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Expect the Unexpected: How to Handle Off-the-Wall Interview Questions

3/2/2009 7:16:51 PM

By Michelle Vessel -- To prepare for your big interview, you've done everything that conscientious jobseekers are supposed to. You've updated your résumé, researched the company to which you're applying, picked up your lucky interview suit from the dry cleaners, and spent hours poring over how-to guides and interview tips.

Then, minutes after striding into the meeting room, greeting the interviewer with a firm handshake, and breezing through introductions and icebreaking small talk, it happens: the hiring manager hits you with a question so bizarre that you find yourself thrown completely off balance.

A Method to the Madness?

Whether it's a question about what kind of tree you would be or the powers you would have if you were a superhero, it can be difficult to recover your composure when you're surprised with a silly, unusual, or even borderline-inappropriate interview query. But according to Vicky Jones, career coach and author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, today's jobseekers should walk into an interview prepared to field even the most seemingly inane questions with professionalism and a touch of good-natured humor.

Thanks to resources like the Internet and the entire cottage industry of how-to interview guides, the average applicant today is so well-versed in job search basics that the same old typical interview questions often don't do much to help the hiring manager uncover hidden strengths and weaknesses. Hence the increasingly prevalent trend of shaking up the standard interview process a bit by hitting jobseekers with a few unexpected questions that require some on-the-spot creative thinking.

Think Before You Speak

So the next time a hiring manager asks you to name five historical figures you'd like to invite to dinner or wants to know what kind of animal you'd like to be, don't panic. Use these easy-to-remember techniques to stay poised, think fast on your feet, and deliver an answer that will score some serious points.

  • Keep your cool. Often, hiring managers pose unusual questions deliberately in order to see how you respond to the inherently stressful situation of being pushed outside your comfort zone. No matter what kind of query gets thrown your way, resolve to maintain your poker face. If you appear to be visibly shaken or suddenly lose your train of thought, it could reflect poorly on your ability to think on your feet.
  • Acknowledge the lighthearted nature of the query. Most hiring managers recognize that their off-the-wall questions are humorous, and as such, they often pose them with a touch of levity. Even as you hang on to your inner sense of calm, it's okay to respond with a chuckle and state that you certainly didn't prepare an answer to that question beforehand. By acknowledging the humor of the question, you can deflect the tension of the situation and buy yourself a few precious extra moments in which to collect your thoughts.
  • Look for the question behind the question. The majority of hiring managers out there don't pose unusual interview questions just to amuse themselves. Instead, they're trying to gauge your ability to respond under pressure and think outside the box – and to learn a little more about you in the process. No matter how bizarre the question may be on the surface, it was probably deliberately formulated to compel you to reveal some nugget of truth about yourself. Try to figure out what the question is intended to reveal, and develop an answer that fits the bill.
  • Aim for an answer that combines creativity, personality, and genuine self-awareness. An unusual interview question offers you a unique opportunity to flaunt your creativity and drive home some of your most appealing qualities and skills without succumbing to interview overkill. Avoid obvious clichés and expected answers, but don't go off the deep end by answering with an equally off-the-wall response.
  • If all else fails, fall back on polite redirection. If your interviewer poses a question that leaves you speechless, or more pointedly, that makes you feel uncomfortable in anyway, state respectfully that you'd prefer not to answer and ask to move on to the next topic of discussion. While this may not be the option that helps you curry the most favor with your prospective employer, it's a viable last resort if you find yourself truly stumped or uncomfortable.

Don't let an unusual interview question throw you off your game. Instead, take it in stride and formulate an informative but interesting answer that will help ensure that you come out on top.

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