The Art of the Preface

One luxury I have as an executive recruiter is that I get to interact with some world-class communicators. I have truly benefited by hearing how these exceptional people express their ideas. I’ve noticed that the best communicators have a disarming way of asking tough questions. They have an artful way of prefacing their questions so that the other party knows exactly why they are asking. This translates well into the interview setting, and so I wanted to explain it further.

One of the toughest questions I have to ask candidates is what they are currently earning. Most of the time, I am inquiring within minutes of introducing myself. The next time you are at a dinner party and you meet someone new, within the first five minutes of meeting them ask what they W2’d last year. As you play that scene through in your mind you might be filled with anxiety. I know how you feel, because I have that feeling several times a day.

To alleviate this anxiety, I have to do an excellent job of prefacing my question before asking it, and this is the way I like to do it, “John, I want to bring to you only the most relevant and career advancing opportunities. I would never want to bring an opportunity to you that was too junior financially and waste both of our time. So, with that said, can you give me some direction about how I should screen out positions for you in regard to money?”

If I ask the question this way, the usual response is, “Well, I certainly don’t want to make less money than I am now, and my base salary is…” Because the preface was utilized in such a way, I didn’t even have to directly ask him what his salary was. Now, let’s make this work in an interview.

They have an artful way of prefacing their questions so that the other party knows exactly why they are asking.

Root Question: How will I be evaluated?

If you ask this question, what might be going on in the interviewer’s mind? Perhaps they are thinking that you are running from unreasonable metrics. Maybe they would be thinking that you’ve had trouble meeting expectations before. My suggestion is to preface your questions artfully to avoid any mystery about why you’re posing the question.  An artful preface can eliminate an over-analyzing hiring manager from potentially reading too much into the question.

The Preface: I strive very hard in my current role to exceed expectations. It means a lot to me exceed the goals that are set for me, and so, what does one need to do to meet expectations in your organization—and then how have you seen people exceed expectations?

Of course, you might use different language, and that’s fine. The key take-away is that there is no mystery about why this person is asking the question. In the end, this person will find out not only how they will be evaluated but how to be a superstar. Also, you have dissolved any chance of them speculating that you are asking for any negative reasons.

An artful preface can eliminate an over-analyzing hiring manager from potentially reading too much into the question.

Root Question: What is the territory?

If you ask this question, what conclusions might the interviewer be prone to infer? Maybe they will assume that you have travel limitations. A candidate’s questions uncover their concerns or what is important to them. If travel and territory is of major importance, the interviewer is going to want to find out why OR they are going to invent a reason. Why not just share the reason with them?

The Preface: Over the years, I have had the great privilege of getting to work with the top thought leaders in the Southwest Region, and as you can imagine, those relationships are meaningful to me. I know this role is supporting the Southwest, which is exciting, but how does XYZ define the Southwest exactly?

Again, this is just an example. The key thing is that with the preface it is clear that the question is about impact and has nothing to do with travel. Plus, the preface strengthens your candidacy, whereas going without it may weaken it.  Also, not using a thought out preface leaves the door open for the potential for speculation as to what is behind the question.

These are a few examples of how prefacing your questions can clear up confusion and avoid the chance of speculation while strengthening your candidacy. I’ve been saying for a few years now that the better the questions, the better the candidate. The consistent feedback I get on the best interviewers is that they had the best questions. I’m confident that prefacing those questions will make you a stronger candidate instantly.

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