard you prepare, you tank. But even in those scenarios, all isn’t lost. “If you feel like you bombed for whatever reason, it’s absolutely worth being a human being and sending a follow-up: ‘Hey, I really enjoyed meeting you. I feel I wasn’t able to present myself at my best. This is what was going on, and this is the thing that may not have come through. If you’re open to it, I’d love to give you more information or perhaps meet again,’” Nijhon says. Making that effort might not get you a response, but Nijhon says it’s still “absolutely worth” doing. “If the person doesn’t respond, you haven’t lost anything. At the very least, you tried presenting yourself in a way that’s best representative of who you are, and everyone deserves that opportunity.”
If you don’t get the role but want to keep the door open, Nijhon is all about “the superstrong follow-up,” provided you have something new to show an employer. “You never want to pester somebody. Persistence isn’t a bad thing but not at the risk of being unrealistic. If you’re truly not qualified, go back and build those skills, then come back and say, ‘Hey, since we talked, I’ve done this and this. I would love the opportunity to speak with you again.’ Keep people in the loop, send them an email, but don’t ask for their time in a presumptuous way. It’s more about giving people information than consistently reaching out asking to talk again. Everyone’s time is limited.”
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